Survival of the Poppiest

Within the past year, many beloved rock bands of the late 90s and early 00s have come out with new music. These releases, however, don’t sound like the bands that we used to know. In fact, most of them can’t even be considered rock. At the moment, rock music rarely shares the air waves with the current popular music. Rather than existing on the periphery, many rock artists are trying to hold onto their success of the 2000s by conforming to what’s popular now: hackneyed lyrics over synth-driven compositions.

Weezer defined alternative rock in the late 90s from their very first release, a self-titled debut album later dubbed the Blue Album. Frontman Rivers Cuomo used clever lyricism and poignant social commentary to set the stage for an epoch-making rock album that immediately found commercial success and went triple-platinum. Their sophomore album, Pinkerton, built off of the success of the self-titled album and again used powerful–even shocking at times–lyrics. It wasn’t until their fifth album, Make Believe – with undeniably stronger pop influences and simpler lyrics – that the band reached the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 with single “Beverly Hills.” This album, however, received very mixed reviews from critics and fans. Judging from recent releases, namely their latest single, “Feels Like Summer,” Weezer has tried to continue the commercial success they have found with simpler songs while abandoning their trademark rock and roll sound and complex lyrics. Ironically, by trying to maintain their cultural relevancy, the band has discarded the key ingredients to their initial success.

Weezer’s transformation is not an anomaly in today’s popular music. On the week that Weezer’s “Beverly Hills” peaked on the charts, Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” was at number 7 and Fall Out Boy’s “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down” was at number 12. That week, upwards of a dozen rock singles charted on the Hot 100. In the same week in 2016, only Coldplay and X Ambassadors represent the rock genre with “Hymn For The Weekend” and “Unsteady” respectively, although both have heavy pop influences.

The previous generation’s rock giants, such as Weezer, Green Day, and Fall Out Boy, have largely found that their success as rock artists has waned. Green Day’s Revolution Radio was less of a revolution and more of an evolution as they, like Weezer, moved more towards simplicity in sound and lyrics. Instead of the maintaining their inspired punk rock sound, they manufactured formulaic pop punk that lacked passion. After Fall Out Boy’s Save Rock and Roll failed to save rock and roll, they fully embraced the pop sound and largely abandoned their instruments all together. “Young and Menace,” the first single from their forthcoming album Maniac, is perhaps the most apparent display of their transformation, utilizing auto tuned vocal effects, a synth-led chorus, and electronic beats. It’s a far cry from the singles they released in the 2000s.

This stylistic shift happened quickly due to the rapid technological changes in music consumption. As recently as 10 years ago, audiences listened to music by the album rather than the song, so bands were forced to write music that was fresh and interesting to keep an audience listening for a full 45 minute LP or CD. With the introduction of streaming services, however, artists no longer have to innovate or tell stories because audiences can pick out a song or two to add to a playlist where the distinctions come from the inherent differences in the artists themselves. While in theory, it should be easier for rock artists to get discovered with streaming services providing easier access and recommending new songs, as with Spotify’s Discover Weekly, the allure has dissipated because the consumers have changed. It’s easier to create a playlist when all of the songs have a similar sound, so artists feel the need to release generic pop singles to stay relevant.

In an industry that is hard enough to make it in the first place, this could have a large impact on the future of rock and roll. With a style that decreases what little chance rock artists have as it is to “make it big”, these musicians might no longer spend their lives creating the music that they’re passionate about but instead start making music that presents a chance for success, or worse give up entirely. It is up to us as consumers to continue to support musicians who make music that isn’t just written to sell but also written to say something.

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