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We break down our most cherished music scenes by how they started, how they changed unexpectedly, and how their legacy lives on today.
At some point, all of our favorite musical genres have lost their way and become unrecognizable to their early fans. There's no shame in admitting that – if anything, it's a time-honored tradition. When a new form of rock music emerges, it's pure, created by musicians who are simply happy to be changing the game, and soon people begin to pick up on it. But then, as that scene gets popular or corporate money enters the picture, the culture mutates, and suddenly the genre we so loved becomes one we're not sure we ever fully understood.
The thing is, at the end of the day, the motives behind that music, the things that made those artists great in the first place, live on – they've just evolved. And while it can be easy to become jaded by that ("Damn kids, that's not real _____") it's important to remember that the dream is still alive, even if it takes the form of fresh young faces and weird new sounds.
In keeping with this, we've decided to honestly examine ten of our favorite rock subgenres with a focus on the three major moments in their development: What It Was, the initial spark that made this music exciting and important; What It Became, how this genre transformed into something alien to its early fans; and What It Is Now, how the core traits of that music live on in strange, awesome new ways.
Check out our breakdown below. And if you're a young rock fan who thinks their favorite bands will never change, well...let's touch base in a few years.
What It Was: In its infancy, nu-metal was a gritty view into real lives of disenfranchised young people. Stripping away heavy metal’s need to be acrobatic, and shunning grunge’s desire to broadcast poetic melancholy, bands like Korn and Rage Against The Machine used a brutally honest mixture of underground music’s most effective aspects – groove metal’s chug, electronica’s impact and drops, rap’s streetwise spit – and melded them into a fearsome beast.
What It Became: Unfortunately, nu-metal went the same way as hair metal: it got too big and self-involved, and eventually got watered down. By the year 2000, every rich suburban kid who wasn’t allowed to borrow dad’s car thought they were a broken doll who could rap, and the gritty, visceral riffs of old became too polished for hardcore devotees. The genre soon turned into a haven for those more interested in the limelight than playing music.
What It Is: Though many thought nu-metal could never return, we've recently seen its core ethos reemerge in the underground metalcore movement spearheaded by bands like Vein and Vatican. These guys channel the genre’s no-fucks-given love of hard-hitting riffage and unfiltered rage without getting caught up in trends, popularity, or the business of being cool.
What It Was: While punk and hardcore were focused on ire and political discontent, emotional hardcore took an even more daring approach: vulnerability. Rites Of Spring and Embrace (the founders of which would form Fugazi), and later Sunny Day Real Estate and Jimmy Eat World, gave punks who were through being cool an outlet for their feelings of heartbreak and insecurity. For rockers looking to break out of the tough exterior of other genres, emo was a much needed escape and emotional release.
What It Became: When emo blew up, everything about it turned into a commodity, including its heart. As huge bands made their emotionally-honest music more pop-oriented and radio-friendly, plenty of newcomers adopted the genre for its catchiest tunes alone. Skinny jeans, lip rings, and baring your soul became par for the course, and the musicians behind the scene turned out to have more in common with hair metal megastars than early emo's pioneers.
What It Is Now: Though some bands carry on emo's traditional sound today (see the Run For Cover Records roster), emo’s MO is also very identifiable in the work of contemporary rappers like Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Peep, and Post Malone. These guys present a sense of emotional reality in a hardened and often toxic genre, admitting to dealing with anxiety, mental distress, and societal pressures with an honesty that previous rappers would’ve seen as a display of weakness.
What It Was: In its earliest incarnation, hair metal's only rule was 'Give the people what they want.' The big fun riffs, lack of subtext, and elaborate live shows of acts like Mötley Crüe and W.A.S.P. ’80s rockers something exciting and over-the-top to believe in. Couple that with unprecedented rock star excess and incendiary personalities, and you had arguably the most entertaining and enjoyable guitar-based music of all time.
What It Became: It’s hard to sing about being 'just an urchin livin’ under the street' when you’re a millionaire. Hair metal became huge at the most superficial time in history, and bands were pressured into writing saccharine ballads and trading their spiked leather for neon blazers. Meanwhile, as the rock star personas of the genre began believing their own hype, they didn't notice that their steady intake of sex and drugs was slowly wearing them down. By the time hair metal OD'ed on lipstick and died, even some of its creators were secretly relieved.
