Look at the five 54th Grammy Awards nominees for both rock performance and rock song and it’s easy to envision an afternoon stroll through some enchanted forest: “Walk” by the Foo Fighters is competing against “Down by the Water” by the Decemberists, Radiohead’s “Lotus Flower,” “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” by Coldplay, and Mumford & Sons’ “The Cave.” How calming.
Since when did rock dudes making music in a genre once known as “the sound of the city” enjoy hiking in the woods so much?
You can almost feel the dewy bliss of nature dripping into your ears — and in the perfect world, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” arguably the most durable rock ’n’ roll song of the year, would be the avalanche that crushed the entire scene. But genre distinctions are the Achilles’ heel of the entire Grammy game, and if we start questioning which song fits in what category and who decides what gets nominated where (the record labels), the whole house of cards collapses.
But what the hell, somebody’s gotta do it, and, as if on cue, here come the Grammy-nominated hard rockers, approaching in the distance with their anger and looking like cartoon thugs: Mastodon, Foo Fighters (nominated, curiously, in both categories), Sum 41, Dream Theater and Megadeth carry their songs of aggression “Curl of the Burl,” “White Limo,” “Blood in My Eyes,” “On the Backs of Angels” and “Public Enemy No. 1,” respectively. Scary.
Is the distinction that exists between so-called rock music and hard rock music the subject matter, the type of guitar distortion boxes used, and the quality of falsetto? Probably. It’s a battle between cavemen and nature boys, at least a little testosterone required. Where do the lines blur, and why? Is it a subtle class distinction — the blue-collar hard rockers versus the more “erudite” rock artists?
No wonder the commercial wing of the rock establishment has been relegated to afterthought status: This year it’s a men-only club in a battle among the same dozen groups mixed and matched into the categories in a way that should jade even the most enthusiastic rocker. There’s the aforementioned fact that the Foo Fighters are able to leap from rock to hard rock as if on whim; that Coldplay is nominated for rock song for “Teardrop” but for pop song for “Paradise,” the latter of which is no more or less “rock” than the former.
Radiohead’s “The King of Limbs” is nominated in the alternative rock album category, but a song from it, “Lotus Flower,” is in the running for the two major rock song awards. It’s likely that had “Rolling in the Deep” been sung by Coldplay’s Chris Martin instead of Adele, it would have landed in a rock category; had it been sung by Rihanna, it would have been in the running in the R&B categories.
And if rock remains relevant, it’s despite the Grammys. Last year, it should be noted, women such as PJ Harvey, Feist and Lykke Li made way more inventive and acclaimed rock records, but among the five relevant categories there are zero female nominees. Even the alternative music album category, the place where the Grammys normally lets their freak flag fly, ignored acclaimed work by Kate Bush, Wild Flag, Tuneyards and St. Vincent, among dozens of others.
That doesn’t mean that rock has died, of course. Hey hey, my my, and all that. But it’s surviving right now as an accent in other, more expansive genres, an ingredient in a more dynamic conversation occurring within a similar kind of culture clash that created rock ’n’ roll in the first place. Where rock ’n’ roll was born in the late 1940s and early 1950s from the collision/combination of country & western, electric blues, R&B and jump music, the current intermingling among hip-hop, global electronic dance music, rock and R&B is colliding to create some not yet fully formed genre of its own.
Rock’s becoming junked for its parts, dismantled as its most beguiling characteristics — that four-on-the-floor bass-snare swing, its energy and its rebellion — are finding better use elsewhere on the charts.