The Imagine Dragons phenomenon: Is rock music moving on without us?

a shot of imagine dragons frontman dan reynolds on stage
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It’d be hard to convince any traditional rock fan that Imagine Dragons are a rock band in any traditional sense of the term. There are no crunching riffs or face-melting solos here; instead, they give way to polished electronic beats and the sort of slick, commercially refined arena rock that feels more at home on Radio One or T In The Park than it does The Download Festival. Earnestness and introspection replace the bravado and bluster typically associated with the music we “real” rock fans know and love, and while Imagine Dragons’ music can be moody, angsty and intense, it will never be so to a point that might jeopardise its place on America’s squeaky-clean mainstream rock radio stations.

And yet, when Spotify released its global rock music streaming stats at the end of last year, they revealed that Imagine Dragons were the second most streamed rock band in the entire world, second only to Coldplay (Yeah, we know, Coldplay aren’t a real rock band either – but for reference, Metallica, AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses came in at 8, 13 and 17 respectively). The number of YouTube views on their official videos have more digits than your average telephone number, and they’re currently whipping round the world’s arenas on a tour to support their 2017 chart-topping album Evolve. Last week, they effortlessly packed out the 20,000-capacity O2 Arena in London with excited, screaming teenage music fans two nights on the trot. Like it or not, this is the face of rock music in 2018.

So, what gives? How did this group of boy band-looking, electronica-peddling posterboys become the biggest rock band in the world? Well, the clues have always been there. This is the kind of alien, commercially-viable American rock music Sharon Osbourne was talking about every time she told some faceless guitar-wielding X Factor contestant that they had “a fabulous rock voice” over the years – that type of music that we never quite took seriously.

The same thing happened when the emo phenomenon exploded into the charts in the early 2000s and we roundly dismissed it as plastic music for teenage girls – as if, somehow, cracking the teen market hasn’t been the most desirable position for any rock band to be in since, well, forever. Those bands, like American emo-scenesters Fall Out Boy, were derided and ridiculed as nothing more than flash in the pan trendy boys with silly hair, while credible rock bands like The Answer were lauded as rock music’s real next great hopes.

And where are Fall Out Boy now? They’re selling out arenas across the globe and headlining some of the world’s biggest rock festivals, that’s where. What’s more, they wrote a whole new chapter in rock’s history book while they were doing it. In fact, when we spoke to FOB founder Joe Trohman about this earlier this year, he was at pains to point out how British rock fans are just different to the rest of the world when it comes to accepting new rock music. “The British rock scene is such an important part of British music culture, it would be almost sacrilege to lose the identity of the traditional rock band here,” he told us. “I understand the necessity to genre-cise, but it’s different elsewhere.”

“We’ve talked about it ad nauseam, but wasn’t the endeavour for a long time for rock music to take itself out of the standard paradigm and push itself into new, exciting, dangerous and sometimes unfortunate places?” he asked. “I don’t think it does that as much anymore. I personally think if there was more fearless experimentation in rock music, and that meant opening up one’s mind to thinking outside of just rock music, maybe that idea of the traditionalist rock’n’roll band would come back into larger prominence.”

Essentially, what he was telling us was that while traditionalist rock fans and critics fixated on ideas of what rock is or should be and who was creating it most credibly, the music was moving on without them. Its biggest bands were simply doing what felt right to them – whether that be infusing it with modern R&B, chucking a load of electronica over the top of it, or straight up making it sound like a pop record – and winning themselves millions of fans in the process.

This is a rock’n’roll evolution that’s happened in plain sight; we were all just too busy pontificating about the lack of festival headliners once Ozzy Osbourne pops off to see it. These are the festival headliners that will step into those shoes when our beloved rock’n’roll overlords are dead and gone, because their young fans are the people who will still going to be going to those festivals in 20 years time. It’s the rock music they enjoy that will matter, and this music, with all its so-called bland anonymity, is what rock’n’roll looks like to them. New rock music is as out there as much as it’s ever been, but perhaps we all just stopped listening.

So here’s the thing. If you think Imagine Dragons are a lacklustre, anonymous disgrace to the world of rock, well, congratulations: this music isn’t meant for you. You don’t get it because you’re not meant to get it. Just as prog turned its nose up when punk came kicking and gobbing onto the scene, it’s right that the next wave of rock music should challenge and build upon the foundations its sprung from, and that its preceding generation doesn’t understand it. If kids want to listen to AC/DC these days, they can. But it’s far more likely they’ll be tuning into music that was made for them, by people like them, in a decade they spent at least a couple of years alive in.

The future of rock music is alive and well – it’s just not what you imagined it to look or sound like. But if this is what the kids want, then let ‘em have it. More importantly, let ‘em bloody well enjoy it.

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