Is rock dead, alive, or what?
A brief glance at the concert listings for the rest of July would indicate that rock — the sprawling genre rooted in bravado-filled riffage and booming drums — is in fairly good commercial health. Foo Fighters, Dave Grohl’s post-Nirvana anthem-crafters, are headlining Fenway Park on Saturday and Sunday; beginning on Wednesday, TD Garden hosts a weeklong run of rock artists that includes emo-poppers Panic! At the Disco, moody Brits Arctic Monkeys, brooding experimentalists Radiohead, and alt-bombast heroes Smashing Pumpkins; the riff-heavy triple bill of the Cult, Bush, and Stone Temple Pilots rolls into Blue Hills Bank Pavilion; and the Vans Warped Tour, the traveling carnival that has punk buried in its roots, comes to Mansfield for its final run.
But the wider picture tells a different story. The Billboard 200, the all-encompassing tally of album consumption, has only two albums that could be shelved under rock — “Pray for the Wicked,” the decidedly pop-minded recent effort from Brendon Urie’s Panic! At the Disco, and “Evolve,” the 2017 collection from highlight-reel-ready stompers Imagine Dragons — in its top 20. (There are also a slew of greatest-hits compilations by WZLX standard-bearers like Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and AC/DC in the chart’s lower half.) Rock is currently absent from the Hot 100 singles chart and has barely made a dent for years. Boston has a couple of commercial stations that play new rock, although the differences between Alt 92.9, which features newer acts like the bummed-out electro-blues troubadour Two Feet and the kitchen-sink duo Twenty One Pilots, and WAAF, which focuses more on post-grunge survivors like the growly Stone Sour, are smoothed out by their shared reliance on older tracks by Stone Temple Pilots, Eve 6, and other ’90s radio stars.
Rock’s trajectory over the last 20 years has seen fragmentation on the new-music side and further entrenchment of the old guard. (Radio’s top dog in rock around here, ratings-wise, is WZLX, the classic rock station that has gradually added ’90s survivors to its playlist.) The schism has been evident since the 1980s, when the genre commercially split into the big-chorus, big-name “album rock” that became the format where still-standing stalwarts like Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers could get their new music (and where hard rock acts like Guns N’ Roses and Mötley Crüe were shunted because of their big aspirations), and “college rock.” That eventually mutated, after Nirvana’s surge resulted in major labels shelling out big bucks for college-rock heroes like Soul Asylum and Liz Phair, into “alternative,” the almost-anything-goes strand of rock that allowed Tori Amos’s piano-driven poetry, Green Day’s bass-driven West Coast pop-punk, and Alanis Morissette’s fiery confessionals under its collective umbrella.
But in 1996, things split again, sort of. That year, Lollapalooza — the traveling carnival founded by Perry Farrell of the edge-dwelling Angelenos Jane’s Addiction — took a hard left turn into the mainstream, or something like it, inviting Metallica to headline and for the first time having a mainstage lineup that was lacking in women. (New York post-punkers Sonic Youth, with “Kool Thing” vocalist Kim Gordon on bass, had headlined the year prior, which also featured Courtney Love’s thrashing project Hole, Irish belter Sinéad O’Connor, and jagged Brits Elastica on its mainstage roster.) The embrace of women in the realm of “alternative” wasn’t an entirely new idea for rock, which had welcomed artists like Heart and Stevie Nicks in the past; but the conservative attitudes that dominated in the pre-digital-age major-label culture rose up, with the heavily male vision of “alternative” having its simultaneous nadir and apex at the fiery, muddy Woodstock ’99 festival; at one point Limp Bizkit yeller Fred Durst berated Morissette and the crowd for “mellow[ing] out” during her earlier set, which was remedied when audience members took the instructions of his band’s hit “Break Stuff” a little too literally.
Mainstream rock in the 2000s became similarly split as the decade went on. “TRL,” MTV’s midday music showcase, feted acts like Panic! and its mentors Fall Out Boy, who were cited as much for the “guyliner” worn by bassist Pete Wentz as for their neurotic, precision-grade songs. On the radio, meanwhile, “mainstream” rock stations wallowed in post-grunge and even some alt-rock holdovers, with critical dogs like Nickelback and Jet dominating airplay in between new singles by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Green Day. In the late 2000s, the rise of music blogs and the higher profile of the music site Pitchfork further split the audience; the music industry, newly spooked by the digital age, became enamored by their ability to break newer bands that seemed uninterested in the pop aspirations of emo acts and the brodowns of mainstream rock groups. Radiohead, buoyed by their long-simmering critical-darling status and the experimental pricing with which they introduced their 2007 album “In Rainbows,” were (and still are) the standard-bearers for this particular strand of rock listener both in sales and prestige, while acts like prep-poppers Vampire Weekend and the grandiose collective Arcade Fire enjoyed simultaneous commercial success and critical adoration as well.
In the past few years, the waters have become simultaneously chaotic and placid. The pantheon of heritage artists — bands and solo performers whose work has stood the test of time — has become a bit more set in stone by increasingly sclerotic radio playlists and risk-averse festival programmers. Even those stations that promise “new music” lean heavily on the familiar; older platforms to debut new music on a big scale have been crowded out or have shut down entirely, while the charts for streaming music platforms like Apple Music and Spotify have rock songs sporadically, if at all. (At press time, Apple Music’s top 20 playlists did not contain any rock-oriented playlists; “The A-List: Country,” which contains chorus-heavy anthems about drinking and ladies that recall the Sunset Strip era’s shiniest songs, was at No. 4.)
There are still exciting up-and-coming acts working in the guitar-bass-drums-vox-attitude ideal — including a few coming to town this month, like the metallurgists Deafheaven (at Royale Wednesday) and Sleep (at Royale on July 28). Perhaps that’s a sign: Rock’s new place on the edge of the pop world, instead of at its center, can give the genre new life, if only by letting weirder acts in and allowing for the industry politics that blew it up in the ’90s to pass it by.
At Fenway Park, July 21-22 at 5:30 p.m. Tickets: $39 and up, 617-733-7699, www.redsox.com
Panic! At the Disco
At TD Garden, July 25 at 7 p.m. Tickets: $29.75 and up, 617-624-1050, www.tdgarden.com
Vans Warped Tour
At Xfinity Center, Mansfield, July 27 at 11 a.m. Tickets: $45, 800-745-3000, www.livenation.com
At TD Garden, July 27 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $29.50 and up, 617-624-1050, www.tdgarden.com
At TD Garden, July 28-29 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $49.50 and up, 617-624-1050, www.tdgarden.com
Revolution 3: Bush, The Cult, Stone Temple Pilots
At Blue Hills Bank Pavilion. July 30 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets: $29.50 and up, 617-728-1600, www.livenation.com
At TD Garden, July 31 at 7 p.m. Tickets: $33.50 and up, 617-624-1050, www.tdgarden.com