By: Paige Bostic
Thrumming basslines, thudding drums, catchy lyrics, and guitar solos that last long enough to sound cool but not long enough that you get bored. These make up the integral building blocks of the stadium rock subgenre – save for the eponymous pillar: the stadium. Stadium rock is built on the salt-slicked backs of thousands of screaming fans crammed shoulder to shoulder in arenas swollen past full capacity. But stadium rock is well past its golden age. For many listeners, it’s become a bit of a joke genre – a soulless cash cow that’s strayed from its mother. Let’s peel back the layers of what stadium rock is, why it’s become a bit of a derided subject, and why I think we should give it another chance.
What is Stadium Rock?
Stadium rock, otherwise known as arena rock or (horrifyingly) corporate rock, is a subgenre of rock music that’s made specifically to be performed to large audiences or on the radio. Emerging in the 1960s with the wild fanaticism that was Beatlemania, it’s undeniable that stadium rock is a lucrative genre. If you need a better idea of the sound of stadium rock, try and imagine that you’re watching a commercial for a pickup truck. What music is playing? Probably a rock-adjacent earworm that slips into your skull and plays for the rest of the day against your will. Common examples of stadium rock include the works of artists like Aerosmith, Poison, Def Leppard, Mötley Crüe, Van Halen and Bon Jovi (which are conveniently some of my most listened-to artists on Spotify, but we’ll get to that later).
Stadium rock aesthetics can also apply to punk and metal; the core of stadium rock is its popularity more so than the actual quality of its artistry. Even the siren song that is ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ qualifies as stadium rock! The popularity of arena rock–and the subgenres it utilized–gave rise to some of the more ‘high-brow’ artistry that any self-conscious listener would be proud to have in their collection: grunge, alt-rock, indie rock, etc. These subgenres, while awesome in their own right, are squeamish about being connected to their more mainstream roots popularized by arena rock. In a way, it’s like how a teenager at the mall distances themself from their mom by ducking into the back of a nearby Spencer’s.
A Quick History of Stadium Rock
The genre emerged in the 1960s with the wild success of The Beatles, who performed to swaths of screaming teenagers as Beatlemania overwhelmed the world. It was impossible to hear hits like “She Loves You” or “I Want to Hold Your Hand” live without also hearing the squealing and swooning of teenage girls living their best lives. The 1970s rock scene emerged with the decline of the psychedelic and blues rock of the previous decade – giants like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Alan Wilson had joined the 27 Club and left behind gaping holes hanging in the popular music scene of the time. British bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin were still riding the waves of the British invasion, with respective albums Paranoid and Led Zeppelin III topping the charts. An exciting genre, glam-rock, riding the bodacious coattails of David Bowie’s and Mick Jagger’s gender-defying performances, took hold in the mid-1970s, making the average rock-loving dude look like a lady. Alice Cooper, KISS, the New York Dolls and certain members of T. Rex were painting their faces and/or wearing feminine clothes as they took to venues overwhelmed by clamoring audiences. Rock got more audacious, as much of a visual spectacle as a listening experience. The long-haired, spandex-wearing lineup of Aerosmith (my favorite band in the world) had skyrocketed to success by the middle of the decade – heralding the mainstream success of hard rock, accompanied by the likes of Van Halen, Bon Jovi and Def Leppard. Other mega-successful, mega-glamorous acts were swift to follow into the ‘80s, from Poison (my second favorite band in the world) to Mötley Crüe to Ratt.
By the 1980s, rock had evolved from what was once the heavy-handed defiance of the mainstream; it was the mainstream. Genres such as cock rock (which is exactly what you think it is), glam rock, hard rock, dance rock and shock rock were comfortably seated as some of the most popular genres of the 70s and 80s. The all-mother that was arena rock was in full swing – with songs punctuated by choruses that were easy to remember, striking visual performances, and plenty of opportunity for audience participation; it was a bona fide circus! It was as experimental as the more high-brow artistic rock genres of the 1960s, but made way more money – and the live performances were glitzy enough to prove it. As time went on, arena rock’s unruly children, the genres of grunge, alternative rock, and 90s punk rejected the excess of the mainstream that was arena rock and took to the stage as the next act of rock counterculture. Since that time, arena rock has faded to nostalgic memories and lucrative ‘farewell tours’ for those who have been enjoying them for years. Such a situation has led to the creation of one of stadium rock’s many pejoratives: dad-rock.
Slowing it Down: Why is Stadium Rock Looked Down On?
Let’s get it out of the way: I love stadium rock. There’s nothing I enjoy more than listening to music that makes me feel like a self-centered twenty-year-old boy living in 1988. I love the manufactured audacity of the subject material, and the catchy nature of the actual music has baited me hook, line, and sinker. It’s impossible to deny it: I love stadium rock because it was designed to be loved.
The artists that produce my favorite stadium rock songs wrote them with a formula in mind: they need to be fun, they need to be easy to remember, and they need to be just vulgar enough to give the listener a thrill while still skirting around radio censorship. Essentially, it needs to be music for the everyman. Back in its glory days, it was for every man – it was mainstream, even pedestrian. No matter how many metric tons of glittery makeup and how many gallons of hairspray were used, the shock eventually wore off – arena rock isn’t exactly an act of defiance to the mainstream. At its most cynical contemporary critique, arena rock was made for the average middle-class person who was looking for something easy to listen to and dance to. Nowadays, the critique is a little more cutting: Stadium rock is for aging dads looking for the same thrills they once found in the basement of their fraternity house on a Saturday night in the late ‘80s (sorry, Dad).
