The death of arena rock, part three: the software blues and the future of rock

In the final part of this series, we look at the impact of production software on arena rock and consider what the future of rock music may look like.
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Daft Punk / Skiddle via daftpunk.com

The final countdown

In this third and final part of our arena rock special in light of Netflix’s Mötley Crüe biopic The Dirt, we take a look at how the rise of music production software and the fall of blues elements of music were the final nails in the coffin for 1980s movement. We also ask what the future may hold for rock and roll and arena rock as musical and cultural movements.

Music production software and the slow death of blues

In the 1980s, music production software revolutionized the way popular music was made and played, and nowhere more was this evident than in the new wave synth-pop style with the likes of Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, New Order, OMD, and The Human League at the fore. The invention of MIDI had a “huge impact on hi-tech music making” and the Roland TR-808 had “an immeasurable impact on music all over the world“, sparking a hip-hop revolution that would see rappers rhyme over sampled music and meaty 808 beats. The styles that emerged from 1980s technology became a mainstay in the pop mainstream and helped dethrone the arena rockers.

However, music production software turned out to be a double-edged sword, making possible practices including time-gridding and auto-tuning. From a production point of view, both technologies are useful tools in their own right and spare countless hours of painful editing and retakes for producers and artists alike. However, both can be accused of removing a vital element of what makes music human; these elements can be called blues elements, for the blues is characterized by its human ‘inaccuracies’, including flat notes and lenient rhythms.

Time-gridding is exactly what it sounds like: setting the song to an exact metronomic grid. Whilst it doesn’t work for every genre⏤such as drum & bass and house⏤there is a certain charm to songs that are produced off-the-grid, so to speak. Check out this fascinating read on tempo variations with handy line graphs to show the and modern reliance on click tracks. For instance, Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” are metronome-free whereas Greenday’s “American Idiot” and Nickleback’s “Never Again” clearly used a click track.

Auto-tuning has two distinct uses: correcting questionable vocal performances and stylistically enhancing vocal performances⏤the latter almost always simultaneously caters for the former. At its best, it can make a track⏤consider Daft Punk’s “One More Time” or Toro y Moi’s recent “Monte Carlo“. At its worst, it can remove the blues element that helped make Motown a mainstream success in the 1960s; the use and abuse of auto-tuning in mainstream rap throughout the 2000s and 2010s is one such example. The modern stuff may be called R&B but that’s often where the similarities end; gone is much of the hallmark bluesy character that gave its ancestor its name.

When two worlds collide

In the 1990s, nu-metal was the result of a culture clash between rockers and rappers. Coincidentally, as nu-metal rose into the mainstream, blues elements plummeted. This is not to say that nu-metal was to blame, but it serves as a convenient tool to highlight the issue. Whilst Rage Against the Machine were notably blues-based, these blues elements were lost with subsequent artists of the fusion genre, such as Korn and Limp Bizkit, who released albums that could be described as overproduced. That said, arena rock albums were also notoriously overproduced.

It appears as though the clique of producers that were responsible for much of the nu-metal output lived in fear of commercial failure, preferring to stick with their tried-and-tested formulae. Again, arena rock producers likely did the same thing. This is not an uncommon fear in the music industry, and neither genre was the first, nor the last, to fall foul to commercial incentives. However, this often comes with the loss of key blues elements.

The slow death of blues is an unfortunate trend that has continued to this day, and few mainstream albums are produced without overusing or relying on time-gridding and auto-tuning. Ironically, some of the most memorable twenty-first-century chart music that has stood the test of time is blues-based; take Amy Winehouse or Adele⏤it is in their emotional imperfections and blues elements that listeners find a timeless quality. With the rise of modern music production software techniques and the decline of blues elements, classic rock⏤and by extension arena rock⏤was dealt a double-blow.

Is the rock and roll of old dead?

AC/DC famously sang “rock and roll ain’t noise pollution, rock and roll ain’t gonna die”, but they never said it wouldn’t take other forms. To some, it appears ineradicable in form and style, and to others, its social significance lives on in other forms, as Ice Cube proclaimed on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame stage in 2016.

