The morning before The Rolling Stones were scheduled to perform a sold-out Los Angeles show at the Rose Bowl last week, Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Dr., offered up a mysterious video teasing something happening between NASA and the band. At the concert, which was packed with fans of all ages donning band-approved apparel from throughout their 57-year existence, Downey appeared shortly before the group’s set to announce the naming of a literal rolling stone on Mars after the rock legends. It’s hard to say if the buildup was necessarily worth the payoff, but if anything, it underscored a grandeur that extends beyond performing at the biggest venues on planet earth for decades. The Rolling Stones’ influence is, truly, galactic.
The concert showcased a band with enough transcendental hits to not only fill a couple of hours on stage, but that could also leave off enough that an entire set could easily be conceived of generational tunes that were not performed. Fans of a similar age as the band sang along, but so did young people and everyone in-between. Whether you like classic rock or have just seen a Martin Scorsese film, the group has likely let itself bleed into your purview. The fact that frontman Mick Jagger originally had to postpone these concerts because of a heart procedure, only to spend the majority of his stage time frantically dancing as if powered by electricity, only exemplifies the sturdiness and ubiquity of this band. Taking into account that the median age for living human beings is estimated to be in the late-20s, for the vast majority of people alive, The Rolling Stones have always existed, and have always been undeniably important.
Now, there is an idiom that says “they don’t make them like they used to,” and it’s a phrase that often feels false. In most cases, they are making things better than ever, with technology improving exponentially (and most other areas following suit). There is a name for this, Kurzweil’s Law Of Accelerating Returns, which sort of feels like the opposite of entropy, where things gradually dissolve into chaos and disorder. With regards to music, it’s easy to look at a lack of rock stars in the vein of The Rolling Stones and think that speaks to a lack of quality or marketability. But maybe we’re just looking in the wrong places.
Because it is true, it’s almost impossible to imagine an instrument-playing rock band assuming the throne if and when The Rolling Stones decide to hang it all up. In terms of certified stadium-headlining ability, there have been few, if any, rock bands that have been able to touch such lofty heights in this century. U2 spent several decades hitting such high points, but aside from their Joshua Tree anniversary tour, they’ve shifted to more manageable arenas in recent years. Metallica can still headline a stadium thanks to their very loyal faithful, but even with their hugely recognizable brand, they just don’t have the music that is ingrained to the general public, especially outside of a song like “Enter Sandman.” Green Day has also been able to hit such peaks with ticket sales, but the sustainability of that feels very doubtful, at least without forming some sort of package deal.
There will always be bands who ascend to stadium status, but maintaining that is where it really gets tricky. Jagger noted during his performance that it was 25 years since the band had first played the Rose Bowl and 55 years since they first played Los Angeles. Stadium shows in the city might have peaked for the Stones in 1989, when they played four nights at the Coliseum, a venue of a similar size to the Rose Bowl. Any artist doing the same in 2019 is unthinkable.
But if we’re going to imagine who might be able to be The Rolling Stones for millennials (assuming U2 is likely the choice for Gen X), it’s best to look outside the traditional rock and roll world completely. BTS is the most stadium-ready artist on the planet, but that huge appeal is likely to be temporary, as has happened to One Direction, Backstreet Boys, and every other boy band before them. Others like Ed Sheeran can play to such a large crowd, but that appeal also seems to be more tied to the moment than the artist’s long-term viability. It remains to be seen whether those two can sustain their massive popularity for decades into the future, but it’s an uphill battle regardless.
Others like Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Beyonce present better propositions, but each also has their own issues becoming the next Rolling Stones. For Kanye, he’s got the songs to do just that, as well as the brand-name personality, but his unpredictability as both a live performer and an artist in general has kept him from ascending to a stadium-sized plateau. In fact, the divisive nature of his persona might be the biggest factor keeping him from becoming the artist of his generation in a commercial sense, even if he might be just that in a critical sense.
The Carter family, on the other hand, is about as beloved as they come (unless you don’t like football), but Jay-Z has been a stadium headliner only when paired with Beyonce, or on his joint tour with Justin Timberlake. Beyonce doesn’t quite need her husband these days to reach such big audiences, but the fact that she’s moved away from crafting pop hits and into more difficult — though often brilliant — territory might be holding her back. Even a look at her most recent offerings, Everything Is Love and her Lion King work, hasn’t quite felt as omnipresent as the Lemonade era. Still, a return to her chart-smashing ways could put her in the position of being an artist that could continue to play the world’s biggest venues thirty years from now.
But for my money, I present to you the two artists I could best see filling the place held by The Rolling Stones as their careers become decades old: Drake and Taylor Swift. In Drake, he still hasn’t even attempted an artist-defining stadium tour, but the way he’s crafted literally dozens of instantly recognizable tunes over the past ten years makes him the best candidate. From Degrassi to his recent producer credit on Euphoria, Drake’s interests go beyond music, much like Jagger became a household face outside of his music career. It’s easy to imagine Drake’s music as defining a generation, and that those people will keep coming back for more, and bringing their kids to witness the spectacle. While hip-hop has replaced rock and roll as the defining music of a culture, Drake’s appeal goes far beyond his genre, to the point where it feels like every person in the millennial age range or younger is intimately familiar with the bulk of his work. Even the rapid-fire release schedule that Drake’s new music follows imitates the pattern of how bands like The Stones and The Beatles became such cultural icons. In the most crucial moments of their careers, they were never off-cycle, and neither is Drake.
Taylor Swift fits some of these categories (see her upcoming appearance in Cats, but ignore the gap years between new music), but where Swift really makes sense in is in her ability to transcend genre and generation. Her country roots, her wading into pop territory, and her indie approval all speak to the wide range of her fanbase, even if a Taylor Swift stadium show tends to skew towards her younger crowd. Swift’s ability to evolve from album to album, as well as her innate songwriting bona fides, hold every indication of having massive staying power. Sure, some of her recent pop-leaning tunes feel particularly tied to a moment, but her songs are solid enough to evolve into whatever sounds best at the time. If she keeps her promise and re-records all her old masters, I’d expect that to play a role, as her songs could take on any new form that she desires.
My favorite point of The Rolling Stones concert was when the band reconfigured itself at the end of the catwalk to play a few of their tunes as country-ish acoustic numbers, including my absolute fave, “Dead Flowers.” It’s a move that many artists do in such large spaces, including Swift, who takes the nightly opportunity to showcase her abilities beyond her massive pop spectacle. Swift also knows that each tour needs to be its own entity, a fact that The Rolling Stones have perfected and rock bands like Metallica and Green Day have never quite grasped. The Stones have mastered the art of being an event, and whoever follows in their footsteps needs to do the same. Drake and Swift seem the closest to figuring this out, and if they master it and manage to continue their careers into their old age, being along for the ride will be something amazing to behold. But for now, go see The Rolling Stones while you can. They are truly one of a kind, at least for now.