Alexander Hellene

The Kids Don’t Rock

Rock n’ roll isn’t dead, it just smells funny.

The always insightful Rick Beato had a recent video explaining his theory as to why Gen Z doesn’t care about music.

I think it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that an entire generation doesn’t care about music. I’m sure it cares about music plenty. I don’t think Beato is being disingenuous. I do think that he isn’t fully disclosing his biases, or at least clarifying his perspective.

Beato is, by his own admission, a Boomer, though at age 60 he’s a younger one. Therefore, Beato’s musical tastes growing up were rock n’ roll from the 60s and 70s. Those are primarily his personal musical interests, though he does plenty of in-depth videos about metal, punk, pop, singer-songwriter stuff, country, and classical music from all eras.

I think a more accurate claim would be that Gen Z doesn’t care about rock music the same way that prior generations, such as Beato’s did. And I think this is a more accurate claim.

This post is not about that claim. It is about Beato’s theory as to why. And his theory involves video games.

Beato’s hypothesis is that most young people interact with pop culture through gaming, whether that is playing games or watching streams and other gaming-related content on the Internet. And this, in turn, not only sucks up a bunch of time that could be devoted to listening to music or learning how to play a musical instrument, it also doesn’t expose these kids to the kinds of music that Beato thinks they should be exposed to.

It’s an interesting premise, and one that has some truth to it. Even in my day, video games were addicting, but they were nothing like they are now. But here’s something interesting: video game music helped me really appreciate music in general. Whether it was the highly catchy and surprisingly complex tunes coming out of the various Super Mario Bros. games, Castlevania’s creepy atmospherics, or Mega Man’s driving, melodic level themes, the genre-defying nature of old Nintendo soundtracks stuck with me. I haven’t even mentioned that legitimate, actual composers like Koichi Sugiyama and Nobuo Uematsu wrote unbelievably emotional and high-quality soundtracks for the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy series of games, respectively. Final Fantasy VI’s score alone made me want to listen to classical and orchestral music.

I do not know much about current year game scores, since my son like retro games and various Pokemon titles, but I’m sure the big-budget video games have big-budget soundtracks. Going back twenty years, I remember Morrowind having an appropriately epic and pastoral score that, if I’m being honest, sounded more than a little like Howard Shore’s score to The Lord of the Rings films. Which is fine, since some of those pieces sound, shall we say, inspired by Anton Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.”

A few questions Beato’s video raised to me remain:

  • Does Gen Z care about music?
  • Is gaming to blame for the declining interest in rock music?
  • Why does rock music matter?
  • How can we get Gen Z and other younger generations interested in rock music and music in general?

Does Gen Z Care About Music?

Of course it does. It’s silly to claim that there’s an entire generational cohort that just doesn’t listen to music, study music, play music, or what anything to do with it. There is more new music around than ever, the Internet allows anybody to make music and release it, it allows kids to find just about any music with a few clicks, and, to a really good point made by Beato, tutorial videos on the Internet allow kids to learn music with alarming speed and technique.

I do like how Beato calls out the fact that virtual learning at least appears to have resulted in many of the most technically proficient musicians, be they guitarists, drummers, bassists, pianists, whatever, who learned via video tutorial, but have never played in a band, developed groove, taste, and improvisational timing.

Very interesting theory! In my music days, I could definitely tell if I was playing with a person who knew how to make listenable sounds come out of their instrument of choice or if I was playing with a musician within the first few seconds. However, this is a very big assumption by Beato, one I’m not willing to concede.

Astute readers watching the video will see that Beato’s own discussion on this topic contradicts his basic premise. I think it’s safe to say that Gen Z does care about music. It just doesn’t care about the type of music Beato thinks they should, nor does it experience this music the same way as Beato did and does.

Is Gaming to Blame for the Declining Interest in Rock Music?

No. Of course not. The music industry is to blame. Sometime in the mid-1990s, let’s say 1997, what many cultural commentators call Cultural Ground Zero, everything cultural in the United States became frozen in time. 2022, if you really think about it, is just the third decade of the 1990s.

Rock music used to be (a) blues-based, (b) rebellious, (c) danceable, (d) fun, and (e) ubiquitous. So were its various genres. In the mid-1990s, though, much rock music hailed as the next big thing became (a) unmoored from its roots, (b) based on reinforcing doctrinaire progressive values at a time when the establishment was already progressive, (c) stiff and undanceable, (d) gloomy or tedious or both, and (e) overshadowed by other forms of music.

