Here's one possible explanation for the long, slow decline of rock: the riffs have run out. They have run out of riffs. The great riffs have all been taken. The putting of (mostly guitar, occasionally piano) chords next to one another in interesting ways is pretty played out.
Tonight, as I am listening to Tom Petty's new offering, Hypnotic Eye, I am telling myself, Bob, this a quality offering, and you are enjoying it. Which is true. I am. Kind of. The new Petty CD is a solid offering of songs, some interesting lyrical angles and topics, some fresh (and not so fresh) melodies. In short, Tom Petty can still write songs, songs that are worth hearing.
So can Neil Young, as evidenced by his last CD of original material, songs that are quite compelling and confessional in ways that are refreshing and full of growth.
So can Bob Dylan, whose last 5 CDs offer a stunningly good creative period for an aging artist (not the Christmas CD) who still has something to say, more and more in the vein of T.S. Eliot pulling fragments of throughts and words from a disparate variety of sources.
So can Bruce Springsteen, whose late career output is the best basis for a rock show of any of them, and whose songs often have memorable instrumental lines, songs like "Death To My Hometown" or "We Take Care Of Our Own."
But even Bruce, the ageless rocker, doesn't have the riffs anymore.
What all of these venerable songwriters still have, in addition to their lyrical ability, is that gift for melody. The examples that prove this are far too numerous to mention, but try Bruce's "We Are Alive" or Dylan's "Not Dark Yet" just for reassurance, if you must.
What these artists are not doing, though, are writing songs that burst into our consciousness with some signature of chords and notes that stamps a song, after just a few listens, forever. This is not a criticism, just an observation. Maybe it is what aging rock is supposed to be like--there was no prototype for the place we are in now. Maybe the riff is unimportant, and it is the hook that only matters now, a hook which is more likely to be vocal than instrumental.
There is nothing to bang our heads to, nothing to play air guitar to, no riffs to simulate with sounds coming from our mouths.
To be fair, it's possible that the generation just behind--the Paul Westerbergs, the Steve Earles, the Lloyd Coles, especially the Bob Moulds--may still be discovering inventive guitar riffs. And maybe Jack White is our only hope for the long term.
I'm not entirely sure what to make of this insight. I expect someone will try to prove me wrong. But I'm pretty confident that the rifflessness of modern rock is a proper assessment. Where is the great pop riff that you've heard in the past five years? Where are the chords that punch your buttons in the best of ways? More likely, someone is sampling something from the past.
And, to be clear, I'm listening to plenty of great music, from the artists named above and others, and that reassures me that popular music continues to move forward. But I freely admit that each time I hear a new tune I am leaning in, listening closely, for that new riff whose siren call will keep me coming back again and again to hear the song that follows.