However, rock and roll as a genre still exists today as the classic rock and roll canon, new rock and roll scenes and subcultures, its influence in the mainstream. This suggests that rock and roll today resides predominantly outside of the mainstream, but that’s okay. One’s favorite music doesn’t need to be the bestselling mainstream genre to find worth and enjoyment from it. One could argue that rock and roll becoming mainstream could lead to it becoming intrinsically less cool.

Rock fans are crying out for a talisman, some exciting artist to lead the genre rightfully back to the top, but that is no longer feasible. That ship has sailed. Rock is no longer as commercially viable as it once was; however, this could play into its favor. If rock is dead, then artists may be free to express their creativity without succumbing to commercial incentives to replicate a certain sound as there is no surefire moneymaker in rock anymore.

Some see Greta Van Fleet as the future of rock and, whilst they do satisfy a certain primal rock and roll itch, they often accused of ripping off Led Zeppelin, much to the band’s disdain. Whether or not they are copycats, there is clearly a niche market for such a band. They may not be rock and roll’s saving grace, but if you saw them in your local pub, you’d probably dig them. On one hand, it is encouraging to see artists like Greta Van Fleet feature so high on the Billboard 200, but on the other, the criticism the band draws highlights the need for rock to create something new and not a sub-par regurgitation of the classics.

What does the future hold?

Since the proliferation of the Internet and the democratization of digital music making and listening, the only artists that will float are those that can turn a profit. We have already discussed that rock is no longer on top, and is less commercially profitable than hip-hop, but it can still be profitable outside of the mainstream. The same technologies and developments that helped push rock out of the mainstream have also made it possible to turn a profit through smaller audiences and virtual scenes. For instance, artists can harness the power of data and tailor a tour around their Spotify audience’s demographic and locations.

Furthermore, rock fan bases may be more likely to buy merchandise and it is easier than ever to sell items to fans that can’t attend live shows. The forced gig economy means that touring is key to an artist’s success. However, this may work in rock’s favor seeing as rock and roll is made to be played and experienced in the flesh.

Just as the I-V-vi-IV and vi-IV-I-V progressions will always have a place in the pop mainstream, so too will the 12-bar blues. It is the makeup of many a pop hit and is too harmonically ingrained in our culture to simply disappear. Rock is not dead, it just isn’t the sound of 2019, or the twenty-first century for that matter. Arena rock may be extant but it still has flashes of influence in mainstream culture, from Jay-Z referencing Kurt Cobain to Post Malone covering Metallica to Maroon 5’s chart-topper about the famous struts of The Rolling Stones’ frontman.

Most recently, rock and metal band t-shirts made a return to mainstream fashion. Yes, you may roll your eyes at pretenders wearing Ramones and Pink Floyd memorabilia as a brand, but it illustrates the cultural weight and relevance behind arena rock to this day. Who’d have thought thousands of Gen-Z kids would be walking around in Iron Maiden and Metallica gear? Arena rock is nothing like it once was, but this alone speaks volumes about the movement as an institution.

However, one could argue that arena rock was a fad even during its heyday. The early 1980s saw the successes of spoof bands like Bad News (featuring the late, great Rik Mayall) and mock-rockumentaries such as This is Spin̈al Tap⏤take a moment to appreciate the garish n-umlaut à la Mötley Crüe and Motörhead. In some respects, the parodies aged better than the arena rock genre itself. Whatever your prejudice, arena rock has been well and truly toppled by the combination of elements discussed throughout this three-part special.

“You goddamn right, we rock & roll”

Whether or not hip-hop can be classified as rock and roll comes down to your definition of choice⏤rock and roll as a genre or as a social movement. Ice Cube sides with the latter, believing in an all-inclusive definition that rock and roll is a cultural movement that encompasses many musical styles and social attitudes. Gene Simmons prefers the former, believing hip-hop could only classify as rock and roll in a world where Led Zeppelin counts as hip-hop.

As a result of the key socio-political, technological, and musical developments discussed in this mammoth article, hip-hop has taken over rock both commercially and culturally. It may ruffle one or two feathers, but there is enough scope for a case to be made in favor of hip-hop’s inclusion underneath the rock and roll umbrella.

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