What Is Rock Music, Anyway?

Discussion surrounding what constitutes rock music can become heated, though there are some points of agreement across the board. Early popular figures of the genre like Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley are never categorized as any genre other than rock . Some bands from the same period are also undoubtedly rockstars, namely The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. There is a canon of rock and roll of which most of us are aware, which includes these bands and others like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, as well as soloists like Chuck Berry, Tina Turner and Janis Joplin. In the 1970s and 1980s, rock intersected with pop smoothly, with acts like Queen, David Bowie, Blondie, KISS and The Smiths becoming deeply ingrained in both the pop and rock canon. At some point in the later part of the second half of the 20th century, however, rock became increasingly associated with heavy electric guitars. I think of Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Green Day, Guns N’ Roses and Alanis Morissette as some of the typical rock stars of that age. Acts that toyed around with other sounds like No Doubt, Björk, The Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead sometimes were included, too, but were not thought as the most representative figures of rock. In the 2000s, blink-182, Evanescence, Green Day, Linkin Park and Nickelback all became rock radio darlings and had a few hits that managed to crossover to top 40 stations. Emo bands like Paramore, Panic! At The Disco and Fall Out Boy appeared a little later, and all have healthily survived to our days.

By the 2010s rock somehow became, for publications such as Billboard, and for the once revered music channel MTV, synonymous with « music perceived to be left-field by primarily white men and for a primarily white audience, too. » By then rock radio was divided into four formats: classic rock, active rock, alternative and adult alternative. Purists consider only classic and active rock to be rock. For many, like Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, rock is about attitude, and this generation is full of softies. You need soft people to allow The Lumineers to get #1 rock albums, he thinks. An idea persists that rock has to be loud and angry, or otherwise it’s not rock. Women and ethnic minorities are also rarely included, with notable exceptions like Elle King and Gary Clark Jr.

The broadest definition of rock music is definitely the one managed by Billboard. They included at some point in their rock charts acts that definitely interacted more with the pop sphere than the rock one, like Maroon 5 and Ed Sheeran. They also have allowed adult contemporary songstresses like Ingrid Michaelson and Norah Jones to appear in the rock lists alongside bands that produced a more stereotypical rock sound, like Muse and the Foo Fighters. Acts that perhaps dabble with sounds more frequent in pop but whose work is thought as alternative to the mainstream are also welcome in the chart, like Death Cab For Cutie, Florence and The Machine, Regina Spektor, Lorde and Foster The People . Add to that folk and Americana acts like The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, Of Monsters and Men and The Lumineers and you get quite a diverse collection of sounds. I would argue that what Billboard considers to be rock is just as diverse as what it considers to be pop.

The guidelines for what ought to be considered rock by Billboard and alternative stations are loose, and sometimes it all boils down to marketing. Swedish singer Tove Lo, who nowadays exists in another alternative space of the internet called Tumblr among singers like Lana Del Rey, Troye Sivan and Marina & The Diamonds, initially marketed herself with a brooding indie persona that allowed her entrance into alternative radio. Had Rihanna sung Tove Lo’s breakout hit ‘Habits,’ it would have gotten great reception at urban, pop and rhythmic stations but would have been coldly ignored by alternative stations and Billboard would not have included it in the rock lists. Ultimately, alternative and adult alternative stations (the latter format skews towards acoustic sounds by contemporary artists) prefer to play acts that do not get featured on pop formats even though their sound might as well merit it. Bands like Bastille and Capital Cities, for instance, would not sound awkward at all in pop stations but simply do not attempt to become successes there outside one or two singles. On the other hand, P!nk and Kelly Clarkson have recorded a number of rock songs but they are excluded because they are considered pop artists first and foremost. To prove alternative radio’s preference for the discreet act that hasn’t been picked by pop, we can point out that Katy Perry’s « I Kissed a Girl » received airplay in alternative stations first, before the world knew her as a bubblegum pop, cotton-candy entertainer. It’s easy, then, to imagine alternative as pop radio, except it plays the music of the underdogs, those who don’t get featured on People magazine or whose music videos aren’t setting records on YouTube.

Active rock is not as confusing a radio format as alternative and adult alternative, on the other hand. While they might occasionally allow acts that also enjoy great success in alternative like Cage The Elephant and Arctic Monkeys, they prefer acts with a heavier sound and image, those who dress in black and scream in their tracks. While most are male-led bands, this format has supported female-led bands like Halestorm and The Pretty Reckless as well. Organization-wise, I would argue, active rock resembles country more than alternative because there is a specific sound and image that will be welcomed, possibly in response to a more purist audience that demands these sounds only.

Currently, Billboard houses rock charts (singles and albums) that, unlike radio, make no distinction between alternative and active rock. They do this despite the disgust of the following of the latter, for whom calling acts like Norah Jones and The Lumineers rock is an insult to their perception of what the genre ought to be, and the indifference of the former, who live chasing the next hot sound and care less and less about genre classifications each year. With the internet, people can become amateur music aficionados and stop listening to alternative radio for music discoveries. This has led to a poppifying of sorts at alternative stations that will now play a Chainsmokers song if it includes guest vocals by Chris Martin from Coldplay with the hope of attracting a casual listener or two.

MTV, meanwhile, has seemed to have altogether neglected rock. Lorde’s Best Rock Video Award win might have been controversial even in the eyes of Lorde herself, but since then MTV has stuck to a few bands with massive following that are either old or uninteresting, like Green Day and 30 Seconds to Mars. MTV, of course, is not good at distributing music these days, so why even hold them accountable?

In the public imagination, I would argue, the most present idea of rock is still one of bands like Nirvana or Metallica rather than folksy balladeers or whispery vocals over an electronic beat. Billboard and MTV , for some unknown reason, insist on lumping together a bunch of artists under the rock label that at times seem not to have much in common other than claiming their sound is left-field. In this eclectic corner of the music world, the terms ‘alternative,’ ‘rock,’ ‘indie,’ ‘left-field,’ ‘tumblrcore,’ ’experimental’ and ‘acclaimed’ are starting to merge and interact with other music genres. If you take a look at Triple J’s Hottest 100 lists released in the last two years, for example, you will witness Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, The Amity Affliction, Milky Chance, MØ and more together, justifying their presence with one of these labels. Perhaps they’re all rock for the simple reason that they rock. If at the beginning there was no distinction made between rock and roll and pop, we are definitely heading there again.

Writer. Bringing awareness to LGBTQ issues and mental health.