How rap and its new wave of artists became dominant in popular culture
In 1972, Roger Daltrey of the The Who belted the infamous lyrics, “rock is dead.” While the lyrics were powerful, rock was far from dead at the time. The 70s can even be considered the genre’s prime period. I mean, with bands like The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Rush, how can it not be?
In the 80s, rock grew and branched off into heavier sub-genres like heavy metal and death metal. This gave rise to bands like Metallica and Iron Maiden, who eventually found ways to break through to the mainstream and get substantial radio play. This heaviness eventually led to grunge, which was ushered in Seattle during the 90s.
It was here where rock finally became part of the mainstream pop culture landscape. While Kurt Cobain was notorious for hating mainstream culture, his sound resonated with young people, the very ones pushing pop culture forward. From there, Weird Al parodies and gags from The Simpsons cemented rock’s place as a dominant part of pop culture.
It’s interesting to speculate why this was the case. Why did rock become popular culture, and why has rap taken its place? Well, the answer is simple: young people. Wherever young people go, pop culture follows, and that is why rock is dead.
For example, when Nirvana got big in the 90s, it was the young people who were listening. Even now, when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” comes on in the car, my parents get annoyed by the sheer aggression and raspiness of Cobain’s voice. However, his lyrics resonated with young people. Cobain’s music spoke to a generation that was pissed off and needed a voice. With so many people connecting with the band’s art, it was just a matter of time before entertainers and shows that fed off pop culture, such as MTV, took notice and tried to appeal to a new demographic.
Eventually, grunge became post-grunge and bands like Creed and Nickelback were born. These bands are still ridiculed today for ushering in an era where rock was no longer seen as an anti-establishment genre. Instead, rock became a milked-to-death parody of itself that lacked artistic integrity and edge. Sure, punk artists and heavy metal acts still emerged to fill the gap, but the youth-driven mainstream moved on to something else – rap.
The early 2000s saw a hoard of new artists emerge in rap, such as 50 Cent, Ludacris and Lil Wayne. Gone were the days of politically charged rap, replaced by a more hedonistic approach. Rapping about women, cars, drugs and jewelry became the norm. By basing their lyrical content around these materialistic goods, rappers tapped into the male psyche and became better rockstars than actual rockstars.
Since then, rap has become less lyrical and has drifted towards a more “do it yourself” sound that resembles the punk and grunge bands seen in rock. This time, more drugs, more violence and more sex are pushing the genre forward, with those listening to it discovering a lifestyle they have never experienced.
Just to show how much rap has taken over, hip hop overtook rock as the highest selling genre in the United States this year, according to Pigeons and Planes. What was thought of as a niche genre is now a cultural tastemaker. It just goes to show how rock’s momentum has died off and how rap’s has taken off.
On the weekly late-night talk show Real Time with Bill Maher, former NWA rapper Ice Cube was asked about new acts like Playboi Carti, who barely pays attention to lyrics and instead focuses on hooks and beats. “Mainstream rap became escapism rap,” Ice Cube said. “The kids see that they want to emulate that, so that’s what we’ve been feeding off of for the last 20 years.” This is where Ice Cube hits the nail on the head. Escapism.
Rock is no longer an escape from daily life. Gone are the days of Motley Crue singing “Girls Girls Girls.” Now, we can listen to artists like Migos brag about how many women they’ve slept with to get that same escape young people were getting in the 80s. No one wants to be a rocker anymore—they want to be rappers. Somewhere along the way, rap harnessed a side of rock that was abandoned by the rock acts of the early 2000s—edge.
Anthony Fantano of TheNeedleDrop, a YouTube music critic with over one million subscribers, made the case in a video called “Lil Yachty: Rap’s Punk Phase” that rap is in the same place rock was when rock was at its peak. Rap is in, and even pop stars are jumping on that train. Just look at “Bon Appétit” by Katy Perry. The song features all three Migos members, and while it’s a song by a pop star, the song itself has blatant appeals to trap music by way of the beat, lyrics, tempo and hook.
Rock is dead because pop culture has simply forgotten about it. Sure, the genre will never be fully dead. There are plenty of rock artists to enjoy. However, in terms of mainstream attention, rock has simply been replaced. Instrumental music has been traded in for electronic means, such as 808 drum kicks and midi keyboards.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still interesting rock bands to be heard: Arctic Monkeys, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Tame Impala. These are all great options if you’re looking for a rock sound. But when it comes to the mainstream consciousness, rap has become the norm. With artists like Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Migos and Big Sean dominating the charts, that isn’t going to change soon.
Graphic by Zeze Le Lin