Remember: in the 1980s and much of the 1990s, rock, pop, heavy metal, and even punk and new wave, coexisted with pop starlets, legacy rock acts, crooners, vocal divas, and rap, hip-hop, and other new genres of music. Michael Jackson, Huey Lewis, Phil Collins, Metallica, U2, Talking Heads, and the Police all existed in the same milieu.

So no, rap, hip-hop, and pop aren’t to blame for the declining interest in guitar-based music. Neiter is the Internet. Blame falls squarely on the copycat music industry and its media mouthpieces hailing music that is very much not rock music as rock music is.

Video games, likewise, aren’t to blame either. Gaming addiction is a huge problem. As is any kind of addiction. There are far more productive uses of one’s time. But you could say the same thing about watching sports, listening to sports radio, playing fantasy sports, and being obsessed with grown men playing a kid’s game. At least with video games, the player is the one actually doing something.

Why Does Rock Music Matter?

It doesn’t, really, any more or any less than any other genre of music matters. Music matters. Making music is one of humanity’s defining characteristics. No other animal makes music the same way, birds and their beautiful calls aside.

Music enriches the brain. It conveys emotion. Leaving the lyrics aside, the arrangements of sounds can evoke physiological responses and create moods. It is, in short, amazing. I count the ability to record and play back music one of the greatest inventions in history.

Further, culture is embedded in music. Culture is who we are as a given people, and music is a huge part of that. To cut one’s progeny off from this cultural legacy is a travesty.

I personally love rock music, and I think it will be very sad if it ever becomes some weird mostly forgotten art form some people long ago used to do way back when.

But rock is an interesting beast. Musicians used to be culturally important. They aren’t now—at least rockers aren’t— but the history of rock as a cultural force is interesting. There’s also the fact that it’s pretty uniquely American, being an exciting synthesis of white and black American musical forms like blues, country, jazz, and gospel mixing together to create something fresh . . . especially once electric guitars and basses came into being. This technology changed the game.

And then there are all of the off-shoots. Rock and blues got bigger in America once British kids discovered it, put their own spin on it, and brought it back here. There’s also progressive rock, taking more influence from jazz and classical than anything, and punk rock, and metal, and the list goes on.

So it matters in the sense that it’s a shame if young people were just not exposed to it at all. It’s like depriving young people of ever hearing Beethoven or something.

How Can We Get Gen Z and Other Younger Generations Interested in Rock Music and Music in General?

The answer to this question is in the answers to my other questions. Young people just need to be introduced to it. Many will discover rock, or other forms of music, on their own. Others have a sibling, an aunt or uncle, or a parent who are into this band or that style, and such music becomes a part of their life. My brother and I got into rock music and playing guitars because our father was always spinning Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers, and stuff like that.

I’d also love to get more young people interested in learning to play musical instruments and start bands. It’s a great way to socialize, to learn composition and teamwork, expand creativity, and really work the brain. Learning musical instruments provides a sense of discipline, a sense of accomplishment, and yes, a heady sense of being admired by people (read: girls, in my case, and I’m sure the case of many other young musicians). It is true now, and it was starting to get true in the 1990s, that young kids, even young white kids, didn’t think learning the guitar was the path to coolness. It became passe in favor of learning how to rap and learning how to dance. Such is life. Times change. What can you do?

I do have an idea. If I had the time and the technological know-how, I’d start a gaming channel on YouTube or Twitch or whatever where, in addition to (poorly) playing (mostly old) games and talking about them, I’d pick a band or an album to play in the background I’d explain, to introduce some of this music in a non-forceful Boomerific way.

Gen Z is much more jaded than any other generation, and it’s not even close. They know that everything sucks and they can see through the lies from a young age, lies many in my generation didn’t realize were lies until well into adulthood. Therefore, it’s pretty obvious that Gen Z does not want to be condescended to, or forced to enjoy old things. In their worldview—and it’s a worldview I understand completely—adults have failed them and all of the stuff they’re into probably sucks because the adults themselves suck and nearly everything they do has produced awful outcomes. Of course this attitude would also apply to old music.

I’m 100 percent sympathetic to this worldview. However, I do think that Gen Z deserves to understand the joy of rocking out to Black Sabbath or something like that.

Rock on, my friends. Rock on.

As a bit of tangentially related shameless self-promotion, if you liked this post, you like rock music, and you like reading, you’ll love Pulp Rock, an anthology of short fiction I put together with a bunch of my friends.

