Rock & roll is dead again.
The news first came from Billboard, the music-biz trade journal whose chart pundit, Paul Grein, headlined his year-end column ''Rock-a-Bye-Bye: Genre Left Behind in '90.'' Grein noted that in 1990 no rock bands reached No. 1 on the charts, the first time rock had been shut out for an entire year since 1963.
Of course, rock was also supposed to be dead in 1963, just before the Beatles arrived to resurrect it, and it was pronounced dead again during the disco years. But this time rock's disappearance from the top of the charts reflects bigger problems.
The current autopsy suggests that today's rock has also been strangled by definitions: What's amazing is the variety of music that's no longer considered rock. A wide range of current top hit artists from post-Madonna singer-songwriter Sinéad O'Connor to old-fart art-rock balladeer Phil Collins, black-mood music kings Depeche Mode to druggy dilettantes Jane's Addiction would all have been regarded as rockers in the '60s, '70s, and early '80s. Now, though, such artists are placed in a narrower category-''pop'' or ''dance'' or ''postmodern'' or some other slim niche.
By such standards, any black act less heavy-metal than Living Colour (virtually the only recent black rock act to succeed on the pop charts) couldn't possibly be rock & roll. In fact, one of the most striking similarities between rock's current alleged demise and its earlier mortal moments is that all have occurred during periods when white rock has been separated from black music especially on the airwaves. Rock stations, including the so-called ''alternative'' ones, don't program black records, period. Apparently, if it's got a good beat and you can dance to it, it's no longer rock & roll.
So M.C. Hammer's biggest smash, ''U Can't Touch This,'' based on Rick James' ''Super Freak,'' a Motown hit with one of the crusher rock riffs of the early '80s, is not rock. Neither are any of the other hip-hop records that though this might come as a surprise to people who think rap is closed to white music sample as freely from Led Zeppelin and heavy metal as from James Brown and funk. This isn't a new problem: Rick James, who desperately wanted and deserved to be accepted as a rocker, spent his whole career failing to persuade the radio and record industries that rock was about beat and attitude, not skin color.
Old story or not, all this means that the most exciting, rebellious, hardest-rocking music of the early '90s rap and hip-hop can't be considered rock. Given that rap and hip-hop have more in common with the fierce and joyous spirit of the Who and Little Richard than any other brand of contemporary music does, that's a silly artistic judgment. But it's an all- too-intelligent reflection of music-industry reality, in which radio, record labels, and most record stores maintain separate categories for black and white music makers.
This set of false assumptions is also an unfortunately accurate mirror of music-industry priorities. Nobody's saying that good rock & roll records in the tradition that descends from the Beatles and Bob Dylan aren't being made, and nobody's even saying that rock no longer makes money: Aerosmith and Mötley Crüe were among Billboard's 1990 top 10 best-sellers, and the Black Crowes and Damn Yankees have two of the hottest albums on the charts right now. No, the real complaint, from a white-dominated music industry, is that rock is no longer king of the hill.
But who says that rock's hegemony was healthy? In the past few years, the horizons of ambitious young rockers especially hard rockers who want to make it commercially have narrowed. Mainly, the approaches are too often limited to using shock or silliness as an art masquerade, as with Jane's Addiction and Faith No More, or using mega-sales as their own justification, as with Warrant and Cinderella. If the best that new rock can offer is not even novelty but outright gimmickry, like Billy Idol's stud routine; if the most worthy new hero it can find is a bonehead shill like Jon Bon Jovi, whose synthesis of heavy metal and Bruce Springsteen sucks both into the vacuum of pure cliche, then maybe it really is time for rock to leave center stage.
Of course, rock's current death may turn out to be as temporary as its earlier ones, since some of the biggest rock acts of all Bruce Springsteen and U2, Guns N' Roses and R.E.M. will release high-profile albums this year. But if rock's continued relevance depends on the recycling of the same handful of predictable heroes, then it's not too much healthier than post-Sinatra saloon singing. Whether rock can survive and prosper in the '90s is really a question of whether those artists and new ones can learn to use its musical vocabulary to say something fresh. It's not that long ago that hard- rock records accomplished that feat. You need go back no further than Guns N' Roses' 1987 debut album, Appetite for Destruction, which did it in two songs, ''Sweet Child o' Mine'' and ''Welcome to the Jungle.'' They opened a strangely gleeful and loving window onto the fear and isolation of the blankest new generation yet, with a vow never to surrender to despair. Such records are unforgettable because they use rock to respond to the conditions in today's world, not merely to evoke yesterday's; to break down the barriers among forms and factions, not surrender to them; to open our hearts by opening our eyes to the harshest truths and to make us laugh with an acute sense of what's most ridiculous about everyday attitudes and assumptions. If rock can't do that in the '90s, it won't be missed.
Several rock bands have made major chart impact lately, though there's very little that's likely to be long remembered:
The Razors Edge
Last year's one really great hard-rock record, loud enough to splinter eardrums and utterly unapologetic about what aficionados will recognize as inspired both as an assault on the basics and an affirmation of them. A
The Traveling Wilburys
The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3
Their first album was not only a great gimmick but a promising exploration of easy-listening rock that never lacked bite. But without the late Roy Orbison's galvanizing vocal presence, Jeff Lynne's bombastic production becomes the center of the show. C+
The Black Crowes
Shake Your Money Maker
The Black Crowes are to the early Rolling Stones what Christian Slater is to the young Jack Nicholson: a self- conscious imitation, but fine enough in its own right. Authentic bluesmen these Crowes will never be, but their sheer energy earns 'em the right to trash it up. B+
Ted Nugent is in his third decade as a chart-maker, and Damn Yankees aren't much better or worse than the Amboy Dukes, his mid-' 60s garage rock band. So there's still a market for the third-rate after all these years. D-
Warrant wanted to be stars worse than any band since Kiss. That gave last year's debut a certain charge and exhausted their ambition. Now they can record a few more discs of guitar- 'n' female-bashing, then break up and join a sexagenarian Ted Nugent in a soft-metal supergroup sometime after the turn of the century. C-