The evolution of rock music (from the perspective of a (90s kid)

By: Tyler Kirk

Photo by Lyric Otto.
Photo by Lyric Otto.

Those of us that grew up through the 1990s and 2000s have been a part of a very unique generation. The last two decades have been full of cultural shifts in all forms, and I’ve always felt that one of the most comprehensive and telling signs of an era can be seen in the music of the time.

That isn’t to say that massive changes in modern culture are exclusive to this generation, because everything that is happening in the world now is an addition or expansion of something accomplished by previous generations.

The products of a culture can obviously be seen from a practically unlimited number of perspectives, but most specific to my life is the scope of music and the unique changes that we’ve experienced over these two decades.

I want to focus on the transformation that has occurred in rock music from the mid 90s to now from the viewpoint of someone that has been an avid fan of rock music for as long as I can remember.

I was born in 1991 and those born in that window have seen everything from the grunge era and “indie rock” becoming its own genre to bands with folk and bluegrass instrumentation dominating the radio airwaves and disco making one hell of a comeback.

A lot of these experiences in music probably vary from place to place depending on where a person grows up.

I imagine that people raised in the Northwest have had exposure to a few different things on a more regional cultural scale, like an affinity for Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam.

These bands are well-loved in many areas of the world, but I do think that the Pacific Northwest prides itself on these types of artists, making them a little more prominent. For example, my mom brings up her memories of me learning the words to Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” and singing along in the car as a three year-old in 1994, when the song was still in the top 40.

I also remember hearing Radiohead’s “Creep” on almost all popular radio stations (yes, the one from that album that no Radiohead fan nowadays wants to acknowledge the existence of), along with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song that we’ve all probably heard as many times as Kurt Cobain by now.

A huge part of rock music throughout the 2000s has included the revival and observable influence of classic rock genres, such as psychedelic acts of the 1960s and 70s including Pink Floyd, King Crimson, The Moody Blues and The Doors. We now have bands like The Flaming Lips, who tie together 90s noise rock, alternative rock (in its truest sense, looking at the first half of their career) and synth-driven electro-pop while reimagining “The Dark Side of the Moon” track-for-track.

We’ve got rising bands like The Black Angels, who bring the classic mind-bending, dark and progressive jam sounds of The Doors and The Velvet Underground to life almost 50 years after their time.

Nestled in between, we have Australian band Tame Impala holding on to their Pink Floyd roots while adding the droning Lennon-style vocals and instrumental atmospheric chaos of “Sgt. Pepper” and “Magical Mystery Tour.”

“Indie” has been such a hot-button word over the last decade that it has in many ways become a blanket term, the way “alternative” has been used to describe an artist’s sound if it lies outside the spectrum of traditional pop/rock.

Indie music has transformed from an artistic movement to a specific sound, the style of which is often characterized by the bands that pioneered its sound. This includes artists like Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, The Shins, and Pedro the Lion, among many others. These bands have held a very special place in the world of music because indie, as a genre, has evolved in conjunction with these bands’ careers. We’ve been around since the days of Death Cab’s “Transatlanticism” and The Shins’ “Oh, Inverted World” and now live in a time and place where you can be shunned for suggesting that your favorite Modest Mouse album is anything more recent than “The Lonesome Crowded West.” This might be extremely irritating when it happens, but it shows that an initially little-known Issaquah band like Modest Mouse has become such a pivotal piece of rock culture that they can spark such intense debates.

Living in the “age of technology,” music is available in so many different and convenient formats that it is more accessible than ever. Even down to the debate on music piracy, which undoubtedly takes money from the hands of artists (even if it’s mostly taking money out of the hands of major labels). We have artists like Radiohead front man Thom Yorke defending something as drastic as stealing, citing that it’s the only way for people to find good music anymore based on the terrible state of the industry.

There has also been yet another surge in the popularity of old bands, marked by many events over the past decades. We’ve seen The Beatles join our iTunes libraries and release their own version of the game Rock Band, which was heavily influenced and controlled by Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, and Dhani Harrison, opening an entire new demographic to their discography. David Bowie continues his cult fame with kids who are the same age now as the bulk of his fans were during the Ziggy Stardust era, while still putting out quality albums. It’s also worth mentioning that Nick Drake album sales skyrocketed after his song “Pink Moon” was used in a Volkswagen commercial in 1999, which is significant for an artist that never sold more than a few thousand copies of each of his three albums upon their initial release. To paraphrase, from world-renowned bands like The Beatles to complete unknowns (in his time) like Nick Drake, these artists have continuing legacies that can be seen in the way our music sounds now, and the way our culture has preserved them. They still have a place and will for the foreseeable future because we live in a culture that constantly reinvents itself, while continuing to add on to its cumulative evolution.

As I said in the beginning, there is really no point or goal to writing all of these things; I just want to point out the things I’ve seen, the changes in the music scene throughout our lives thus far, and the patterns that appear from such an important cultural perspective.

We now live in an era of music where you can hear alt-bluegrass bands like Punch Brothers cover The Strokes’ “Reptilia”, alongside some of the more twisted and cerebral Radiohead songs to date. It’s an era where Radiohead, with all of its success, can climb the ladder of major record labels only to self-release a Grammy-winning record like In Rainbows, with no set price, allowing fans to pay what they want. It’s also an era where, in a generalized sense, bands that might have never “made it” in any other period have the chance to skip the traditional music career format (getting a record deal, making an album, getting it on the radio and touring) and gain independent notoriety through channels like YouTube, Myspace, and Soundcloud.

We are a part of a very unique generation and I’m overjoyed (and only a little scared) to see where music goes from here.


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