The critiques of stadium rock have created quite the conundrum: contemporary rock bands that try to mimic the titans that came before them are written off as talentless hacks, but other rock bands that try to break into their own style never reach the same amount of success that their forefathers and foremothers reached. Spotify’s ‘Rock Classics’ playlist has about 11.8 million followers, far outpacing the 420,000 listeners on their ‘All New Rock’ playlist. The scene is tough to break out on; modern hard rock band Greta Van Fleet, while popular, cannot escape the critiques of sounding too similar to Led Zeppelin. Maneskin’s alternative stylings are prodded at for being pedestrian – their aesthetic is so alternative that they’re mainstream. The only rock musicians who are truly safe on the mainstage are ironically the ones who’ve been performing for a long time, the last of a dying breed. These include the likes of the relatively younger Foo Fighters and Stone Temple Pilots to the older-than-boulders Rolling Stones. So what are we to do? Older stadium rock, while being written off as music for dads and older everymen, is really the only genre of rock that’s maintained divine levels of success. Younger stadium rock, whether composed by faithful disciples of older rock gods or starry-eyed newcomers with fresh ideas, is written off no matter what they do. What are we left with? A genre of rock that’s enjoyed by the dullest of the dull: listeners who have committed the unforgivable sin of listening to music that’s easy to listen to.
Okay, But Hear Me Out
Let’s be for real. With the surge of the ‘let people enjoy things’ ideology, my counterpoint is going to be pretty predictable. I like stadium rock because I like it. When it comes to music, you should listen to what makes you happy and gets you through the day. But let’s unpick things a little further. Why do we think that a genre that is enjoyed by everymen and older folk is so bad? What do we gain by putting down the mainstream by latching onto whatever point is most contrarian at the moment?
While arena rock has had its days in the sun as a staple of mainstream music, let’s not forget what countercultural concepts they played a role in popularizing: smearing the lines of gender expression, celebrating assertive sexuality/camp, and throwing the rules of performance and attending these performances out the window. Arena rock has specific niches that they’ve popularized for everyone to enjoy – and what’s so wrong with everyone having something to enjoy?
Everyone thinks that the music they enjoy gives them a little personality. What do we do when the everyday working-class middleman enjoys our favorite music? Do we dare risk being like everybody else? Hear me out: Don’t dehumanize the listener. Arena rock wasn’t made for hordes of sheep to listen to while they graze in the pasture; it was made for the hardworking, underappreciated folks who want nothing but a bit of a thrill by saving up for and attending a concert that’s made to be fun. Aerosmith’s fanbase is also known as the Blue Army, reflective of not only the affordable, undressy denim fashion of their listeners but also their blue-collar backgrounds. The KISS Army follows suit, its name reflecting the swarms of fans that would arrive to shows in sweaty hordes. Twisted Sister’s fanbase, aptly called Sick Motherfucking Friends of Twisted Sister, reflects the dogged devotion of the fanbase – they’re part of the music, not its mindless consumers. The music that is so often thrown under the bus by critics of arena rock relies on one key point: the music is bad because the fanbase is too middle-class, too ordinary, too consumerist. Like lambs being led to the slaughter, the average arena rock enjoyer is, to these critics, a passive listener incapable of deciding what makes music good or bad.
The beauty of arena rock lies within its one-note, cheap-shot critique: that it’s music for everyone. It’s music for dads, it’s music for teenage girls, it’s music for the blue-collar, the white-collar, the brainiac and the dunce. It’s music that, for one shining moment, unites different people for a love of music and fun. Sure, to the bands, we are a crowd of faceless screamers who keep the bills paid, but we’re also their lifeblood. And in turn, they do what they can to be our uniting grace. Sure, any female fan has a story of being asked to name three songs performed by the band on their t-shirt, but the way we female fans look out for and support each other makes all the difference.
I’m not saying that arena rock is the all-encompassing answer to the evils of the world – it 1000% isn’t. But I am saying that when we have a genre that can unite so many people, we shouldn’t be so quick to throw it away. Yeah, the lyrics can be kind of dumb and the music can be at times formulaic – here are a few lyrics from the hit song Dirty White Boy, in a filthy celebration of accepting one’s less-than-pristine reputation, by British-American rock band Foreigner.
“Yeah, I'm a dirty white boy (dirty white boy)
Dirty white boy (dirty white boy)
Yeah, I'm a white boy, you see?
Dirty white boy
C'mon, c'mon boy! (Dirty white boy)
White boy (dirty white boy)
Dirty white boy
Dirty white boy”
Not exactly Shakespeare. This song is almost four minutes long, by the way. And I love it.
But what’s so bad about enjoying both the songs and the explosive, vapid experience they bring? Am I so wrong for being able to recite Love in an Elevator as well as I can the Pledge of Allegiance? Maybe, but at least I have a lot of people, each with backgrounds as distinct and colorful as my own, who can do it right on with me. Don’t throw away the dumb just because it’s dumb. Let yourself relax. As you do with life, you’ve got to let yourself enjoy the inane, the audacious and the straight-up stupid.