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Jerry A. Coyne Headshot

Rock and Roll Is Dead

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I woke up this morning and, during desultory browsing of the Internet, found an announcement of Avril Lavigne's latest song, "Rock." Have a listen, if you can stand it.

Here's what's wrong with this song, and with many rock songs and videos these days:

  • Blatant product placement
  • No musicality: shouting
  • Song shows no signs of creativity; sounds like many other songs on the air. Tune (if there is one) is dull; words forgettable.
  • Attempt to cover up lack of creativity with shock value: cursing; girl-on-girl kiss featuring Danica McKellar (think Katy Perry); superheroes; and even a shark beheaded by a buzzsaw. Other recent music videos have covered up the lack of interesting music with unclad women.
  • AUTOTUNING (voices are adjusted electronically): the curse of modern rock. Who had that bad idea, which is grossly overused?

When all these bells and whistles are used to gussy up what is essentially a mediocre song, you know there's something wrong. And the overweening thing wrong is that rock and roll is dead. It's had its run and now it's over. It is an ex-music form and sings with the choir invisible.

My theory, which is mine, is that eventually every art form, with the possible exception of movies and the novel, degenerates. Modern art is execrable, most modern classical music lame, especially in comparison to the greats of the 16th-19th century, modern jazz has degenerated to a cult embracing but a few aficionados. Modern poetry can be okay, but I'd rather read Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, or Yeats.

I know I will face push back here. People will say, "Hey, there are still some great rock songs around," or "Hey, what about this jazz musician?" But really, those are the equivalent of anecdotes. I'm talking about a trend. Can modern jazz really compare to that of the '30s, '40s, and early '50s, when Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Django Reinhardt, and innumerable greats held sway? You'd be hard pressed to make the case, for jazz has largely exhausted itself. The same holds for classical music. Do you believe that in 200 years symphony orchestras -- if they still exist -- will be playing largely the "classical" music composed today? I doubt it. It will be Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms.

And in 20 years, do you think the "oldies" rock stations will be playing the rock that is popular today? They should, because today's kids will be tomorrow's consumers, and presumably they'd want to conjure up their youth by listening to the music of their halcyon days.

But this is what they'd be hearing: stuff like this week's top ten songs on Billboard:

  • "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke
  • "We Can't Stop" by Miley Cyrus (gag)
  • "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons
  • "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk
  • "Holy Grail" by Jay Z (with Justin Timberlake
  • "Cups" by Anna Kendrick
  • "Treasure" by Bruno Mars
  • "Clarity" by Zedd
  • "Safe and Sound" by Capital Cities
  • "Love Somebody" by Maroon 5

Now not all modern rock songs are lame; there are some that I actually like. One of them, to use a band on the current charts, is Maroon 5's "Sunday Morning," but that's already nine years old. Songs like that are thin on the ground.

No, the songs on the oldies stations in 20 years will be pretty much what they are now: the Beatles, the Stones, the great soul music of the '60s and early '70s, the Band, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Ray Charles, Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, and... well, I can go on forever. Why will their music last? Because these people were artists, who produced interesting music with lovely tunes and (often) meaningful lyrics. That's simply not on tap these days. What we have is a crop of overhyped, oversold, autotuned mediocrities.

I am Professor Jerry Coyne, and I endorse this message.

Jerry A. Coyne, Ph.D is a Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Why Evolution Is True. This post originally appeared on Jerry A. Coyne's website Why Evolution Is True.