Here’s a proposition: the current retro/garage rock craze (Strokes, Vines, Jet, White Stripes, etc.) represents to rock what the neo-traditionalist jazz movement, as exemplified by Wynton and the like, represented to jazz about twenty years earlier.
Think about it this way: the early-80s neo-trad jazz scene was immediately predated by fusion, which was arguably the most radical departure for jazz up to that point. Fusion took the popular rhythms and instrumentation of the era (rock music and electric instruments) and injected it with a melodic and harmonic sophistication unheard of in rock. It was wildly popular for several years (groups like the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever were playing sports arenas in their heyday!), but also drew the ire of traditionalists and purists, many of whom felt it was a bastard spawn of two incompatible musical worlds.
When the next wave of jazz came about after fusion, it was dominated by players who were looking back some 20 or so years for their principal reference points; in the case of people like Wynton, they were principally concerned with tapping into influences that had largely happened before they’d even been born.
Now compare that to rock music over the last decade. Prior to the “new rock revolution” of retro-garage rawness, the dominant movement in mainstream rock was rap-metal. Much like fusion before it, nu-metal took the popular rhythms and textures of its own era (hip-hop, samples and turntables) and merged it with more “musicianly” elements. Bands in this genre had tremendous success in their heyday (Korn, Limp Bizkit, Disturbed, etc.) but are now largely looked at as a blemish on the history of rock music, just as fusion was viewed in relation to jazz.
In each case, you had an older, established genre of music merging with the newer, more youth-oriented one, producing a hybrid that took the older genre arguably as far away from its origins as it had ever gone. And following that, the older style of music entered an era of unprecedented neo-traditionalism, with the younger generations of musicians consciously looking back at the historical legacies of their own music, and deliberately writing/playing in an “authentic” manner.
I don’t write all of this to try and make a case for or against this sort of thing, but to draw attention to the parallel patterns of development that occur in different forms of music, at different times. The whole issue of working within a specific style, and defining one’s own creative gestures based upon conscious (or unconscious) adherence to pre-existing genre parameters, is one I think about a lot. So it’s intriguing to me to see the same sorts of patterns at work two decades apart, with completely different generations of musicians and listeners.
As far as what this signifies for rock music, I predict that you’re going to see an increase in a lot of what’s already happening. Younger musicians consciously defining themselves within the aesthetic parameters of well-established styles, and older bands moving more towards the model of touring as established live draws with long-running legacies to support them (as opposed to albums of new material which get ignored by both band and fans alike after the obligatory promotional tour for that album has ended).
In a lot of ways, I think it marks a shift in rock away from detatched post-modernism and ironic stylistic cutting and pasting (a la so much of what happened in the ’90s) and towards a trend of more emotionally direct and sincere statments – which are, themselves, consciously swathed in the frame work of historical precedent which is being embraced and practiced, rather than deconstructed and poked fun at.
If you’re thinking this is far too much thinking to be giving rock music, I’m starting to agree with you. Now where’s my Echoplex…?