Why Did Rock Music Decline and Can It Make a Comeback?

There was a time when rock was the dominant form of popular music. The decline of rock apparently began in the mid 1960s. By the 1970's, disco had taken over. However, rock still remained a force until the late 1990s. By the 2000s, pop rock was for the most part the only form of the rock that was charting high on the Billboard Hot 100. Pop rock even struggled between about 2009 to 2011 when dance and electro music largely took over pop radio.

Now, pop radio has radically changed again and pop rock has made a comeback. Electro-rock band Imagine Dragons and pop punk band Fallout Boy are enjoying success on both alternative and pop radio. Indie, folk, and country inspired music are enjoying pop success as are R&B and funk.

With pop radio embracing more diverse forms of music including pop rock and electro-rock, is there a chance for the guitar driven rock similar to what was popular in the 60's and 70's to make a comeback as well?

Simplistic Arguments for the Decline of Rock

I found a forum that asked the question of why rock is in decline. These are samples of some responses.

Music for youth is now about the packaging and the presentation-not the music.

Today's 'stars' are nothing more than video created characters that rely too much on flashing lights, back up dancers, video editing to make them look like they're actually singing and much much more.

its all about making lots of money now

Except image has always been important in music. Rock legends like The Beatles and Elvis Presley were very well packaged. Bands from decades ago like The Osmonds and The Monkees were as much video characters as musicians. The music industry has always been about making money and finding the next big star. Some people like to blame MTV and the rise of the music video. But rock survived well into the late nineties, more than a decade after MTV's arrival.

These are reasons I think rock music may be in trouble.

Demographic Problems for Rock Music

One of rock's problems seems to be demographic. Modern rock music is mainly being purchased by young, white males. Girls and women 40 and under mainly purchase pop music. Despite the success of some later female rockers like 10,000 Maniacs and Alanis Morissette, rock still seems to have a problem attracting female buyers. In 2006, the website surveyed girls around the world on their music taste. While the survey didn't provide percentages, rock only appeared in the other category and that was just a tiny slice of the overall pie chart. Now, it's possible that some rock fans chose alternative (which covers several genres) but this was still less than half the size of the pop category.

In one 2002 survey, 52% of whites versus 29% of nonwhites said they like rock music. Half of all American children under the age of 5 are a minority. Rap and hip hop have given urban and minority youth the kind of irreverent outlet that rock gave to white youths in the past. The potential buyers for rock music are in decline.

Unfortunately rock, which had it's origins in blues music, produced few well known African American stars. Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry and Little Richard (and BB King if you include blues rock) are just a few who are still widely known today. The most well known black artists from the past mostly sang soul, R&B and disco.

The early fan bases of rock stars like Elvis Presley and The Beatles were heavily female. However, rock stars themselves were largely male. Female rocker Janis Joplin felt that she had to become one of the boys to succeed in rock. Joan Jett also had a very masculine image. Like rap music today, rock was often criticized for having misogynistic lyrics and was considered an aggressive expression of male sexuality. Despite this, women made up a large portion of the fan bases of rock bands.

Groupies were a prominent part of the 1960s and 1970s rock music scene. Groupies were girls, sometimes underage, who would seek sexual contact with members of their favorite bands. Some would actually travel with the band for a time.

So, why have women and girls become much less interested in rock music? I don't know but perhaps the feminist movement is one reason. The overt sexism and masculine nature of rock may have been a turn off to girls raised with ideas of female empowerment. The rise of strong women in pop music, such as Madonna, may have made it more appealing to girls and women as both listeners and artists. Perhaps young women could identify more with independent women in pop than oversexed male rockstars.

The modern rock I hear on alternative radio is still heavily male and seemingly mostly white. Rock music probably became too white and too male to remain hugely popular.

Did rock music become too male and too white?
Did rock music become too male and too white?

Rock Has Become Too Serious?

I listen to both pop and alternative radio. Alt radio, of course, plays a lot of modern rock. These songs are often very serious and somber. Rock music wasn't always so serious. Some of it was fun.

Is rock music your favorite genre?

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Do you think rock music lacks diversity?

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Queen's We Will Rock You, Joan Jett's I Love Rock n' Roll, and The Beatles Yellow Submarine and Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds (which was about a picture preschooler Julian Lennon drew), were upbeat and fun songs. So, was Third Stone from the Sun by Jimi Hendrix even though the alien involved decided to destroy the Earth. The Pixies have a song about sea monkeys called Palace of the Brine. Both Van Halen, and David Bowie with Mick Jagger covered Martha and the Vandellas Dancing in the Streets.

