Earlier this week, in an interview with radio station WGRD of Grand Rapids, Mich., Black Keys frontman and blooze-rawk genius Dan Auerbach offered a strong response to critics and fans who think rock 'n' roll is dead:
I think that it's so lame of an argument, it seems so stupid. It's like the press needs something to talk about. Being 16 years old and getting an electric guitar is never going to get old. There's always going to be kids making music. There's always going to be kids in bands...
Everything is cyclical. It'll come back around and be popular. The Foo Fighters are like the biggest band in the world. They play stadiums. How is rock dead?"
Sorry Dan, but you're missing the point here. The question is not whether rock 'n' roll will follow the dinosaurs and the dodo and disappear completely from the Earth. Anyone who means "total extinction" when they argue that rock 'n' roll is dead or dying clearly isn't thinking well.
What people talk about when they talk about rock's decline isn't a disappearance, it's a lack of vitality. There will be rock bands for another 50 years, maybe much longer. But will they contribute anything new to the musical or cultural landscape? Will they be a fount from which interesting ideas and attitudes spring? Will they be seen as a revolutionary force or a reactionary one?
The mere presence of large, commercially successful rock bands -- like the Foo Fighters or the Black Keys -- isn't proof that rock is still "alive," either. Vitality means growing and changing, something the Foo Fighters haven't ever really bothered with. (Sorry, recording in a garage doesn't count.) At their best, the Black Keys (whom I love) brought a return to high old standards of musicianship and songwriting. "Lonely Boy" is a great pop-rock song, but it's not going to open up any new musical frontiers.
No, the "death of rock 'n' roll" will look like the ossification of any number of once-vital genres, like, say, blues and jazz. Technically, they exist. There are festivals and magazines and scenes around them, and even new artists playing them. But these genres aren't alive in the sense that they once were. No one right now is dramatically changing what we think of as blues or jazz. They are great artforms, but their development has basically run its course. They were young once, they raised hell, they matured, and now they're old.
Some observers are making a similar argument about rock: Not that it will disappear. Not that 16-year-old kids won't still get guitars and love them. Not that rock bands won't still be popular. (And indeed, rebadged as "country," rock is still huge.) Just that the music may not always matter like it once did.
But talk of "dying" is all kind of over-dramatic, anyway. Here's a better question: Who do you think will a greater impact on the future of pop music: The 16-year-old kids who are playing electric guitars, or the 16-year-old kids who are playing with Ableton Live on their laptops?