Return of Rock

Notes on Music

It first occurs to me rock may have a comeback in spring 2018. I’m out with friends in West Hollywood, being corny and having cocktails at PUMP, the eponymous lounge on Santa Monica run by restauranteur and ex-Real Housewife, Lisa Vanderpump. The himbo bartenders keep getting our orders wrong, unable to understand why someone might want to hold the simple syrup in a basil martini, so we leave.
Their friend is in town, the stylist Lotta Volkhova. We pick her up from Soho House and go to the Rainbow on Sunset. It’s a rock club—ancient, yet iconic, a relic of the Mötley Crüe era. The drinks are cheap. The crowd is déclassé. Surfaces are sticky. There’s a faint scent of urine that lingers even when you’re far from the bathrooms. Volkhova’s wearing the Balenciaga SS18 Knife Patent Spike 110mm Pumps in white. She fits in perfectly. At that moment I realize: rock is returning. It’s only a matter of time…
When the e-boy trend hits the mainstream press in summer 2019, everyone notes the 2000s nostalgia element. These kids are scenecore: channeling the emo Aughts, the MySpace era. There’s a lot of black, eyeliner, layering, stripes, band tees, pewter accessories, dangly skull earrings; crosses, padlocks, and swords hang from chains ranging from dainty to industrial. It‘s a rock aesthetic—just paired with hook-optimized trap and pop—at least on TikTok. Everyone has seemingly forgotten the genres that spawned the look: screamo and pop punk. Though this year, releases from musicians like Machine Gun Kelly make clear style is just running ahead of sound.
Fashion drives music trends, not vice versa.
“Return of Rock” has become a meme between me and my colleague, Sophie Secaf. (We created the GenExit report together. Check it out if you haven’t already read it.) Every time a new bit of cultural ephemera pops up that supports the thesis, we ping each other on WhatsApp. “Return of Rock” is all that needs to be said…
Early examples include: Return of Rock first movers The 1975; the reboot of High Fidelity on Hulu starring Zoe Kravitz, daughter of rock royalty, Lenny Kravitz; The Wallows, an indie band featuring Dylan Minnette from 13 Reasons Why with lead vocals; Miley Cyrus’ Black Mirror cover of the classic Nine Inch Nails song “Head Like a Hole”; the Supreme x My Bloody Valentine collab; and most recently, Kim and Kanye’s kids’ Halloween costumes.
Why is the Return of Rock initially over-represented in streaming? A post for another day…

Rock made no sense in the age of normcore. Everyone fled the virtuosic, the precocious, the flamboyant, the emotional, and suited up in synthetic Lululemon for spin class before brunch. But something had shifted. For the past year, I’d been obsessed with YouTube videos of their MTV $2 Bill concert. Whenever anyone asked my predictions for the next decade, I’d share it. Often to befuddled looks. Captured in Long Beach on retro TV cameras by Roman Coppola—yes, one of those Coppola’s—the film is a time capsule. Millennium 70s nostalgia rebooted as 2020s nostalgia for the 2000s. The appeal is inevitable.
The nostalgia cycle demands it.
I never had the chance to see The Strokes live when I was a teen show rat. During my twenty-somethings, the band was conspicuously absent. New Year’s Eves 2020 provided a chance to correct the record. No group vacations. No party chasing through Manhattan. One event will do. And that one event will be The Strokes concert at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The venue is a nightmare—a mix of airport security, casino aesthetics, and festival prices. To top it off, they closed the bars before midnight.
The concert itself is amazing though. Like all good rock bands, The Strokes are better live than recorded. The crowd is an odd mix: Gen X dragging along teen children, insistent they come with mom and dad to relive their Lower East Side glory days; Zoomers lined up at merch tables, attracted by the band’s iconic logo, bewitched by a time before they can remember; and of course, Millennials like me, excited to see what became of their high school idols.
Julian Casablancas is dressed the way I remember RISD kids circa 2005: hammer pants, novelty high tops, mullet, leather-patched tweed jacket-thing. The energy of the night is off-kilter, high-key, enthusiastic. The lead singer’s running backstage, announcing to the audience he needed to do a line of cocaine. Sometime after confetti and Auld Lang Syne, Casablancas admits what everyone knows. The band had been invisible for nearly a decade. But he promises this decade The Strokes are back. And so it is:
In addition to releasing a new album, they makes waves playing a Bernie Sanders rally in New Hampshire, everyone rushing the stage to sing along to “New York City Cops.” They trend on Twitter after doing SNL. This time because everyone is disappointed “New York City Cops” isn’t on the setlist. Individually, Julian Casablancas launches an interview series hosted on Rolling Stone’s YouTube channel. Titled, S.O.S Earth is a Mess, it features—among other things—Casablancas talking to the disembodied head of Andrew Yang about UBI.

Evidence is mounting that the Return of Rock is about to go mainstream, but editors and clients remain skeptical. Miley Cyrus is releasing chart-topping mashups with Stevie Nicks. She’s covering the Cranberries at Whiskey a Go Go. She’s spotted in London, dressed like this. If Miley’s gung-ho, what explains others’ reticence? Then I remember a COVID movie night from deep quarantine. My friends and I order Trolls World Tour opening night. (We watch together over Houseparty.)
It’s a children’s movie, so I won’t get too into the weeds on the plot. The shortest possible summary is: five singing and dancing troll tribes (voiced by the likes of Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, and Mary J. Blige, among others) live in harmony. Each represents a music genre: pop, funk, classical, techno, country. Everything is chill, until one day a sixth tribe shows up: rock. These new trolls are evil. They want to steal the unique sounds of the other genres. It’s really all just a thinly veiled allegory about cultural appropriation.
Rock, the ur-genre of American cultural appropriation, is now coded as the villain.
Hence, the anxiety of editors and clients. They worry the Return of Rock will mean the return of poorly behaved bands such as Salem: “culturally problematic” personalities who are musically celebrated, despite much hand-wringing about their impropriety. (See: overwrought reviews from The New Yorker and The New York Times of Salem’s long awaited and critically acclaimed sophomore album “Fires in Heaven”.)
But with President-Elect Joe Biden soon to assume office, concerns about MAGA cultural adjacency already seem to be attenuating. That Jack Donoghue is Midwestern and may have worked on an oil rig is less interesting than the fact Salem—and witch house, in general—is the connective thread between the demise of indie rock in the 2000s and the rise of the techno underground in the 2010s.

In the near future, I’ll release a longer trend report on the Return of Rock. I still have questions. Such as: why does rock once again appeal to young people? And: how will rock and it’s reliance on live performance deal with COVID constraints? But I decided to publish my notes due to two events over the weekend:
One: Oneohtrix Point Never, preferred composer of the Safdie brothers, performed a shoegaze anthem on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Fittingly, the video that accompanied the set was directed by Red Scare co-host, Dasha Nekrasova. Somewhere a socially distanced Boomer is being exposed to indie lo-fi aesthetics—
Two: Doja Cat performed a metal version of her TikTok hit “Say So” on the MTV Europe Music Awards backed by a full band in animal make-up. Guitar, bass, drums—if you watched closely you can make out their whiskers. It’s reminiscent of the closing shot from the Kanye West video “Fade.” Is the kitty cosplay a nod to the fact Doja Cat herself is cosplaying a metalhead?
Why now? My first guess: it’s been a long four years. As the anxiety lifts, we will all need a good dose of catharsis. My second guess: we’re a new decade in search of a new aesthetic. Time will tell.
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