When I grew up, rock music was dead.
The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin heralded my childhood. Stories of their rise and fall colored my bedtimes, my family dinners and my road trips. My father would sit us down, instruct us to listen (“be quiet — full attention!”) and, with an almost magician-like quality, summon a figure from what seemed to me a mythic past. It was often the Beatles, sometimes the Doors, sometimes the Traveling Wilburys, one day Creedence Clearwater Revival. My father was reverent, dead silent and, afterwards, carefully analytical. And so he taught me that listening to music was really just reading great books. That same summer I read Wuthering Heights, and I listened to The Wall, too.
By the time I was fourteen, I knew the lore better than anyone: the great bands had lived and thrived through the 60’s and 70’s, until the 80’s arrived and marked the death of everything good in rock — with a few exceptions. Hair bands coupled bad lyrics with boring music and wrapped it all up in flashy packages that concealed only vacuity. 90’s bands like Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden brought back something substantive, but they were different. They were grunge, not rock n’ roll. They lacked the majesty, the sheer awesomeness of rock. And so I continued to mourn The Doors, The Who and the Stones, listening to each of them obsessively.
I made fun of my friends for liking One Direction, Taylor Swift, Post Malone —the kind of music that made me feel nothing. The omnipresence of pop music in my high school led me to assume that nothing musically good would ever come out of my generation. I lamented that I was born too late. The greatest rock concert I could ever hope to see in my lifetime would be at best a pale imitation of what came before. I was 15. I was incredibly jaded. I was wrong.
I was too busy grieving the Beatles, Pink Floyd and the Doors to realize that rock wasn’t dead; it had just changed. The lesson is a simple one: music reflects its generation. The explosive, dangerous, sex and drug-infused rock music of the 60’s and 70’s reflected a generation that sought to break free of the confines of the 50’s. Rock was forbidden, all of it––the nine-minute guitar solos, the smashing of instruments, the long hair and tight pants, the volume turned up to 11, the lyrics that screamed things like “we don’t need no education.” It was dizzying and dangerous and incredibly messy. It was emotional, bare-faced and unapologetic. It was Roger Daltry’s voice, fiercely carefree, as he sang, “I hope I die before I get old.”
But the truth is, that’s not our generation anymore. We have new worries, new anxieties and new struggles, and the adoption of widespread technology has made our world fundamentally different. Our generation does not seek to break down barriers and push limits, but rather to reckon with the technological world and our place within it. Therein lies the key difference — unlike the 60’s and 70’s, our generation does not find meaning in danger. Our generation finds meaning in subtlety. And thus, a great rock band today is one for whom every little detail is a deliberate choice, a signpost directing you to something meaningful and profound. Every chord carefully calculated. Every pause eloquently chosen. Every beat pregnant with significance.
In 1997, Radiohead released an album titled OK Computer, their commentary on a technological world. They observed that people were having a harder time connecting with each other because of dependence on machines, and they perceived a collective sense of self that was no longer assured, but confused. 30 years earlier, bands like The Who and Pink Floyd were confidently calling for the destruction of traditional institutions, but now it was almost the 2000’s and Radiohead had realized that you just couldn’t trust yourself anymore. Radiohead marks a ubiquitous retreat into the self, a re-examination of what exactly it means to be human. “Just ‘cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there,” Thom Yorke sings, and you can almost sense Jim Morrison, master of confidence and improvisation, rolling over in his grave.
Their every musical choice is a triumph in subtlety. They are not loud or explosive, but delicate and incredibly controlled. Their lyrics are not epic and inflammatory, but often nonsensical and even inaudible. “Salad,” they repeat in Karma Police, with absolutely no explanation at all. They are not dangerous, improvisational or spontaneous. They are insecure at times, even neurotic, because the world they observe is insecure and neurotic. Their unconventional time signatures feel weird, jarring and uncomfortable. Their instrumentation is not ostentatious, but rather exceedingly precise, engineered. Let Down, my favorite song off OK Computer, begins by hinting quietly at different musical elements, letting them build up just enough to catch your ear and then reigning them in before you can truly be satisfied. You can’t escape the sense that you’re waiting for something, for some sort of catharsis, and then the end of the song comes and everything is released in a controlled explosion so meticulous that you feel like you’re falling through the air at an impossible speed.
When I was discussing Radiohead recently with a friend of mine, he remarked that their music seemed too polished, that it felt like they were too good at what they do. But that’s the point, I said. It feels inorganic, because it is. The world is no longer messy, and so music isn’t either. It is entirely engineered and controlled, down to the very last detail. The incredible, unfailing (he was right, they’re too good at what they do) precision of Radiohead’s instrumentation is not just impressive, it is a warning. The natural world has become a world of machines, and the serendipity of human connection is in danger. The more you listen to them, the more you realize that they are trapped within their own musical experience. They are no longer sure what exactly is real, and they are stuck in a space of perpetual introspection. They want to break free, but they don’t know how. “Karma Police, arrest this man, he talks in maths,” they sing. He talks in maths, but they do, too.
Our generation’s great rock bands require precision and subtlety, two aspects that many people wrongly believe are only found in slow, sad songs. But Radiohead has many upbeat songs, and so does Twenty-One Pilots, another 2000’s rock band. They are chart-topping because they are relatable in much the same way Radiohead is, albeit more explicitly. They sing about the modern experience of simultaneous loss of self and intense self-awareness. They sing about the inability to connect with other people. They fuse genres, transitioning sometimes into rap and sometimes into rock, navigating both with expertly engineered direction. “This beat is a chemical,” Tyler sings. It is the antithesis of messily vivacious rock. It is fundamentally clinical.
In a way, I was right. Rock music is dead. Or, more accurately, classic rock is dead. But it’s not because our generation is devoid of musical talent. Instead, we’ve just moved on. We used to be the people who struggled to break free of the mom, dad, two kids and a dog formula of the 1950’s. Jim Morrison, Robert Plant, and Roger Waters led us into battle, and we won. The 90’s began, and, still slightly stunned by our victory, Nirvana and other grunge bands ushered in the era of “Now what?” — the open-mouthed, utterly bemused existence that occurs after a seemingly impossible victory. Their period of questioning culminated in the intensely introspective great rock bands of our generation —not only Radiohead and 21 Pilots, but also the National, Death Cab for Cutie, and Arcade Fire. We cannot ask them to be our Doors, our Zeppelin, our Pink Floyd. They are ours, and that is enough.
Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in the Yale Daily News and can be found here.