Arena rock (known additionally by various names such as "AOR" or "album-oriented rock", "anthem rock", "corporate rock", "dad rock", "melodic rock", "pomp rock", and "stadium rock") is a style of rock music that originated in the mid-1970s. As hard rock bands and those playing a softer yet strident kind of pop rock became increasingly popular, groups creating material inherently designed for large audiences, arena rock developed from their use of more commercially oriented and radio-friendly sounds. The often highly-produced music, including both upbeat, dramatic songs and slower power ballads, features strong emphasis on melody and frequently employs anthemic choruses. Other major characteristics include prominent guitar effects and the use of keyboard instruments.
Many of the above labels are used pejoratively, and discussions over music criticism often delves into the question of if musicians' focus on rock spectacle and mass appeal results in compromised artistic merit, particularly in terms of the difference between the interests of the "middlebrow" populace versus other listeners. Interest in arena rock is stereotypically associated with working class to middle class white men living in either Canada or the United States (including so-called "Yuppies"), which has been cited as the basis for condescending prejudice over social status in some criticisms. However, the style have music has been popularly successful worldwide, particularly in terms of touring.
History and stylistic evolution
In the period from the end of the 1960s to the middle of the 1970s, advances in technology allowed for the increased power of amplification and sound systems without losing sound quality, thus giving hard rock bands the opportunity to use larger and larger venues. One of the first groups to use these changes as a marketing appeal was the Flint, Michigan born outfit Grand Funk Railroad, which advertised itself as a "people's band" on the release of their 1969 debut album given their nationwide touring, playing to about 125,000 in Georgia and 180,000 in Texas within a short period of time. Although what was to become heavy metal music and the arena rock style had many differences, they notably shared an emphasis on loudness and visual displays of power, and both formed as a reaction against the more experimental, heavily psychedelia-influenced sound that had dominated the rock mainstream before. Some psychedelic rock artists with a more guitar-driven, poppy style adapted to the different approach, however, one prominent example being the Steve Miller Band.
Despite the differences in terms of genre, Beatlemania and the gigantic, screaming crowds that greeted the Beatles as they performed in the U.S. proved influential on arena rock, particularly with artists' complex views of the connection between themselves as musicians and the primal needs of their mass audiences. The rise of the rock style largely signified the end of the hippie-type of idealistic 1960s culture, particularly after the disillusionment that followed the infamous Altamont Free Concert of 1969, and represented a newer form of musical expression that was still confident and strident while also being more commercial. With hundreds of individuals getting injured and one completely dying, said concert has been described as "the spiritual death of the decade".
The music of the 1970s often reflected changing philosophical interests compared to previous decades, with personal growth, private revelation, and self-improvement gaining more emphasis compared to past interests in collectivist social activism. The period coming to be known dismissively as the "Me Decade", rock releases frequently celebrated a hedonistic, self-indulgent abandonment. However, multiple artists also pursued an arena rock sound based on individual inspiration and achievement, particularly in anthemic songs about independence.
Some groups altered their previous sound to adapt to the changing environment and found additional success, an example being the English group The Kinks and its pursuit of a heavier, more guitar-driven style in the late 1970s. Nonetheless, the use of commercial sponsorship for the large-scale tours and concerts of this era, a practice that continues, has caused the music to pick up the pejorative label of being "corporate rock". Critics such as writer Chris Smith have argued that the style dehumanized listeners, setting them up as passive recipients rather than allowing them to truly engage with musicians, and additionally put different bands in a position akin to homogenized products. It's also been regarded as essentially malign capitalist propaganda. The distance between taste-makers' judgment of certain groups as "uncool" and their mass audience appeal had existed since the style's origins after the ending of the 1960s, and a wide variety of other dismissive terms have gotten used such as "dad rock".
Arena rock's popularity, being described as "a dominant force" musically from the 1970s onward, resulted in a number of musical reactions. The British pub rock movement arose in large part due to its emphasis on small-scale events, aimed at promoting a friendly, intimate connection between performers and audiences. The explosion of punk rock and punk subcultures in general in the 1970s directly challenged the perceived excesses of mainstream rock at the time. Still, as stated by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the following decade, particularly the late 1980s, is "considered a golden era of hard rock in terms of commercial airplay".
During that period, arena rock often evolved in a way that was still melodic and performance-driven yet far more aggressive and confrontational. Mainstream rock became dominated by these hair metal (also known as "glam metal" and "pop metal") bands, with a large emphasis still being put on both on music and visuals. Flashy clothing with elements such as heavy makeup and dramatic hairstyles became common. Prominent examples of this genre include Def Leppard, L.A. Guns, Mötley Crüe, and Poison among many others. Their popularity crashed after the success of alternative rock bands who began to breakthrough into popular consciousness with an even more abrasive sound, particularly artists influenced by the success of Nirvana in the early 1990s.
The website AllMusic has opined that "[o]ld-fashioned hard rock became a scarce commodity in the post-alternative rock era; after grunge, many guitar bands not only adopted a self-consciously serious attitude, but also resisted the urge to write fist-pumping, arena-ready choruses." However, multiple artists have continued to play on to cult followings. Bands Bon Jovi and Van Halen in particular achieved significant commercial success into the 1990s.
One example of a direct continuity of sound between groups is how in 1988 Boston-based band Aerosmith gave the outfit Guns N' Roses (GnR) an touring opportunity for the latter's first major set of performances, with GnR guitarist Slash adapting and expanding their mutual, arena-friendly style. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has remarked that the nine minute long GnR single "November Rain" and its related music video that "solidified the band as a group of musicians capable of lavish arena-rock level productions both on and off the stage". The band notably performed the song at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards alongside Elton John, a musician who'd rose to prominence in the arena rock movement back in the 1970s.
Musical and visual elements
Historian Gary A. Donaldson has summed up arena rock as "big hair, big voices, and really big guitars." In contrast to other types of music with a more raw, timeworn approach, musicians emphasize dramatic production. With bands inherently designing their material for large audiences, the songs focus greatly on the melody, songs often featuring strident choruses. Guitar effects and the playing of keyboard instruments play large roles in the sound. Fireworks displays, use of smoke, and methods of sophisticated lighting have become part of what's known as arena rock's visual aesthetic. In terms of the changing trends into the 1980s and onward, the style essentially replaced disco in terms of mass pop culture appeal.
Analysis of styles and trends
Ethnomusicologist Chris McDonald of Cape Breton University has argued that the label of a musical artist as "arena rock" and "old wave", done by music critics dismissively, originates from a background of classism influenced by modernism. Thus, mass popularity is put forth as an argument against perceived artistic merit, through the eyes of critics focused on high culture while disdaining market forces, particularly given the white, working class to middle class makeup of the fans. Focusing on the Canadian trio Rush, McDonald stated that the panning of the group as "dazzling yet empty" due to the musicians' focus on rock spectacle is a consequence of critics' psychological distance from the "middlebrow" populace that listens to them.
The label of "corporate rock" due to the connection between major companies and these artists has often attracted debate. As stated earlier, arena rock fans receive criticism for allegedly being passive recipients easily led to consume a manufactured musical product, with many artists being largely indistinguishable in their slick sound.
Deliberately playing against criticism and claiming to represent the people against the elite has been used in musical marketing. The association of arena rock with the so-called "yuppies" and their conspicuous consumption additionally has tied the style with a group often maligned in the media, subject to mocking caricatures other kinds of ridicule. However, as pointed out by historian Gary A. Donaldson, the music eclipsed the waning genre of disco and related bands successfully toured across the world.
- 1970s in music
- List of rock genres
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