Shameless Nostalgia: When Rock Was Dead
Rock is deader than dead
Shock is all in your head
Your sex and your dope is all that we’re fed
So fuck all your protests and put them to bed
-Marilyn Manson, “Rock is Dead”, 1999
For one, brief, glorious moment in Western pop culture, something exciting was happening in the music world that had nothing to do with guitars. It was a product of a very particular set of cultural conditions we’ll likely never see again. It proved to be a dream rather than a persistent reality, but what a dream it was. Ironic as it may seem that the Marilyn Manson song quoted above is, itself, a rock song and something of a hit in its time, I think it’s actually rather appropriate. MM itself was becoming more than a little played out by the time Mechanical Animals hit the shelves and, no, its eternally vamping frontman wasn’t at all shocking anymore, at least not compared to the nightmare figure he cast in the days of Smells Like Children. In 1999, rock still sold records but it wasn’t, dare I say, relevant.
The late ’90s were years that saw two broad categories of music come to the forefront. After more than a decade in a sludgy, angsty ghetto, bubblegum pop came back with a vengeance. It was a veritable hydra of intentionally brainless confection hailing from seemingly diverse sources like the boy band craze, the tidal wave of over-produced diva pop, the summery alterna-snooze of Smashmouth and Sugar Ray, even a little dash of Latin pop for spice.
On the late-night side of the non-rock explosion, electronic music emerged to be something very similar to mainstream. Fatboy Slim, Moby and their ilk served up gateway discs to the deeper sounds of Orbital and Underworld, which themselves stoked an addiction that led to sub-household names like Sasha and DJ Shadow. MTV, still clinging to the spurting vein of trendsetting, even devoted an uncharacteristically dense music video show, Amp, to the surfacing rave scene.
All the while, the most rock could muster in those lean days was some Lenny Kravitz and the beginning of the dour Red Hot Chili Peppers late period.
To come of age in a time when few young people actually cared about rock was thrilling. It was a natural outgrowth of that glowing, naive optimism inherent to the 1990s and it was utterly liberating. At the time, my older brother was a DJ and a consummate rave kid. I spent many an afternoon listening to him spin obscure records designed to be sampled, joined him on expeditions to independent record stores with lush electronic sections and even managed to go to one, genuine, no-permit warehouse rave with him before the whole thing fizzled out.
With so little rock in the air in the late ’90s, listening to trance, house, drum & bass and other, increasingly fussy subgenres of electronic music didn’t feel like the weird, outre thing to do. With the only rock to counterbalance the latest Thievery Corporation track being the likes of Korn, the music my friends and I preferred seemed to be ascendant. Part and parcel to the late ’90s electronic music experience was an unabashed sense of futurism. It was the music of the Internet, of designer drugs and a kind of apolitical take on hippie peace and love with a decidedly global twist. We listened to music from Goa, for God’s sake. Gone was rock’s anger, its misogyny, its posturing.
At least for a while.
I’ll certainly be talking about electronic music and rave culture again as I develop this column. It seeped into a lot of media from the 1990s and even though it didn’t take over the world like it felt it might in its best days, the blip-and-glitch aesthetic never really left us.