What It Is Now: If one band keeps hair metal’s core mission alive, it’s Sweden’s Ghost. The band swiftly rose from obscurity and used listenable riffs and theatrical performances to build a massive international fanbase. But at the same time, Ghost's background in underground metal, and their dedication to their legion of followers, has prevented them from getting tripped up by the same superficial pitfalls that scuttled hair metal.
What It Was: Punk’s core is all about truth – rebelling against rockstar pretense and societal lies, and getting back to the basics of street-level rock and roll. With that came a distaste for the finer things and a political rage that came from living with the deck stacked against you. The energy and attitude presented by Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Ramones were real because it saw through the bullshit of the world at large, and focused instead on fun songs you could jump around to.
What It Became: The problem with punk’s three-chord sound and DIY fashion sense was that it could be easily adopted and imitated. Soon after the movement exploded, the market was flooded with bands who couldn’t play their instruments wearing whatever they found around the house. Meanwhile, a portion of the genre’s forebearers revealed that they were in fact just in it for the money and outsider status, and leaned on their legacies rather than furthered the mission of fighting the world.
What It Is Now: Today you’ll find punk alive in the jaunty party rock of bands like FIDLAR and The Chats, whose ground-level rock and roll focuses on ignoring rules and making fun, rebellious music – even if that means incorporating influences of hardcore, noise, and even hip-hop beats into the mix. Their songs about getting fucked up and feeling fucked over channel the energy and anger that put punk on the map of our hearts.
What It Was: What made black metal interesting in its early years was its sense of total commitment to darkness. Celtic Frost and Bathory, and later Mayhem, Darkthrone, and Emperor, didn’t try too hard to be faster or more technical than other kinds of metal, it just wanted to sound truly evil. More so, the people who made it were mysterious in their practices and unabashedly dedicated to an impressive brand of diehard, unwavering satanism that metal lost when bands like Slayer grew up.
What It Became: Black metal’s complete dismissal of the rules soon became a set of rules, and the genre split into two distinct factions. One focused on a costumization of black metal’s darkness, with bands using gothic costumes and poppy synths to make their music more palatable. The other was a tribe of humorless gatekeepers who refused to enjoy themselves or accept anyone who didn’t know every name in the liner notes of Morbid Tales.
What It Is Now: Weirdly enough, black metal’s ethos lives on most prominently in dark underground hip-hop. Rappers like ho99o9, Death Grips, and Tyler The Creator show a similarly unabashed devotion to the dark side of the human spirit. More so, they’re so uninterested in sounding approachable to both polite or “extreme” circles that they enter a whole new realm of trueness. Only def is real.
What It Was: Goth began as a general aesthetic, but it's always been an avenue through which to describe big, dark emotions. Inspired by silent films, European architecture, and the foggy atmosphere and sad humanity of novels like Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein, post-punk bands like The Cure, Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and even The Smiths created a sound drenched in death and drama. Sure, they wore black clothing, chunky boots, and too much eyeliner -- but more importantly, they sang some of the most emotionally vulnerable music of our time.
What It Became: Sometime in the late ’90s, the idea of "goth" became more about the fashion than the emotion. Hot Topic popped up in every mall; chokers, cheaply-made corsets and black lipstick became the flagship fashion of the subculture; and overly-stylized bands whose lyrics doubled as high school poetry became the frontrunners of the genre. Goth lost its scope, and became just another way to worry your parents.
What It Is Now: Goth will forever take on many forms and aesthetics, but the artists currently forging a path aligned most with the original concept are dark country artists like Amigo The Devil and Those Poor Bastards. At their core, these musicians' desolate tales of love and murder are a vehicle for pondering death loneliness, and looking within yourself to find empathy for the devil inside everyone – all with tongue-in-cheek lyrics and overwhelming stage presences that would make Nick Cave proud.
