Marc Weingarten is a former contributing writer for Vibe, Rolling Stone and Spin, and the author of “Thirsty: William Mulholland, California Water and the Real Chinatown.”
No one who has heard Kendrick Lamar’s stunning album “Damn” could be at all surprised that it is the first nonclassical or jazz recording to win a Pulitzer Prize. More than that, it is further proof — if any is still needed— that American culture has at last fully moved beyond the hegemony of rock-and-roll and the electric guitar-driven sound that dominated 60 years of popular music.
The Pulitzer for Lamar might confuse or anger those reared on the great canon of rock, but perhaps we will no longer have to endure the cloudy reveries of middle-aged men bemoaning the fact that fewer people seem to appreciate the brilliance of a 20-minute Clapton or Hendrix solo anymore. Didn’t millions of us, after all, live out our arena-rock fantasies with the Guitar Hero video game just a few years ago?
Mercifully, rock has been displaced by hip-hop, with its daring formal innovations, its blistering polemics and its vital role as a sounding board for powerful social movements. A genre aggressively committed to singles, as opposed to the creaky album-and-tour model that rock stubbornly insists upon even at the indie level, hip-hop provides a running commentary on the culture as it happens — a musical newsfeed in real time.
There’s a practical reason for this: While other musicians were whining about their paltry Spotify royalty checks and trying to monetize their fading careers, hip-hop artists gamed the Web in the 2010s and made it their bullhorn and promotional tool. For them, the Internet isn’t a distribution system, or worse, an evil force siphoning money from musicians; it’s their primary medium for artistic expression.
Hip-hop has cornered the market on innovation. No present-day rock musician can compete with Lamar’s astonishing verbal dexterity or his ability to articulate the inchoate rage of his listeners in tracks that take in the full sweep of vernacular music. But superstars such as Lamar don’t really drive hip-hop culture anyway, not when obscure and iconic artists are posting mind-blowing tracks online at a rate that makes rock seem sclerotic by comparison. To take the measure of forward thinking in popular music, you have to pay attention to every culvert and tributary of hip-hop.
Hip-hop has also become the musical soundtrack of millennials’ lives. As rock’s promethean figures inch closer to their 80s, and veteran musician-activists such as U2’s Bono continue to lose traction with anyone under 40, rock seems unmoored from its commitment to social engagement, especially among the young; It’s ceded its role as a channel through which listeners work things out with themselves and the world around them. Electric guitar sales are down 30 percent over the past decade. Kids aren’t starting garage bands the way they used to for the simple reason that there’s nothing vibrant to tap into. Listeners are demanding more from their music than rock is willing to provide.
Of course, rock-and-roll isn’t “over-over”: There is a wealth of good stuff if you search hard enough. Rock is just functioning at a lower gear than hip-hop, and it’s forfeiting its chance to contemporaneously weigh in on this strange era. Years from now, it will be difficult to pinpoint any single guitar-driven song that speaks to the ugliness that has infected much of modern life in the age of Trump, yet a here-today-gone-tomorrow dispatch by a little-known artist such as Saba will home in on the disenfranchisement of black men with blunt intensity: “They want a barcode on my wrist / To auction off the kids that don’t fit their description of a utopia/ Like a problem won’t exist if I just don’t exist.”
The irony, of course, is that rock was once the most powerful delivery system for social commentary and protest that American culture had ever produced — it’s the music that invented the teenager, lit a fuse under antiwar and and human rights movements, gave us a rich tradition of anti-what-have-you insurrection. For every Pete Townshend windmill slammed across the strings of his Les Paul, there was also the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley,” sharp stabs at a crumbling social order — at least until they were rubbed smooth and became stadium anthems leached of their original intent.
At its best, rock opens an aperture into new ways of thinking about the personal and the political; but in its present state, it’s a black mirror, reflecting nothing. Until rock musicians can figure out new ways to tap into the way we live now, and dissect the psyche of a fractious, angry and fearful country, hip-hop will remain the only genre that matters.