Few will argue that the No. 1 music artist going right now is probably Taylor Swift, who at 25 is already flirting with iconic status. This after recently ditching her country aspirations to become a pop goddess.
Then there is "The Voice" coach Adam Levine who is frontman to Maroon 5 – an L.A. garage band that has reached monstrous fame despite some critics defining their music as overproduced pop.
Who else is brilliantly hot this very moment? Beyoncé. Kanye West. Justin Bieber. Ed Sheeran. Pharrell Williams. Miley Cyrus. There are others.
Out of the entire group, would any of them fit into the category of rock? Maybe Maroon 5, although some will debate that. And we don’t even have to ask about country.
All this raises the question of today’s music scene: Is rock ’n’ roll dead?
Steve Walley leaned back in his chair for a few seconds, folded his arms across his chest and sighed.
"I would say it’s in hibernation right now," he says. "Its effects are still being felt. ... People still like to feel that back beat; that one-two-three-four- type of thing.
"To me, it’s always interesting that people still – and not just the older people – want to go back and listen to the great artists. Last year, the No. 3 all-time sales was The Beatles. No. 3! Elvis still sells. He’s in the top 10. Diana Ross and the Supremes. Motown still has an effect. Motown was unique; nothing like it before, nothing like it since."
Amid the computer classes and astrophysics profs and advanced math courses at IPFW, Walley might possess one of the more enjoyable teaching jobs at the university, in that twice a week, in Kettler Hall’s Room 150, he conducts a history of rock ’n’ roll class.
His qualifications are numerous.
He and music began their lifelong romance when he began piano lessons at the age of 5. A zillion lessons later led to a piano performance degree from American Conservatory in his hometown of Chicago. He was even in an aptly named group called The Sojourners, touring the United Kingdom and Scandinavia for four years. He chaired the piano department at Fort Wayne Bible College and was coaxed to IPFW, where he initially taught instrumental and vocal arranging and some musical technology.
While the Sojourners have gone by way of the Fort Wayne Bible College, in that neither no longer exists, the 70-year-old Walley is still traveling – not as a musician, but as a teacher. In addition to his Friday afternoon and Saturday morning classes at IPFW, he’s at Indiana Wesleyan in Marion, where he teaches history of fine arts and communications. He’s also on the staff at St. Joe United Methodist Church, where you can find him Sunday mornings at the keyboard.
But on this late Friday, he’s inside Kettler, last door on the right at the end of the hall. Behind him on the pull-down screen, with a video interview set on pause, is a modern-day David Bowie.
Because it’s late in the school year, Walley and his classes have covered rock ’n’ roll’s early history, from Bill Haley and the Comets to Buddy Holly and the Crickets to the finger-snapping doo-wop groups born on the stoops of New York and Philadelphia. They’ve studied Elvis, Little Richard, The Beatles, the Stones, Elton John and the hair bands.
Today’s topic delves not into the making of rock, but the marketing of rock; when 1970s dollar signs carry more significance within the industry than the peace signs of the ’60s. "Rock theater," Walley calls it; David Bowie and his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust; Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 "Rumours" album that has sold more than 13 million copies, and the equally popular "Frampton Comes Alive" album from a year earlier.
"There was pressure to write (songs) for other people instead of writing for myself," Peter Frampton says on the screen.
"It was a sea change in the industry," Walley tells the class.
Walley asks if anyone has heard of Frampton. From the back, a hand raises.
"I grew up listening to classic rock with my dad," says the young man.
Says Walley: "You’re probably the first student in about three years that actually knew who Peter Frampton was. He was a good example of what you would call a very brief career."
Walley claims he divides the course into "three threads – historical, personal, artistic."
In front of nine students – all males, some of whom seem interested, others not as much – Walley shifts to the artistic thread. With David/Ziggy off the screen and Frampton short-lived career discussed, Walley goes into a long homage of the early 1970s group Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and particularly encourages the class to listen to Keith Emerson’s piano brilliance.
One who seems to listen is 23-year-old Christian Terrones, who sits near the windows.
He enjoys the class, he says.
"It’s interesting to look back on things and see how even modern-day music has evolved to blues, jazz; way back to Bach and Beethoven," Terrones says. His favorite era is from the 1970s through the ’90s.
So he is posed with the same question. Is rock ’n’ roll dead?
"I wouldn’t say it’s dead, but I wouldn’t say it’s still alive, either," Terrones says. "I would say it’s in somewhat of a comatose stage. It’s flat-lined a little bit to where there’s not much to it. Like a lot of bands from the ’70s and ’90s, to where they were rock ’n’ roll kings, per se, they’re not alive anymore. They’re kind of being re-created and rethought, reimagined. But it’s not what it’s used to be whatsoever. Kind of sad."
It’s a sad, sad situation. – Elton John, 1976