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Published on March 2nd, 2017 | by Alan Cross

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Revisiting the Theory of the 13-Year Music Cycle of Rock vs. Pop

[This post first appeared on this site on March 25, 2012. Enough time has passed that it’s worth resurrecting with an update or two. – AC]

At first glance, trends and sounds in popular music seems come at us in random fractalized bursts. Viewed up close, that’s how it appears.  But if you stand back–far, far back–patterns begin to emerge, patterns which have held surprisingly together over the last seven decades.

Since rock was born in the 1950s, rock and pop have been locked in a battle. Each combatant is 180 degrees out of phase with the other.  When rock is strong and ascendant in the public’s consciousness, pop is on a decline.

Eventually, though, rock tops out and begins a decline as the public’s attention moves towards pop. Then once pop peaks and rock bottoms out, the cycle begins again.  This back-and-forth dance has played itself out every 12 or 13 years.

Let me tell you how it’s all gone down.

The First Cycle:  1951-1963

While it’s impossible to pin down the birth of rock’n’roll–it was born through a slow, organic coming together of a dozen sounds and influences–many scholars will point to March 3, 1951, with the release of a song called “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats.  This band didn’t really exist; Jackie was the sax player for Ike Turner in his Kings of Rhythm and was thrust into the spotlight for this one recording with Ike and the boys providing backup.  Never mind that, though; the sound, attitude and subject matter of “Rocket 88” made it a prime candidate for being the first true rock’n’roll record.

Even if you don’t subscribe to “Rocket 88” being the first rock record–and there are plenty of reasons not to–we can probably at least agree that something new was in the air by 1951, even if we weren’t calling it “rock’n’roll” yet.
Once loosed upon the earth, this new form of music gathered momentum with the mainstream, peaking with Elvis in 1956. But when he entered the army on March 2, 1958, rock went into a period of decline.
“See?  It was all just a fad!” the haters said.  “Time to get back to some good music!”
And lo, things were pretty dire for rock through the late 50s and the early 60s.  The charts were filled with light pop such as Percy Faith’s “Theme from ‘A Summer Place'” and those execrable Sing Along With Mitch albums

Yet there was still some rebellion in the air, except that it was rather quiet. The folk music boom of the late 50s and early 60s–a boom that would eventually result in Bob Dylan–tried to keep things interesting for people who weren’t interested in mainstream music.

 

Cycle 2:  1964-1975

The second cycle began with the appearance of the Beatles.  Even though they were originally rejected by Decca Records (“Forget them! Guitar bands are on their way out!  They have no future in show business!”) the Beatles eventually landed with EMI and–well, you know the rest.

They arrived just as the earliest of the Baby Boomers began entering their teens.  These kids were the first to have their portable turntables and transistor radios, devices that allowed them to take their music wherever they went, including away from the prying ears of parents. And psychologically, rock provided an escape for the funk that had fallen across the West following the JFK assassination in November 1963.

The Beatles had a fresh sound, were quick with a quip and were made up of four distinct characters with whom fans could identify. ( Interestingly, you can make the case that the Beatles were the first boy band. What’s the difference between the reaction of Bieberites and what we saw with Beatlemania?)

Cycle 2 really kicked into gear with that Beatles appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, about three weeks shy of the 13th anniversary of the release of “Rocket 88.”

To say that the Beatles rescued rock is an understatement.  The years that followed their landing on American shores was one of the most vibrant times in music, a veritable gusher of guitar-based creativity that lasted for the rest of the decads.  If you have to pick a moment when it peaked, I’d go with the Woodstock Festival in August 1969.  But then came Altamont later that year with its bad vibes, corruption, and death.  Almost overnight, the life drained away from the rock scene.

Creatively spent and disillusioned by the failure of the peace’n’love movement of the hippies affect changed–not to mention America’s ass-kicking in Vietnam, Watergate, the oil crisis, the Cold War and a brutal recession–the mainstream turned away from rock towards pop music.

The Baby Boomers who had driven rock through the 60s grew up and moved on.  Instead of driving rock further forward, they settled into a period of nostalgia for the good ol’ days of the 1950s and the early 60s.  This was manifested in the rise of bands like Sha Na Na, movies like American Graffiti and TV shows like Happy Days.  Even Elton John, a star in his prime, couldn’t help but get all misty-eyed for the old days.