Perhaps fun rock music is still being made but it isn't being played on my local alternative station, so I'm not aware of it. It looks like pretentiousness has taken over rock music. If a song doesn't have a serious meaning, it has no right to exist. Rock fans decry the death of "real music." This is a turn off to many people who want music to serve different purposes. Sometimes, it should be fun. Sometimes, it should be serious. Sometimes it should be about things we can relate to whether that's falling in love or a painful breakup. Sometimes it can deal with social issues.

Can Rock Comeback?

With radio diversifying, the moment is ripe for guitar driven rock to come back. Just like Avicii is popularizing folktronica such as folk/country/bluegrass mixed with electronic music on pop radio and Imagine Dragons are popularizing electro-rock, someone may come along who makes guitar driven rock that can appeal to pop audiences, as well as women and minorities.

Imagine Dragons are having a lot of success with electro-rock

An unreleased blues rock track by Kesha and Patrick Carney

Maybe some already successful artists will bring rock back. Perhaps a group like Imagine Dragons, who are having so much success with electro-rock might be inclined to release some traditional guitar rock to pop radio. Or perhaps Fallout Boy will at some point reduce the pop in their punk and sell a rockier sound to pop radio.

The always ambitious Ke$ha hoped she would be the one to bring rock and electric guitars back to pop radio. After all, she was partly responsible for the electro takeover on the radio. Unfortunately, her label wouldn't let her. They rejected her rock songs and told her she had to record pop songs instead. However some rock and country tracks still made it onto her album Warrior. Hopefully, Ke$ha, who recorded rock, country and blues music as a teenager, will win her bitter struggle to gain creative control over her work. Ke$ha is a genius when it comes to writing catchy hooks. Mixing her catchy lyrics with rock, blues rock or country rock could work on the radio. Add to that, pop radio loves her.

Foster the People are given some of the credit for bringing indie music to pop radio. Adele is given a lot of the credit for bringing back the ballad. I can definitely see pop radio embracing rock. All that's really needed is for someone to break through and popularize it. If other artists can capitalize on their success rock may become a force in popular music again like it was in the 1990s with Nirvana and Alanis Morissette.

Maybe the rock purists won't like the form it takes because it doesn't sound exactly like 60's and 70's rock. These are the purists who consider a group like Linkin Park inauthentic because they mix rock and metal with rap and hip hop. But that shouldn't matter. Music has always evolved and changed and it always will. Great music has always incorporated influences from other genres. I would prefer to see rock change and remain popular rather than become a niche genre like jazz.

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Comments 18 comments

Matthew Hegarty 2 years ago

I think Rock music has already made a massive comeback in the UK with heavy acts like While She Sleeps, Enter Shikari, Bullet For My Valentine, Bring Me The Horizon, Marmozets And not so heavy Rock bands like Mallory Knox, You Me At Six, The Vaccines etc all getting in the charts and on the BBC Radio 1 daytime playlist within the last 2 years alone and A7X, BMTH haven gotten in the top 5 albums there is always guitar bands on BBC Radio 1 (biggest UK Current music station) and an increase in popularity for many bands and those bands are also becoming very successful and last year in the US Rock was the most popular music in the charts with over 30% (more than any other genre got) so I think Rock's comeback is happening but you just don't realise it yet

JoanCA profile image

JoanCA 2 years ago Author


I'm hearing more rock on HAC stations here, which play a mix of pop and adult contemporary. The top 40 stations are playing more pop rock and electro-rock. So, I think it could happen that we'll see more rock in a couple of years. Things seem to be moving that way.

Jacob 2 years ago

Demographics is a huge problem for modern rock. It's too dependent on males in their 20's and under. Everyone buys pop music. Blacks, whites, Asians, hispanics, men, women, teens to people in their 40's and 50's, straight and gay. Rock has to find a way to appeal to a wider demographic to become relevant again. I think the success of Imagine Dragons is a good start. Maybe as people become more used to hearing rock, they'll embrace it more.

Nyx 19 months ago

HA im a girl & feminist & only listen to rock music, dunno why I'm being blamed for the death of rock LOL! Author doesn't sound like they really know what they're talking about. Rock n roll is still alive often there are 2-4 punk/prog/psych rock shows a week were I live and the crowd's and pits are only getting bigger. You have all genders attending the jams, the whole bro thing is dead. If you're talking about mainstream rock, yeah it is in decline - which is a good thing. a lot of the really good artists these days don't get featured in the media so their shows are cheap and uncorporate. You want to hear music comparable to the old days? You gotta turn the tv off and see it live.

JoanCA profile image

JoanCA 19 months ago Author


If you had comprehended the article correctly you would know I was referring to rock declining in the mainstream. And I never said women don't listen to rock. I listen to it. But it is far less popular with women.

