What’s Really Fueling the Rock and Roll Versus Pop, Rap and Hip Hop Debate?

When Imagine Dragons got the news that they were nominated for two 2018 Grammy Awards, in pop music categories, they were understandably surprised. In exclusive Billboard interviews, the quartet also described their “gratitude for being included in “the company of great artists”. They also reflected on how it feels to have the chance to do “what they love to do each day”. Whether their music has evolved away from rock & roll or just took on elements of pop music is up for debate. Knowing that they were awarded a 2014 golden gramophone for best rock performance of their breakthrough hit “Radioactive” is a first debate thread. Knowing that the hit received a record of the year nomination is a second debate thread. Is it possible that Imagine Dragons have slipped away from the guitar nation? What’s up with the Grammy Awards, we ask?

With the 60th Grammy Awards all set to air live from Madison Square Gardens on January 28, plenty of inquisitive rock & roll minds are asking questions about the place of rock music in our current generation. Imagine Dragons is just one up-front case in point. When questioned if they were aware that their sound had “leaned toward” a pop flavor, drummer Daniel Platzman responded that the band is “no longer surprised with genre”. When questioned if their studio sessions were different for the current Grammy nominated songs, Platzman acknowledged that the band had different producers in the studio, and that they were simply having fun. There hadn’t been any “conscious effort” to adjust genres.
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What is certain is that Imagine Dragons had solid success in 2017. They’ve been the most successful rock band last year. They are known for their social consciousness, for their streaming dominance, and for their genre-inclusive sounds. They’re not given over to narcissism, yet they’ve continue to fill auditoriums while touring and reach the top of the charts consistently. In the eyes of many critics, they’ve emerged from the traditional rock & roll guitar, bass and drums configuration to embrace other production possibilities inspired by other currently popular genres. The band is also streaming their music at the highest level of output.

To put the events surrounding Imagine Dragons into perspective in regards to the world of music, it’s obvious that they are following one of the first rules of performance: Know your audience. Today’s generation of music listeners are making use of technologies which were not available when classic rock ruled the world. While it’s true that rock & roll has always been about attitudes that shaped culture, the essentials of music delivery systems have changed radically. Today’s music fan has the world of music instantly available through streaming. For many, the experience of concert going is not as important. Being able to “have what you want” is much easier these days. Having “what you need” is not always the prevalent thought. The decline of concert attendance in the classical world seems to be paralleled in the rock & roll world. There’s no need to attend a concert in person when concerts are regularly delivered at home over many streaming devices. Society has embraced technology. It’s up to people to decide whether or not they choose to enrich their lives with real live concert experiences or not. Perhaps it’s unfortunate that so many are turning away from amazing live experiences. Humans need to be with others, in the flesh, in order to really live. But, that’s a uniquely different discussion.

Since the recent events of Imagine Dragon have fueled all manner of discussion about the band’s place in rock & roll and culture, they are a convenient focal point for the larger debate emerging over rock & roll versus other genres. Has classic rock & roll truly seen its time come and gone? Perhaps. Are new rock & roll bands less wonderful than their ancestors? Not at all. Plenty of rockers still attend concerts, still buy record albums and cherish cultural change. But, as a society, we are driven by technologies, and these are changing not only the way we interact, but the way we view the arts. In large part, music instructors argue that the decline in music education has resulted in a culture which is text and rhythm dominated. Hip hop and rap exhibit these musical traits, and they are hugely popular. As a culture, we are also turning more and more to technology to produce music. Music technologists often shape music; raw performances are less likely to shape experiences. What might be missing in the larger debate is the reality that rock & roll bands have been comprised of unlikely blends of highly talented and intelligent individuals which merged the brightest and best of both traditionally-trained and untrained musicians, who perform live for their audiences. Of course, this can be said of all genres. As a culture, we must consider what we value and how to sustain it. Imagine Dragon is simply demonstrating that live performances are still valued, and that streaming has emerged as a current preference. The band’s successful genre crossovers is artistry representing culture.


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