Why is Classic Rock So Popular? We Asked Four Experts

Today, so much about the business of music has to do with the moment, with right now. It’s the basis for much of pop music, from top-40 singles and rap to new country, and rock music. But there are other genres like classic rock, which trade in sounds of the past. There is an obvious audience for the genre’s sounds, histories, and stories, but why?

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We sought out those in the know for what they had to say about the genre. For their answers, let’s dive into these four reasons why the genre of classic rock remains beloved.

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It hit you first when you were young… and it was GOOD

Pearl Jam lead guitarist Mike McCready says he grew up listening to classic rock in Seattle, listening to bands and artists like Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, and Jimi Hendrix. Now, he says, it’s a “mind-fuck” to hear his own band, which was founded in 1990, on the station.

“I was a kid listening to [the radio],” McCready tells American Songwriter. “The radio to me was super important growing up. Back then [it] was so important to me as a kid to get me out of the dreariness of what I felt Seattle was at the time… Now, I’m a part of that universe.”

Eva Walker, frontwoman for the indie rock band The Black Tones and the host of the Early radio show on KEXP, agrees. For Walker, classic rock is often tied to the idea of independence. “Well, other than it just being so damn catchy and timeless, it feels like [classic rock] represents the first real act of youth rebellion, it holds this badge of honor that reminds us of a time when we didn’t want to follow the rules anymore or status quo, that’s part of its legacy… That’s rock n roll,” Walker tells American Songwriter. “You’ll usually piss someone off.”

Best-selling writer Charles Cross says that nostalgia born from one’s youth also plays a major force in classic rock’s continued popularity.

“If we looked at the charts [today], there isn’t a rock act in the top 50,” Cross says. “So, rock is not the dominant genre in music and has not been for some time… Rock itself indeed is dead as a commercial genre, in terms of recorded record sales. But in terms of radio, rock radio is still a very successful format.”

Cross says that people “want to hear” songs they grew up with, songs they lost their virginity to, and songs they heard at prom. This nostalgia and connection to the past—especially your own—is valuable and it’s often the territory that classic rock treads in these days. “Those things mean something,” Cross says. But it’s not all just about nostalgia, is it?

“It might [also] actually be that [classic rock] is really some of the best music that was created,” Cross says, highlighting acts like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Fleetwood Mac. He notes that the 1970s created much of the greatest music ever. “The ’70s,” Cross says, “it’s like a giant sun that all the other planets circulate around.”

The definition is constantly evolving

For Jeff Fielder, a supremely talented guitar player who has toured with the likes of Mark Lanegan and the Indigo Girls, he says he likes “everything” about classic rock—well, mostly everything. The name is a bit irksome, he says, adding, “It’s such a generic name for such a vast, eclectic and important time I’m music. I would put it generally anything considered rock and roll music between 1964 and 1993. That’s a lot of ground for a silly title to cover. “

Despite this qualm, Fielder praises much of the work considered to be part of the genre. “The music that has really survived through this time has proven so far to be the best music ever made. And I say that knowing that I may make me sound like a grumpy old man. But the music that was once considered mainstream was made by true artists and was put out into the world by people who appreciated these artists. The folks who ran record labels were music lovers. That of course doesn’t mean there wasn’t manipulation and bad business going on. It was the golden age of ripping musicians off. But almost everything that came out, particularly in the late ’60s through the ’70s, had a palpable sense of authenticity and soul.”

So, since the genre is constantly evolving to allow more bands in, the genre itself can stay alive. No longer are classic rock stations only playing the British Invasion, Hendrix, and others from the ’60s and ’70s. Today, Prince is in, grunge is in, and soon bands that Fielder and Walker are in will be in by default and definition, too.

It’s made with “real” instruments (that you also likely play)

The popularity and functionality of the guitar play a major role in the success of classic rock. As does the standard four-piece band (drums, bass, guitar, and either keys or a second guitar).

Explains Fielder, “The first electric guitars introduced in the early ’50s predate the Beatles by 12 years, or so. And on the other hand, as the music got louder, the amps were built bigger and the advent of fuzz and wha-wha pedals for the likes of Jimi Hendrix acted like gasoline on an already raging fire. The invention of those early days is to me still breathtaking. The complexities yet relatability of these artists are absolutely unmatched.

“The Who, Jimi, and the unbelievable artistry of the Beatles in not just playing and songwriting but the subject matter, and the recording techniques and the constant pushing forward all the while always nodding to the past gave all of this music an instant timeless and important feel,” Fielder adds. “And the fans of music throughout this time had a deep appreciation for all of this as it informed and decorated their lives. Pretty special.”

These bands and their sounds have created their own lexicon, Fielder says. “This music is like language to me. Probably most of the time I take it for granted. I work with a lot of different musicians and styles and I’m constantly calling up references to all kinds of things pertaining to this music. 

“If you say ‘make it Stonesy’ to a guitarist, they usually know exactly what you mean… Keywords like if you want the band to sound really classic then a lot of folks use Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers reference” he continues. “That kind of thing. We are all here because of this music and its unbelievable influence on all of us whether we know it or not. I almost daily try and recall the way I felt the first time I heard Duane Allman play. Or the way it made me feel hearing ‘Black Dog’ for the first time. It was literally life-altering. So everything I do is influenced by this stuff. Just can’t help it.”

Many of its heroes are timeless, even mythological

For Walker, when she thinks of classic rock, she says “bands and artists like Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and The Doors” come to mind. She adds, “What I love most about these sorts of bands is the obvious blues influence on them. You can hear Robert Johnson in this music, you can hear Muddy Waters, you can hear Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Howlin’ Wolf, you can hear even the gospel influence.”

For her, these heroes of the genre make the music sing. She says, “It’s the perfect consequence of what came before and it just grooves! The heavy influence of black music and culture is what, to me, make it not just rock, but specifically rock ‘n’ roll.”


It’s for the reasons above that the genre will never die. On the contrary, it will continue to expand over the years and only gain more strength, thanks to the originators of the genre way back in the mid-20th century.

Photo by Mat Hayward/WireImage

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