Meanwhile, the aging hippy generation had a very hard time believing that the generation following them could be sucked in by simplistic pop made by the Bay City Rollers, Bobby Sherman and the Partridge Family.  Yes, the Stones and Zeppelin were at their peak, but they were the exception.  And we need to remember that critics absolutely loathed Zeppelin back then.

AM radio was at its absolute worst.  Can you believe a song like this could be a #1 hit?

 

Cycle 3:  1976-1989

The third cycle was a reaction to the mediocrities of the early 70s.  Fed up with both the awful state of AM radio and with the pomposity of the Stones and Zeppelin and the complexities of prog rockers like Genesis and ELP, a new generation embraced the back-to-basics and DIY aesthetics of punk.  Punk first rose from the streets of New York and then London before exploding in March 1977 when the Sex Pistols first tried to release “God Save the Queen.”

 

Remember the contract signing ceremony with Virgin Records outside Buckingham Palace?  The date was March 10, 1977.  That’s 13 years and one month since the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan and almost 26 years to the day that “Rocket 88” was released.

Punk, post-punk and New Wave brought new life to rock and helped many of us weather the disco storm. But by 1984, punk had burned out, New Wave had grown stale and rock in general seemed to have little to offer.  As the world’s attention turned to acts like Huey Lewis and the News and Whitney Houston, many rock fans turned back to the music of the 60s and 70s, creating an insatiable market for what would soon be called “classic rock.”

If you were around towards the end of the 80s, you’ll remember the megatours by Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones.  Meanwhile, arenas and stadia were home to package tours featuring acts like Van Halen and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Those acts making new music all looked like…well, women–or at least extremely feminized men with spandex and makeup:  Motley Crue, Poison, Whitesnake, Twisted Sister.  MTV has a huge ally; they looked very interesting on TV, something that drove bands to have even bigger hair and crazier outfits.  But after a few years, even MTV realized that they had overdone it with the hair metal bands.

 

And once they discovered the power ballad, it was all over for them. Nothing killed hair metal faster than second tier bands singing love songs.

By the end of the 80s, music was all poodle haircuts and New Kids on the Block.  The same “rock is dead” cries that were heard in 1958 and 1970 were trotted out again.

Cycle 4:  1990-2002

The first indication of rock’s next rebirth came on March 20, 1990, when there was a riot at a Depeche Mode autograph session in Los Angeles. No one expected that many people to show up to see a band that had been a solid cult act at best for most of their career.

That riot came 13 years and 10 days after the Sex Pistols infamous Buckingham Palace stunt, 26 years and one month after the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan and 39 years after “Rocket 88” came out.

The Depeche Mode Riot was the start of the era of the Alternative Nation of the 90s.  The next six years were once again incredibly fertile:  Manchester, grunge, industrial, Goth, Lollapalooza, Britpop, hip-hop. Rock’n’roll was resurrected, this time in the image of Generation X.

The peak came shortly before Kurt Cobain’s suicide in April 1994.  But then things quickly went off the rails.  Metallica hijacked Lollapalooza in 1996.  The Smashing Pumpkins melted down in a haze of drugs and and death.  Nu metal’s polarizing sound tore the scene in half.  And then came grunge derivatives like Creed to put the final nails in the coffin.

Meanwhile, a period of solid economic growth and the seeming end of the Cold War forever led to a rise in public optimism.  Meanwhile, Generation Y began to come of age musically and all they wanted to do was dance to the Spice Girls, ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys.  Rock limped through the rest of the 20th century.

Again, there were exceptions–the Red Hot Chili Peppers and U2 come to mind–but the era 1999-2002 was all about boy bands and pop tarts.

 

Cycle 5:  2002-16

Our 12/13-year pattern holds more-or-less true, although here it begins to deviate (+/- 2 years)  just a little bit.

Although Napster had leaked into the ecosystem in June 1999, file-sharing didn’t really begin to have its devastating effect on the record industry until 2002 when CD sales began to fall dramatically–which, according to our 12/13 Year Theory, should have been when we see a collapse of pop and the beginning of another rock resurrection.

