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Don't Count Rock Out Yet

The sound's been declared dead before, but it's always come back. Today, old-and new-guard artists from U2 to Staind are reviving the genre.

July 01, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN

Save strings are wonderful features on computers, especially if you write about rock 'n' roll. Imagine how many key strokes you could save with just two phrases: "Rock 'n' roll is dead" and "Rock 'n' roll is back."

Rock has been declared dead as long ago as the early '60s and as recently as the late '90s. But it has always bounced back--and it seems to be doing so again.

Rock was declared dead the first time because the great rock pioneers were missing in action.

Elvis was off making movies in Hollywood, Chuck Berry was on his way to prison for violation of the Mann Act, Jerry Lee Lewis was ostracized after marrying his underage cousin and Buddy Holly was buried in west Texas after an Iowa plane crash.

But rock roared back in the mid-'60s as the Beatles and Bob Dylan helped ignite a creative and commercial explosion that may well be unrivaled in American pop music.

Since then, the "Rock is dead" save string has been used time and again--in response to such movements as corporate rock (which wasn't real rock at all), disco, urban cowboy and hip-hop. But each challenge was repelled by invigorating new forces that reignited the passion and purpose of rock--punk, new wave, alt-rock and grunge.

Even I joined the rock-is-dying crowd in 1998 because it was clear that rock was losing its position as the dominant musical voice of young people. Rock acts still generated millions of dollars in sales, but they were devoid of ideas--simply living off the energy and imagination of earlier generations of musicians and fans.

Hip-hop suddenly seemed to speak more directly to young people and offer a more stimulating future musically. Even electronica, with its wondrous maze of turntables and synthesizer possibilities, seemed to be a more exciting means of expression than rock.

This was the first time since the beginning of rock that other genres had become the musical reference point for a generation of young people.

The shift represented a genuine threat to rock because pop history tells us that the brightest and best musicians of any era tend to work in what they feel is the dominant or most exciting music of their generation.

Dylan came up through folk music, but he switched to rock because it was where the action was, so to speak, for his generation. He wanted to reach his peers and test himself against the best of his contemporaries.

When I've interviewed rock's most gifted figures over the years, they invariably talk about how they were influenced as teenagers by earlier rock heroes. It's true for classic rock figures Bono and Bruce Springsteen as well as for more hard-edged ones such as Kurt Cobain and Trent Reznor. They fell under the spell of larger-than-life figures whose individuality and imagination offered the self-affirmation that young people so desperately crave.

By 1998, however, it was easy to see young people being more attracted to the heroes of hip-hop or electronica than rock. If Chuck Berry was a teenager today, my guess is that he'd use his flair for words as a rapper rather than as a guitar-toting rocker. Jimi Hendrix might be more inspired by the unlimited potential of electronica. Could a young Dylan have been as revolutionary a figure in hip-hop as he was in rock?

Considering the possibilities in reverse, we don't have to guess when it comes to Eminem. If this rebellious spirit had come along with music on his mind in the late '50s, you know he would have found a way to the Memphis door of Sam Phillips, whose Sun Records launched Elvis Presley and Lewis.

If Eminem had come up in the '60s, he might have daydreamed about going to London to hang out with Mick and Keith. He might have hung posters of David Bowie or the Clash on his wall in the '70s, and so forth.

But none of those rock acts had any impact on the young Eminem.

The first time I met him in 2000, it was hard to get him to concentrate on the interview at a recording studio because he was rushing to finish a track before catching a flight to Detroit.

The first time he really responded to a question was when I asked about his early musical favorites. He must have spent 10 minutes rhapsodizing about how thrilled he was as a grade-schooler when his Uncle Ronnie introduced him to Ice-T's recording of "Reckless," and how he later spent hundreds of hours trying to match the rhymes of LL Cool J, Run-DMC and N.W.A.

Around the same time, I interviewed Moby, whose 1999 "Play" album served as a bridge between the often anonymous world of dance music and pop-rock by injecting more character and dimension. He was interested enough in rock as a youngster to play in punk and new wave bands in college, but he grew bored. He switched to electronica because it was more exciting and relevant.

With Eminem and Moby luring young musicians today into rap and electronica, what chance did rock have if it was depending in the late '90s on such one-dimensional acts as Korn leading the parade?

Despite the pessimism, rock refuses to be counted out. That's the lesson of 2001.

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