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What Is Rock

January 13, 2011

rock.jpegThe Guardian published an interesting article about the demise of rock music, quoting research data as evidence: "Last year saw the number of rock songs in the singles chart fall to its lowest level in half a century, with only three tracks appearing in the top 100 best-selling hits in the UK," wrote reporter Alexandra Topping in her article. "The percentage of rock songs plummeted from a sickly 13% in 2009 to a terminal 3% - far behind hip-hop/R'n'B at 47%, pop at 40% and dance 10%, according to figures from MusicWeek."

One important thing that the article doesn't touch on at all is how we define genre terms like "rock." The term is as amorphous as "folk", "hip-hop" and "electronica". Unless the boundaries of the genre are strictly defined -- and how can they be, when artists so often draw on musical ideas from genres outside of their usual purview -- how can anyone take this research seriously?

A couple of lines further down in Topping's piece illustrate my point:

"The news that the best performing rock song of 2010 was Don't Stop Believin', a 30-year-old track from the veteran rock act Journey made popular by US television show Glee, added a further nail to the coffin...The other two rock songs to make it into the top 100 of the year were Hey, Soul Sister by Train and Dog Days are Over by Florence + the Machine."

Most people wouldn't argue with the categorization of Don't Stop Believin' as a rock song. It arguably sets the gold standard for the genre with its even verses and choruses, strong vocal line and blaring electric guitar bridge. But with its hula influence, reggae-like rhythm and melodious, almost dinky, tune, Hey, Soul Sista could just as well fall outside the rock realm. Dog Days are Over has a heavy rock-appropriate feel to it, but the song is angular in tonality and doesn't follow the same tidy pattern of a standard rock song.

So before anyone declares "RIP Rock 'n' Roll," people should stop to ask themselves what exactly constitutes a rock song. It's not so much that rock is dying, but that artists are mixing components of the genre with other musical styles.

P.S. Whatever doldrums the so-called "rock" world is in, it's nice in any case to see songs by two Bay Area bands -- Journey and Train -- becoming such classics.

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