In mainstream music, the rock genre’s popularity has long been eclipsed by genres like hip hop and pop. Once the undisputed king of music in terms of popularity, rock now garners mixed responses regarding whether or not it still has any relevance.
If someone was to answer solely by what’s played on the radio, the answer would appear obvious: that rock music is dead. But fairly assessing whether rock is still alive and kicking or face down in the gutter goes beyond its ranking in terms of radio play.
Rock is not dead, far from it in fact. Ever since rock’s humble origins as rock 'n’ roll in the mid-50s to today, rock music has continued to evolve with the times. It has shed its early singular identity and is now more of an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of subgenres. These subgenres can range from blues or folk rock to genres like metal and punk, which boast plenty of their own subgenres.
The most popular subgenres of rock today are arguably indie rock and indie pop. We were able to see them develop during the 1970s, branching off of punk rock and alternative rock while embracing the D.I.Y. ethics of the genres. Indie music tends to be distributed through indie labels, which are much smaller than mainstream record labels, meaning a lot of this music tends to be more underground and obscure.
Despite these origins, indie recognition in the mainstream has been prevalent since the ‘90s. This is when bands working within indie’s preceding subgenres, like alternative rock, started to find success beyond the underground scene where they started.
Bands like Nirvana, who were initially signed to the indie label Sub Pop Records, found mainstream success and paved the way for other artists to follow. Here we are able to witness the transformation of artists who were once cult favorites becoming mainstream stars, like Elliott Smith, who was nominated for an Oscar due to his contribution to the “Good Will Hunting” soundtrack.
This popularity has been relatively consistent since the ‘90s and we’re able to see its effect today. As recently as the 2021 Grammys, the Strokes won in the category of “Best Rock Album” for their 2020 album "The New Abnormal." Another indie artist, Phoebe Bridgers, was impressively nominated in four separate categories, one of which was for “Best New Artist."
Indie artists and those that have been well established for years are currently putting out excellent work. Bob Dylan, an artist who has been consistently putting out material since 1961, released his 39th studio album, "Rough and Rowdy Ways" in 2020 which ended up in the top ten of year-end lists from publications like “Pitchfork” and “Rolling Stone.”
Despite the fact rock is no longer the most popular genre of music, it is still alive and well through its umbrella of subgenres. Though it receives less attention than it had in the past, there is still widespread recognition of quality rock music both in the underground and the mainstream. With all this in mind, how can rock music possibly be considered dead?