Hoping that rock 'n roll dies before it gets old? It's too late, writes Ed Power, as boy bands take over and the real rockers fade away
If you need reminding as to where the battle lines lie in modern music, cast an eye over next summer's live concert schedule. The biggest pop event of 2014, without question, is May's three-night Croke Park stand by One Direction, an extravaganza of spiky quiffs and chipmunk crooning that will surely witness the country's largest ever gathering of screaming tweenagers.
The year's must-see rock happening, meanwhile, is the just announced triple-whammy of shows by sexagenarian strummers The Eagles in June – where, and this is just a guess, hyperventilating young people will be at more of a premium.
You suspect the closest anyone will come to passing out at The O2 is when they find out how much the beer costs.
Something strange is happening here. Undoubtedly, pop has always been the excitable teenager's sonic candy of choice. But wasn't rock supposed to fill an angry, youthful space in the culture too? Even a decade ago, the idea that rock music would serve as a middle-age refuge from a frightening, unfamiliar world of twerking and tweeting would have appeared ludicrous.
Anyone under any illusions as to just how fully the wheel has turned will have received a blunt wake-up at last summer's Electric Picnic festival. Friday night's turn by '90s cult group My Bloody Valentine was billed as a highlight of the weekend. Yet 10 minutes, into their loud, intermittently tuneful set, a fair chunk of the attendance – i.e. most of those aged 30 and under – were fleeing in search of music that did not recreate the experience of having a tooth pulled with a rusty monkey wrench. Similarly, a recent comeback date by influential Gen X rockers Pixies drew what may kindly be described as a 'seasoned' turnout.
A survey of the world's highest-earning bands, meanwhile, suggests rock is glad to be grey. The Rolling Stones, U2, Springsteen – it's not exactly one big frat party out there, is it?
In 2012, research by accountants Deloitte showed that 40 per cent of the 20 top-grossing rock outfits had an average age of 60 or over.
Equally telling is a countdown of 2013's best-selling albums in the UK: Emeli Sande is in front, followed by the Les Miserables soundtrack, Bruno Mars, Michael Buble, Daft Punk and Rod Stewart, nowadays a crooner and assuredly not a rocker.
Unless you factor in the strident banjo abuse of Mumford and Sons, the entire top 10 is a guitar free zone. It's like The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin never happened.
Reeling from the effects of internet piracy, musicians have generally been too busy keeping heads above water to give the subject any attention.
Last week, however, Kings of Leon, a bad boy ensemble in the hoariest tradition, staged an angry intervention on behalf of rock music – declaiming that pop was both tasteless and bad for our children.
"Some pop shows I watch, it feels like the end of the world, it's f***ing awful," says guitarist Matthew Followill. "It's not even music any more.
"You would never want your children to watch [shows like that] and I can't believe that younger kids, even teenagers are watching that stuff. It almost seems to be making the world a bad place."
The outburst has put the subject in the headlines again. However, fears over the decline of rock are not quite new. In 2011, BBC 'Professor of Pop' Paul Gambaccini opined that the genre had run its course.
His comments followed confirmation that the best-selling rock song of 2010 was Journey's Don't Stop Believin', an ancient curio that owed its prominence to the TV show Glee!
"It is the end of the rock era," Gambaccini opined." It's over, in the same way the jazz era is over. That doesn't mean there will be no more good rock musicians, but rock as a prevailing style is part of music history, it is over. Promoters are panicking because in 10 years these artists will retire and then where will they be?"
Hang on, you say. Lots of rock bands are doing well. Kodaline, Mumford and Sons, solo artist Jake Bugg, who packed Dublin's Olympia several weeks ago. How can anyone seriously claim rock is on its uppers when In A Perfect World, Kodaline's dreamy debut album, nearly muscled Kanye West aside to seize the number one spot?
That's fair enough, so far as it goes. However, with their chiselled pouts and lovely hair, this new generation of 'rockers' is clearly at pains not to tread on anyone's toes, much less start a revolution. At recent shows by Jake Bugg and Kodaline, rather than the traditional mosh-pit, the front rows were mostly a sea of wide-eyed young ladies.
Aged 19, Bugg is young (and dimpled) enough to be in a boyband – and his audience certainly nudges close to that demographic too.
It is no stretch to imagine many of those at his concert cheering One Direction at Croker next summer. Perhaps that is why Bugg has attacked 1D in print – maybe he senses they are more alike than he would care to admit.