Our 12/13-year pattern holds more-or-less true, although here it begins to deviate (+/- 2 years) just a little bit.
Although Napster joined the music ecosystem in June 1999, file-sharing didn’t really begin to have its devastating effect on the record industry until 2002 when CD sales began to fall dramatically — which, according to our 12/13 Year Theory, should have been when we see a collapse of pop and the beginning of another rock resurrection.
And indeed we did. By the spring of 2002 (12 years after the Depeche Mode riot, 26 years after the breakout of punk, 38 years after the Beatles’ landing in America and 51 years after “Rocket 88”), the Backstreet Boys/’N Sync phenomenon had grown so big that the backlash against them was catastrophic. Happy, optimistic, danceable pop seemed inappropriate in a post-9/11 era. Rock began to once again reassert itself.
This time, though, the rock we got had more in common with the environment that produced “Rocket 88” in 1951. This music bubble, largely unfiltered from the streets, channeled through independent record companies rather than major labels. While some of these bands had been around for a while — both the White Stripes and the Strokes had been formed in 1999 — it took a few years before enough people began to notice what they were on about.
Indie rock was the kindling for Cycle 5 through 2002–2004. By 2005, rock’s dominance in public consciousness was greater than it had been since any time since 1992.
Coldplay, Franz Ferdinand, and the Killers came out of nowhere. Damon Albarn reinvented himself under the guise of Gorillaz. Linkin Park shook off any early associations with nu-metal and went on to sell tens of millions of records.
Audioslave was the perfect DNA splicing of Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine. U2, Nine Inch Nails, the Foo Fighters, the Beastie Boys, the Chili Peppers, Green Day and the Offspring all returned with hit records. Coachella exploded in California and Glastonbury became more important than ever. Even Lollapalooza came back.
But The Cycle continued. After peaking in the July of 2005 (when it seemed that every single rock band that mattered had a hit record out at the same time), rock once again slowly slipped in strength, losing ground to pop. The era of Bieber and Susan Boyle was ushered in to end off the first decade of the 21st century.
Rock fans — people who loved their music loud and aggressive — spent most of the Obama administration wondering what happened. The music softened and everything — including rock — got more poppy. Plaintive singer-songwriters with woe-is-me lyrics were everywhere. Hits came from artists with acoustic guitars, banjos, and even ukuleles. Meanwhile, on the pop side of the equation, boy bands seemed to be coming back.
But then, an unlikely savior. By mid-2016, it was apparent that Donald Trump had a serious shot at becoming the next president of the U.S. With an ultra-polarizing figure capturing the attention of the world, people opposed to his agenda, style, and politics began to make and seek out music that expressed their anger, fear, confusion and opposition. Within months, the vibe changed. A nation under Trump seemed to be better served by a nation under rock.
This brings me to another factor in The Cycle. Going back to the 1950s, booms in angry music seem to follow the election of a Republican into the White House.
Think about it. The folk movement gained traction under Eisenhower. Some of the best music of the 1960s was made during the Nixon administration. Punk came from the fall of Nixon and the ineffectual era of Gerald Ford. Hardcore punk and rap came along during the Reagan eras. Under George H. W. Bush, the world fell under the thrall and the music of the Lollapalooza generation. When we got to George W. Bush and the post-9/11 era, indie rock exploded and the music toughened up again.
Let’s look at it from the other direction. When a Democrat is in the White House, pop tends to rule. The early 1960s — Kennedy’s era — was dominated by soft sounds. During Jimmy Carter’s administration, punk turned poppy, resulting in a slew of New Wave bands who battled for attention as disco swept the world. Skip ahead to the 1990s, when the latter part of Bill Clinton’s time as president was dominated by the Spice Girls and a new generation of boy bands. And with the eight years of Obama, it was all pop, all the time.
We might be stretching things a little, but it appears that The Cycle is holding, albeit rock arrived a little late this time. By all rights, this resurrection should have begun in February or March 2014. But why the delay?
Technology has greatly disrupted how we access music. For the pattern to hold on both sides of the pop/rock equation, a great deal of consensus about what constitutes “good” (or at least popular) music is required. With everyone able to access whatever music they want, whenever they want it, consensus amongst music fans is extremely hard to come by.
Another thing to consider: the pop-rock battle has been joined by a third player. Hip-hop has grown to become the driving musical force in culture, relegating rock to second place in many countries, including the U.S., the biggest music market in the world. Pop has absorbed much hip-hop influence, giving it new strength in its struggle against rock. Could this disrupt things? Very possibly.
Or maybe there’s some greater power at work here, something unalterably eternal like the precession of the poles. The Cycle bears watching. Here, in the early months of 2018, we have indeed swung back to the rock side of the ledger, with rock growing louder and more angry. It should stay that way until at least 2020 — which, as it turns out, happens to be the next time Americans elect a president.
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