What It Was: Born during hair metal's superficial peak, and accidentally burdened with a catch-all phrase in early '90s by a record exec, the many eclectic sounds that made up grunge were all about taking it personally. Pioneered by bands like Tad, Temple of the Dog, Green River, and the Melvins, and made popular by Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Alice In Chains, the genre was a perfect combination of big, distorted riffs, melodic song structures, and lyrics that were unafraid to describe pain and struggle.
What It Became: Though it looked just as earthy and heartfelt as the scene from which it spawned, latter-day grunge was more focused on making mainstream audiences happy than speaking to outsiders. After Nirvana's explosion into worldwide fame, the genre forgot its punk roots and sensitivity and opted instead for hyper-masculinity and simplistic heartbroken lyrics, paving the way for many of the yarling arena rockers of today.
What It Is Now: The original foundation of grunge – a balance of poetic sensitivity and a punk sensibility – has been revived in the new modern wave of shoegaze. Bands like Cloakroom and Citizen, who bury their emo lyrics under heavy-yet-glimmering reverb, have brought crushing emotion back to into the scene, reminding hard rockers to feel before worrying about labels or technicality.
What It Was: Punk was pissed, but hardcore was furious. It took punk’s initial sense of nihilistic rebellion and went full bore on it, creating an ecstatic storm of sweat, busted knuckles, and earnest anger. As punk became plunky, simplistic, and clever, bands like Black Flag and Dead Kennedys presented a side of punk that didn’t skimp on the outrage and elbow grease.
What It Became: Simply put, hardcore became worried about what other people thought. The genre’s toughness and anger turned into a fear that it wasn't tough or angry enough to qualify as truly hardcore. The result was a violent gang mentality and a focus on traditional masculinity that made punk’s most interesting subgenre just another home for jocks and bullies.
What It Is Now: In many ways, hardcore is still hardcore, it’s just that the standard bearers have changed. Bands like Power Trip and Oozing Wound have continued the genre’s tradition of rage and social awareness with their hard-hitting, no-nonsense thrash metal. Meanwhile, within the genre itself, outsider acts like War On Women and Fucked And Bound are expressing their under-realized disillusionment, taking hardcore out of its overly-masculine rut and added new voices to the shouting match.
What It Was: Death metal started as an exercise in extremity and weirdness. The bands in the first wave of death metal all sounded very different, and focused on going so hard both sonically and thematically that their music reached an almost poetic level of brutality – so violent it was transcendent, so fast it was unique. Though they were eventually lumped together, bands like Morbid Angel and Obituary wanted nothing more than to sound unique.
What It Became: Because death metal’s extreme side was so identifiable, bands began to focus on that instead of songwriting and individuality, resulting in a simple contest of who could be fastest and grossest. Fans ignored the strange and unique sounds behind each band, and just doubled down on growling, breakdowns, and questionable lyrics about slicing up girls. Soon, death metal was doing the least extreme thing of all: adhering to a formula.
What It Is Now: Where death metal’s original mindset seems to thrive most today is in grindcore and experimental offshoots of the genre. Bands like Horrendous, Pig Destroyer, Graf Orlock, and Noisem push the boundaries of what metal can be while simultaneously making music that's fast, twisted, and unlike anything else.
What It Was: Industrial was the visceral music of the digital age. Groups like NIN, Godflesh, and KMFDM wove together beats, distortion, and atmosphere so heavy that only a computer could make them, to give fans worn out by typical rock music a crushing alternative. It also brought danceability back into rock, providing a pneumatic rhythm to which fans of heavy music could shake their asses.
What It Became: Because industrial was so punchy and affective, it eventually lost the [arts of both metal and electronica that made it interesting. Latter-day industrial bands often fell back on simplistic breakdown riffs, repetitive song structure, and provocation at its most simple and vulgar. The result was music that sounded like it had come off of an assembly line.
What It Is Now: Industrial’s modern equivalent is definitely synthwave. While solo artists like Perturbator, GosT, and Espectrostatic create pure danceable heaviness, bands like Carpenter Brut mix the genre with pounding riffs that take electronic music to new levels of heaviness. Odd that music reminiscent of ’80s horror soundtracks feels so modern… but then again, it sort of feels like we’re living in Robocop these days, doesn’t it?
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