And indeed we did.  By the spring of 2002 (12 years after the Depeche Mode riot, 26 years after the breakout of punk, 38 years after the Beatles’ landing in America and 51 years after “Rocket 88”), the Backstreet Boys/N’Sync phenomenon had grown so big that the backlash was catastrophic.  Happy, optimistic, danceable pop seemed inappropriate in a post-9/11 era. Rock began to once again reassert itself.

This time, though, the rock we got was had more in common with the environment that produced “Rocket 88” in 1951. This music bubble largely unfiltered from the streets channelled through independent record companies rather than major labels.  While some of these bands had been around for a while–both the White Stripes and the Strokes had been formed in 1999–it took a few years before enough people began to notice what they were on about.

Indie rock was the kindling for Cycle 5 through 2002-2004.  By 2005, rock’s dominance in public consciousness was greater than it had been since any time since 1992.

Coldplay, Franz Ferdinand, and the Killers came out of nowhere.  Damon Albarn reinvented himself under the guise of Gorillaz. Linkin Park shook off any early associations with nu metal and went on to sell tens of millions of records.

Audioslave was the perfect DNA splicing of Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine.  U2, Nine Inch Nails, the Foo Fighters, the Beastie Boys, the Chili Peppers, Green Day and the Offspring all returned with hit records.  Coachella exploded in California and Glastonbury became more important than ever.  Even Lollapalooza came back.

But The Cycle continued.  After peaking in the July of 2005 (when it seem that ever single rock band that mattered had a hit record out at the same time), rock once again slowly slipped in strength, losing ground to pop.  The era of Bieber and Susan Boyle was ushered in to end off the first decade of the 21st century.

Rock fans–people who loved their music loud and aggressive–spent most of the Obama administration wondering what happened. The music softened and everything–including rock–got more poppy.  Plaintive singer-songwriters with woe-is-me lyrics were everywhere. Hits came from artists with acoustic guitars, banjos and even ukuleles. Meanwhile, on the pop side of the equation, boy bands seemed to be coming back.

But then, an unlikely saviour. By mid-2016, it was apparent that Donald Trump had a serious shot at becoming the next president of the US. With an ultra-polarizing figure capturing the attention of the world, people opposed to his agenda, style and politics began to make and seek out music that expressed their anger, fear, confusion and opposition. Within months, the vi

Within months, the vibe changed. A nation under Trump seemed to be better served by a nation under rock.

This brings me to another factor in The Cycle. Going back to the 1950s, booms in angry music seem to follow the election of a Republican into the White House. Think about it. The folk movement gained traction under Eisenhower. Some of the best music of the 60s was made during the Nixon administration. Punk came from the fall of Nixon and the ineffectual era of Gerald Ford. Hardcore punk and rap came along during the Reagan eras. Under George H. W. Bush, the world fell under the thrall and the music of the Lollapalooza generation. When we got to George W. Bush and the post-9/11 era, indie rock exploded and the music toughened up again.

Let’s look at it from the other direction. When a Democrat is in the White House, pop tends to rule. The early 60s–Kennedy’s era–was dominated by soft sounds. During Jimmy Carter’s administration, punk turned poppy, resulting in a slew of New Wave bands who battled for attention as disco swept the world. Skip ahead to the 90s where the latter part of Bill Clinton’s time as president was dominated by the Spice Girls and a new generation of boy bands. And with the eight years of Obama, it was all pop, all the time.

We might be stretching things a little, but it appears that The Cycle is holding, albeit rock arrived a little late this time. By all rights, this resurrection should have begin in February or March 2014. But why the delay?

Technology has greatly disrupted how we access music.  For the pattern to hold on both sides of the pop/rock equation, a great deal of consensus about what constitutes “good” (or at least popular) music is required.  With everyone able to access whatever music they want whenever they want it, consensus is extremely hard to come by.

Or maybe there’s some greater power at work here, something unalterably eternal like the precession of the poles. The Cycle bears watching. If here in the early months of 2017 we have indeed swung back to the rock side of the ledger, music should be loud and angry until at least 2020–which, as it turns out, happens to the next time American elect a president.

 

 




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About the Author

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.


