The 'rock is dead' debate is the conversation that just won't die. Earlier this year, rapper-turned-punk rocker Machine Gun Kelly suggested that, before his arrival on the scene, the genre had been in need of a defibrillator, and Kiss’ Gene Simmons recently reasserted his notorious 2014 statement, declaring in an interview with Metal Hammer, “I stand by my words: rock is dead.”
If such claims give you the urge to frisbee the latest Ghost record through the window of Simmons’ rockstar abode, you're not alone: few of us would agree that rock music is in its dying throes. Still, it's hard to ignore the fact that, in recent years, rock music has fallen away from the mainstream into a more confined space. According to Billboard, even though 2021 saw a feast of successful rock albums – from Foo Fighters’ Medicine At Midnight to Iron Maiden’s Senjutsu – not one new rock album was listed in the year-end chart of the 200 best-selling albums in America.
Exploding from the cocoon, however, is a new generation of artists who have torn the conventions of the genre as we once knew it to shreds. Dismantling rock’s best qualities, they’ve formed a new hybrid from its constituent parts, merging metal with emo, pop, R’n’B...whatever they want. And it’s not bands, but individual singer-songwriters who are propelling the genre into the mainstream, while dressed in a wardrobe time-warped from early noughties Hot Topic. It’s a movement that’s been given many names – ‘alt pop’ and ‘wrot’ amongst others – but one, catch-all term seems to be gaining the most traction: nu gen.
“This genre is obscene, ruthless and there are no boundaries in lyrical or visual output anymore,” says Mimi Barks, whose self-proclaimed 'doom trap' fuses big riffs with hip hop hooks. “You can self-publish and don’t need to please a third party such as a label, publisher or record store to sell your music.”
Nu gen artists like Mimi don’t fit snugly inside one box; they’re outwardly different in sound but wholly united in attitude. Historically, putting artists into subgenres helped give them a clear sense of identity but here, there are no restrictions based on genre, image, or even having an actual band to write with. It’s a diverse free-for-all, and a refreshing approach to songwriting.
Some of the frontrunners waving the flag for the nu gen scene include the aforementioned Mimi Barks, as well as Cassyette, who merges rock, emo and pop in a black, lip-stick-smudged strain she labels ‘grit pop’; Dana Dentata, who writes industrial-singed, hell-raising rap metal; Mothica, who writes emo-inspired, magnificently moody pop, and Bambie Thug, whose trap-goth stylings could see them as equally at home on a stage with Nine Inch Nails as Megan Thee Stallion. And the nu gen wave is vast; the likes of Siiiickbrain, Lilith Czar, Zand, Lil Lotus, AlienBlaze and Nascar Aloe are just a few of other artists in the mix.
Nu gen is also doing some great and much-needed things for representation in the scene, kicking in the doors of rock's historically misogynistic boys' club courtesy of a cohort of non-binary and LGBTQ+ artists.
“I feel like, now, the audience feels [better] represented by musicians, because you can always find somebody that looks like you, whereas you couldn't before,” suggests Cassyette. “I also see a lot of queer artists coming through, myself being one of them. It's a really exciting time, because where there's more diversity, there's better music and it's only going to make these sounds more futuristic. Rock is becoming redefined.”
And it’s growing, attracting a host of new fans. The scene’s rising stars are bagging support slots with A-listers (Cassyette is supporting My Chemical Romance in stadiums this year), collaborating with mainstream heavyweights (Siiickbrain recently teamed up with Willow ‘daughter-of-Will’ Smith) and dominating the online sphere (after joining TikTok to promote her music in 2020, Mothica’s song Vices attained more than five million views). It’s pushing alternative music into new spaces to reach millions of ears for the first time.
“From my experience on TikTok, I’d say alternative music is now the norm,” suggests Mothica, “which I think, in the long run, is a great thing for the genre to evolve.”
Although nu gen is only just reaching the masses, for artists like Cassyette, it’s a natural progression for a movement that’s been developing under the radar for years, in her case thanks to an upbringing steered by the world of social media and diverse online spaces. “I think it's been bubbling under the scene for a really long time,” she confirms. “I know a lot of these musicians have been making music for years, it's just becoming popular.”
With an early career in the club scene as a DJ, Cassyette has always had one foot planted in electronic pop and the other in rock. She grew up listening to Paramore, Korn, Black Sabbath and Mötley Crüe from the age of 13, but soon found herself venturing away from her teenage heroes once her DJing career took off. Now, she’s become one of the main forerunners of a new generation of artists, and believes that this scene’s approach to blending styles is the secret to lengthening rock’s shelf life.
“It’s important for me to make two sides of music, so that you always leave the door open for people,” she explains. “If you can get more people listening to and loving your music on the pop side of things, they're going to listen to the heavy stuff. That's how you keep [rock] alive.”
While the hype around Cassyette and her peers might seem excessive to some - as well as the MCR dates, she landed BBC Radio 1’s Hottest Track In The World with her song Mayhem and performed with Frank Carter during his headline set at last year’s Download Pilot festival – she’s adamant about having earned her seat at the table. “I’ve worked my ass off to be here,” she states.
Another common theme within nu gen is that, like nu metal and emo before it, it’s a scene that encourages people to be more open about their mental health and be their truest selves, offering an outlet for fans to express themselves unapologetically.
“I think that a lot of kids can relate [to us],” suggests Mimi Barks, “as there has never been a time in history before where we could speak so openly and shamelessly about depression, anxieties, traumas, drugs and sex”.
“The direct connection from artists to the fan base creates a different kind of passion,” adds Dana Dentata. “Being able to say whatever we want in our songs, kids are getting to hear exactly how they feel now. It’s extremely important to me to keep in contact with the people who reach out to me that are affected by my music.”
Mothica, meanwhile, suggests a combination of rock’s natural disposition to emotion and the pure, batshit insanity of the last ten years may have something to do with it.
“I think rock music, heavy music with darker lyrics, has always appealed to fans that are more in touch with their emotions,” she argues. “Maybe with people who have experienced traumatic things in their lives. I think the collective trauma we’ve gone through the last few years has turned a lot more people onto this style of music, and even the way people dress. I’m older than a lot of my fans, and this style of music wasn’t as embraced when I was growing up.”
It’s certainly being embraced now. Nu gen is more than a scene – it’s the sign of a revolution in alternative music. The old ways are reaching their end, and a newer, fresher, more inclusive entity is taking over. There are no limits, no barriers, and it could be just the spark that helps rock take over the world again.
“Rock is very much alive,” insists Cassyette. “ It's been very much alive this entire time because the core fan base has always been there and has always been listening. I just think it's getting a chance to come back and have its own revival and it's turned into something else. It's getting really interesting; I actually think that this is going to be what carries it right to the top…and it will be right at the top.”