What's music's next big trend? It may be sensitive singer/songwriters, neo-classic rock, or something we can't even begin to predict, says Tom Sinclair
The Soundtrack of Our Lives
Credit: Soundtrack: Parasol

What’s music’s next big trend?

Like most of my colleagues in the rock critic community, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the next big musical trend will be. Everyone agrees that teen pop is slowly petering out, but no one knows what will take its place. For a while it looked like rap-rock (Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park) or nu-metal (Slipknot, System of a Down) might be the Next Big Thing (NBT), but neither of those genres feels like a bona fide phenomenon at this point.

I recently returned from the annual South By Southwest Music conference and festival, held March 13-17 in Austin. More than 1,000 musical acts searching for that elusive big break played SXSW this year and the town was crawling with record biz types hunting for the NBT. If anyone found it, I wish they’d tell me.

If rock history has taught us anything, it’s that NBTs are all but impossible to predict. Who could have foreseen the coming of Elvis Presley back in the mid-’50s, or the Beatles in the early ’60s? Both arrived, seemingly out of nowhere, fully formed and ready to change the musical landscape forever. Likewise with the Ramones in the ’70s; they may not have sold a lot of records but, as Eddie Vedder pointed out when he inducted them into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last week, every punk rocker in the world could sue them for paternity.

In the ’80s, Run-DMC and rap emerged, and the still-growing hip-hop movement got under way; it’s still with us, despite the scoffing of naysayers who initially thought rap was just a fad. The ’90s brought us Nirvana and the grunge revolution, which caught the entire music industry unawares and shook up the airwaves in ways that are still being felt.

The point is, in every case these NBTs seemed to spring up completely without warning. One thing’s for sure: NBTs cannot be manufactured or hyped into existence (remember the great electronica scam of 1997?). They’ve got to come about organically. Another thing all of the above examples have in common is that they rose up at times when popular music was in a doldrums. Well, we’re certainly in a slump now, so a new NBT may be just around the corner.

What’s it going to be? Heck if I know. But there are a few possibilities. Roots and neo-classic rock is coming back strong, thanks to Ryan Adams and Nickelback, who offer the kind of sturdy tunes and melodic songwriting that never goes out of fashion. The garage rock movement, led by the White Stripes, is also picking up steam: Many of the bands at SXSW, such as the Von Bondies, the Greenhornes, are reinvigorating the format in ways that are catchy enough to be commercial. A Swedish band called The Soundtrack of Our Lives that I saw at SXSW offered a different take on garage rock, mixing its raw energy with a trippy psychedelic vibe not unlike early Pink Floyd. And don’t underestimate the power of sensitive singer/songwriters, who may make a return yet — the much-hyped Norah Jones being a prime example.

These are only guesses, of course, some of them admittedly tinged with wishful thinking. Whatever it winds up being, the NBT will hopefully be something filled with a palpable passion, truth, and soul — which prefab teen pop lacks. But for all I know, the NBT could be jazz-rock fusion — so dust off those old Mahavishnu Orchestra albums.

What do you think the Next Big Thing will be?