– Alexander

9 thoughts on “The Kids Don’t Rock”

  1. One thing I forgot to add on Twitter. It’s a bit of an anecdote.

    Back in the 2000s, I used to read this magazine called Alternative Press, and there was a controversial interview in one issue where some musician (I don’t remember who) said something to the effect that there were too many bands out there. He listed one band, who I and no one else probably remembers, and asked the simple question as to why this band exists. Why don’t they just join the army or something? Why are they a band? They were, of course, a generic emo band because that was what was in at the time, but that interview stuck with me years later.

    I think by that time, rock music just became a generic career path to people. Were one to look at the truly great bands, any of them, including those overlooked commercially, one will find they had a real passion for rock music, its roots, and its possibilities for future sounds. They didn’t always play the same music style, but they all held a passion for the artform and wanted to add themselves to the annals of rock history.

    But by the time of the 2000s, especially the 2010s, rock music was mostly seen as either a novelty, a pile of clichés. Whenever someone tries to convince me to get into a new rock band today my response is always why you’re sending me a band that is Led Zeppelin, The Ramones, The Beatles, Radiohead, or Lynyrd Skynrd, but not anywhere near as good. That’s not why I listen to rock music. I listen for distinctive personality stamps: not clichés. This newer rehash approach not art, and its not going to save the genre.

    While I might not have been as harsh as the interviewed musician above, I would ask the question as to what you hope to do being a musician. I asked a similar question in The Pulp Mindset about writers. WHY are you doing this? What are you hoping to add to this tradition, if not yourself? You have something unique to add and say to this tradition: what is it? Show it in your art.

    The reason rock died, I’d posit, is because bands stopped asking themselves that question. They just want to check the boxes and call it a day, because all that is expected of them is to “play rock music” and all the clichés that entails. You will never get a new Ramones that way, never mind a new Yes. This changes when we change our expectations and act accordingly.

    That might sound a bit harsh, but it appears to be an attitude that is more and more common, especially in the mainstream that the bare minimum is what we should expect and hope for.

    1. JD,

      Excellent points. The why is an important question one must ask before beginning any endeavor, artistic or otherwise. Rock music has fallen pray to the exaltation of the superficial trappings of rock over a love and appreciation of the artform and the desire to say something with it. I don’t think every rock band has to be totally revolutionary, but you can still be evolutionary, or at least perform the music with passion and creativity. The world doesn’t need every band to be groundbreaking innovators, but damn, you can still be an AC/DC or a Ramones, adding new tweaks to classic formulae.

      It’s very subjective, though. Here’s an example of a band that is definitely trying to say something with their music: Green Day. I, personally, find that what they’re trying to say through their music is stupid, and apparently so does most of the record-buying public, as well as the critics. But you at least have to give them a hand, right?

      This is not as easy an issue as it may seem on first blush. But it is worth thinking about.

  2. Alexander,
    You brought up an insight about music that David V Stewart, Russell (Newquist) and JD have alluded to. Notably the loss/removal of blues in rock. Thus contemporary American music is missing one of its foundations.

    I remember back in the 90s, Harry Connick Jr and like-minded artists were regressing and rehabilitating blues. Unfortunately, it quickly petered out, but not before they found music and published some songs from that archaeological discovery. Some stuff was a revelation.

    This negative attitude contrast with the Iberian artists: They still incorporate and mash up salsa, tango, bossa nova, habernera, habernera catalana, folk music with modern styles. Here’s an example of a Valencian singer mashing up all sorts of music styles
    Which begins with Valencian folk music then syncopates to rap.

    So the solution is for the musically inclined to regress and highlight pieces of music with a mix of history and musicology. For example, years ago, I listened to a radio documentary of Elvis Presley’s the Sun Records sessions when he was still a truck driver. I was utterly blown away. It was a revelation (though the narrator’s pretentiousness did irritate me a lot). He sang songs with blues, gospel, etc. I then understood why Elvis was such an earthquake in the 50s.

    If I were a musicologist, I’d do a lot of comparative music between the French, Spanish, African, Anglopshere and Natives throughout the Americas. I listened to piece of UR jazz music and I could hear undertones of Cuban music.

    I sperged enough 🙂


    1. Regressing harder, as we like to say, is a big part of it. Unmoored from any sort of tradition, what we call “rock music” isn’t really rock. It’s a different beast. And there can be good stuff to come out of such radical breaks! But for enthusiasts of rock music, who appreciate and enjoy and find meaning in the sorts of things rock music can do, the visceral thrills and emotions it can convey, absent links to the great chain of the past, it ain’t rock.

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