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24 Responses to Revisiting the Theory of the 13-Year Music Cycle of Rock vs. Pop

  1. dawn9902 says:

    Interesting. I've never sat down and pinned it down to specific years like this, but I tend to agree with you. What I've noticed is that periodically, within a one or two year period, several fantastic bands will break out, and then what follows for the next few years after that is a plethora of sound-alikes, which leads to a distillation of the genre, and things inevitably end up going south. While my hipster friends and acquaintances would disagree, I find much of what's come out of the indie scene the past few years very boring and samey. I'm still a huge fan of a handful of the greats (i.e. Arcade Fire, Jack White in his various iterations, etc) I find myself increasingly revisiting the past for my listening pleasure, impatiently waiting for the next cycle to begin.

  2. dawn9902 says:

    Ack, shouldn't post while half asleep. I meant watering down, not distillation.

  3. nscafe says:

    I always like when you make/do posts/shows like this.

  4. Dimwit says:

    There's a parallel track to the cycle that looks like it has broken and what has caused the downfall of the biz, I think.
    Every decade there has been technological breakthroughs that have spurred creativity and music.
    1950's
    Electrification/amplification/transistors: The mic, amps and electric guitars meant it was easy for musicians to be portable. Transistor radios meant that the "hotspots" like NY & LA no longer had the lock on acts. Kids heard music in Boise and the groups could play there. Then the kids saw how easy it was and could DIY. More music, more acts.
    1960's
    Back end tech: The rise of better tape tech. Recording studio tech and playback. FM radio. Each made everything sound better. Little bands could sound big. Lots of tricks made it possible to have the sounds in your head show up on a record. Cassettes allowed portability of *your* music.
    1970's
    Even better recording tech. New mass produced instrument called the synthesizer. New sounds/tones. The pinnacle of the music biz and the seach by the A&R army for "product". More people making and consuming music that ever before.
    1980's
    Digital age. Cheap syths. Rise of the PC and the "home" studio. The CD.
    1990's
    Refinement: Trouble in paradise. Better software and more powerful computers but that's just a lateral move. It doesn't increase creativity. The music biz is already eating itself, it's easier to aquire a company than to develop. CD is killing acts. It doesn't wear out and the sound stays good. A "Led Zeppelinesque" type act is now competing with Led Zeppelin in their heyday. Back catalogue rules!
    2000's
    The "we're fucked" decade. The same old thing. No new tech on the creativity side. It's all sounding the same after a while. The vein has played out. New technologies on the distribution side of things has royally screwed up the biz but that doesn't stimulate creativity, just puts the onus on the muscians to DIY on the biz side too. The record companies are living off the back catalogues and screwing up the reproducing tech to build in obsolescence again.
    2010's
    Looking for a miracle. Somebody has to jumpstart the tech again. Restimulate the creative juices. What that is, I haven't a clue but otherwise it's more of the same old. The companies will suddenly "remaster" all the crap they've been putting out to lose the compression and make better sounding MP3's. Every effort will be spent in getting you to rebuy something you have already bought. "New and improved!" "Now with even more DRM!"

    *sigh*

    • Steph D says:

      I agree for the most part, but I think the main issue is in 2010’s, when you say “getting you to rebuy something you have already bought”, it assumes that consumers have bought it, and will buy it again. However, in this day and age, the new generations of music consumers aren’t buying much of anything anymore. Other than the hardcore fans who want something tangible, the vast majority of consumers are content with paying their monthly streaming fee, and accessing all the music they want.
      Which is to say, the model isn’t just screwed from the innovation side, but it’s also now screwed up their chances at recapitalizing on back catalogues too!

  5. CQ says:

    I think this analysis misses out upon the cross-overs of Country music. It was Rockabilly in the 50s, genuine Folk music in the 60s, Get-back Country rock in the 70s, whatever the Blue Rodeo types of the 80s called themselves, New Country influence in the 90s, and the twangy thrust of much of the core Indie music during the 00s.
    Then there's the beyond-Pop Dance side of the Equation.

  6. Dimwit says:

    The thing is, C&W is not a driver the same way Rock became. If you take the whole spectrum of Country it waxes and wanes with what the Rock/Pop field is doing at any given time. Sometimes it's twangy and others it's rock or pop.
    When it's all said and done, most of the divisions/demographics in music are artificial.

    As Muddy Waters said, there's only two types, good and bad.