There are actually some statistics to back up the claim that rock has far fewer female than male fans. A study on gender differences in streaming found rock is far more popular with men and pop with women.

And it's wrong to conclude women are to be blamed for the decline of rock. Sexism and a disinterest in encouraging diversity in rock music is a major problem. To quote Jack White "It's a real shame that if a woman goes onstage with an instrument, it's almost a novelty."

Ell 19 months ago

The presence of women at rock concerts doesn't tell us much about popularity. A certain portion of those women will be there accompanying husbands and boyfriends. What counts is sales and streaming and women aren't doing enough to get rock bands into the top 40.

Country Girl 18 months ago

The same thing is happening in country music. There were never many minority singers but lots of women. In the past few years bro-country has largely pushed women off country radio and labels aren't providing much support to women. Female artists are becoming frustrated and it won't be to shocking if many would be women country singers switch to other genres. Bro-country is more popular with men so country may start to lose women as both listeners and artists if the labels and country stations don't make an effort to encourage diversity.

JoanCA profile image

JoanCA 18 months ago Author

Country Girl,

Record labels and country radio embraced bro-country because it attracted a large (mostly young male) audience that hadn't listened to country music before. They think they're expanding the number of country music buyers. The problem is they may drive away a lot of female artists and listeners in the process and end up making less money in the long run if they don't put out music women want to hear and buy. It makes sense to cater to everyone, something country largely stopped doing with the rise of bro-country and something rock isn't doing either.

Kv 15 months ago

Im a white girl who is a teenager and ai listen mostly to 80s rock. I wouldn't say that rock is dead, but I would say thet it isn't popular to most younger people. But a lot of people do listen to rock still. And a lot of the old rock bands like ac/dc bon jovi still tour and still have sold out concerts. I think rock will eventually make its way back to being what everyone listens to.

JoanCA profile image

JoanCA 15 months ago Author


I think a lot of 80's rock was far more pop radio friendly than the alt. rock that's common today. I could really see it making a comeback. If something like Van Halen's Jump was released now I think it would be a huge hit.

Doogie 15 months ago

I actually don't think rock is really in decline. There are still plenty of good commercial alternative rock and mainstream rock stations out there with plenty of newer bands. I have also met plenty of high school and college-aged kids who listen to rock, both new rock and classic rock. Classic rock stations are still thriving. When people say "rock is dead," they're just referring to its lack of presence on today's pop radio stations or major music award shows.

JoanCA profile image

JoanCA 14 months ago Author


I agree that rock is far from dead. I think it's become so much easier to discover new music that being outside the mainstream isn't such a bad thing anymore. Many rock and R&B acts are having successful careers without having top 40 hits. It will be interesting though to see if rock bands can come back into the top 40 at some point. Popular music is always evolving and trends come and go so it's possible.

Dave 13 months ago

I can't wait for the day when an excellent band comes around and brings everyone together with Beatle-esque songs and hopefully, Beatle-esque popularity

AlexDrinkH2O profile image

AlexDrinkH2O 7 months ago from Southern New England, USA

Okay but you start in the 1960s and ignore the real "birth" of rock n' roll, the 1950s (you mentioned Elvis and Little Richard and that's about it).How about Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, Dion, the 4 Seasons, and all the "doo-wop" groups? Most of the crap that passes for "rock" today couldn't hold a candle to any one of them.

JoanCA profile image

JoanCA 7 months ago Author


I wasn't really focused on the history of rock here. But yes the heyday of rock was the 50's and 60's, perhaps into the mid 70's.

mumys123 7 months ago

I think this article is great.

MagicKat 7 weeks ago

Thanks for the great article! I am a fan of rock n roll from all different eras. The only thing I would disagree with is the so-called feminist perspective. I don't really believe the "cock rock" myth about rock music. Women artists who play rock are not trying to be boys but are being strong women. Despite Janis trying to be one of the boys, I think rock is a self-assured / confident expression from a youth perspective and women rockers do not pretend to be something they are not. For example, Suzie Quarto said that it never came to her mind that she could not play the music because she was a girl. She just wanted to do it. Rock is not for wimpy people.

JoanCA profile image

JoanCA 5 weeks ago Author

Thanks MagicKat. A lot of women do say they've encountered significant amounts of sexism and harassment in the rock music scene, which may explain why some women may have felt they needed to be more masculine to fit in. But I agree that's not necessarily every woman's experience. However perceptions count for a lot. If women believe the rock music scene will be hostile to them, they may be wary of entering it to begin with. Fewer female artists may then mean fewer female fans.

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