  7. dawn9902 says:

    Great point, Dimwit. The overlap and intertwining of rock and its various genres and country and its various genres have influenced each other and made for some phenomenal music at times, and some real crap at others. To wit: the influence of rockabilly on punk (I'll argue with anyone that Buddy Holly was the first proto-punk artist), the origins of Blue Rodeo, Ryan Adams, Wilco, etc. The Black Keys are going down that road now, with success. And I've often thought, when having the misfortune of catching Nickleback on the radio, that they're only a slight vocal twang from being new country – the bad kind.

  8. Steve says:

    Seems to me the cycle works because people want it to work. You can plug in whatever subjective information you want to prove or disprove it. For instance the end of cycle 3 which is supposed to be terrible has 1987 seeing U2 release The Joshua Tree, Guns N'Roses releases Appetite For Destruction, REM had Document and one year later we would be introduced to Jane's Addiction! Now cross over to cycle 4, the early 90's which is supposed to be a great cycle and we have MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, C & C Music Factory and Paula Abdul. You could go through any year of any decade and find gems and ear bleeding pop mush. Just like today. Am I looking at Chris Brown or The Shins?

  9. Steph D says:

    I agree with the original cycle, but I think it broke down a while back, essentially after the Grunge explosion. What caused the biggest switch? The introduction of a 3rd genre competing with the other two: Hip Hop. Now what we see is variation between Rock, Pop and Hip Hop, with different levels of each appearing at the top of the charts from one year to the next.

    And today? There's just no such thing as a cycle anymore. It used to be that genres were fighting for exposure, first on radio, then TV. There was limited bandwidth to get attention for your band (and your genre). Today, the bandwidth is virtually limitless, and by consequence, there is no need to find commonalities anymore. We're at a point that alternative music doesn't have to get mainstream coverage anymore, because mainstream doesn't matter. Pop and Hip-Hop will continue to vie for the mainstream, while good rock becomes increasingly indie (see Radiohead for a great microcosm of that development). Rock acts that go "mainstream" will be those with the most pop sensibilities (I'm looking at you Nickelback), but will likely continue to lose touch with the bubbling undercurrents of the genre.

    In today's world, I can completely segregate myself from the mainstream when it comes to music. If all rock fans do the same, how will rock ever dominate mainstream again? Now that there is room for everyone, there's no reason to push pop (Popular music, remember) out of its natural habitat to replace it with alt (i.e. Alternative to popular music) rock, which shouldn't be there anyway.

  10. Redside says:

    Interesting Read: Check out a similar theory: http://hatch.kookscience.com/wiki/Sekhmet_Hypothesis

    "A study of the solar cycles at NASA's Spaceweather web site gives us the following correlation of youth culture to the cycles:

    May 1967 – Hippie culture took off one year before solar maximum.
    January 1977 – Punk culture took off two and a half years before solar maximum.
    May 1988 – Rave culture took off one and a half years before solar maximum.
    1999 – playful hostile strength culture surfaces (via late gabber, The Matrix, flowering of Lee MacQueen, etc), prior to maximum. But interestingly no actual massive youth archetype takes off."

  11. Paul says:

    Music from the past, everything from classic rock to punk, is going to be reintroduced again, but done in a way where the big commercial moguls and the pop-star machine will be powerless to stop it. It'll involve a new technology. Read into it what you will

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  14. Tim McMullen says:

    We used to go to Sasquatch! Music festival in Washington State every two years, but for the first time ever, we’re pulling the plug. The festival should change its name and give homage to a long-forgotten Seattle Sub-Pop enterprise, “Lame-fest”. The steady decline of Rock at this particular festival has been troubling, yet sadly justifiable – right now, lame sells tickets.

    I never thought I’d thank Donald Trump for anything, but if the suggestion that Republican presidents breed aggressive Rock n Roll, and this holds true, I’ll kiss his feet as the new saviour of Rock.

  15. Pingback: A Journal of Musical ThingsNotice How Music and Pop Culture from the 80s and 90s is Hot Right Now? It's the 30-Year Nostalgia Cycle in Action. - A Journal of Musical Things

  16. After I initially commented I seem to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments
    are added- checkbox and now whenever a comment is added I recieve 4 emails with the exact same comment.
    Is there a means you can remove me from that service?
    Appreciate it!

  17. Sterling Styles says:

    Just cause you feel it. Doesn’t mean it’s there.
    Radiohead

  18. M says:

    Your data weirdly matches the 13 year cycle of sunspots 😉

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