Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Black Keys and the Future of Rock n' Roll

I love rock n' roll. I love it most in it's ragged glory, with feedback and shreaking guitars supported by pounding drums and swooping bass. I love poppy Beatlesque rock like R.E.M., sloppy rock personified by the Rolling Stones and The Replacements, the arty rock of Bowie and Roxy Music, anthemic rock like The Who and U2, and pretty much everything in between. What I don't love is the rock n' roll of today. Something seems to have been lost since the last new great rock bands came along in the 90s, but I don't know what it is.

Stephen Hyden's acknowledgement of this issue is what makes his compelling "Winners History of Rock n' Roll" series in Grantland so compelling. In particular, his final chapter about the excellent Black Keys is recommended reading, containing great insights like:

... the Black Keys, one of the only indie bands of the '00s to break out of the underground rock ghetto and achieve mass stardom. The Black Keys succeeded, in part, because it worked around rock radio, licensing songs to more than 300 films, TV shows, and commercials. In a way, dealing to corporate America from its deep well of bluesy, atmospheric guitar riffs was better than radio airplay, since the audience was bigger and you could actually get paid big dollars up front. ... But once the Black Keys became the soundtrack for every new car, push-up bra, and fourth-ranked nighttime TV drama on earth, people finally began noticing and buying their records.
If you happen to be part of the audience that rock music used to cater to — if you work an unsexy job in an unsexy town in an unsexy part of the country — you're not really invited to the party anymore. Which is OK, because there's still a form of rock music that's made for you, it's just not called rock music — it's called country. One of the best-selling country records of the last few years is Eric Church's Chief, and one of that record's biggest songs is "Springsteen," which is about the ability of rock music to signify the most crucial moments of a person's life. When was the last time a rock song talked about that? Chief is precisely the sort of heartland rock record that people like Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Bob Seger made into a viable commercial genre in the '70s and '80s. It's not that people stopped wanting records like that; rock bands just lost interest in making them.
I've actually felt this last point for some time, the problem is that the history of country has led to some standard musical themes that I just can't stomach. (Mainly the sensitive yodeling.) So modern country remains one of the few genres that I don't listen to. In other words, while I may like the message, I don't like the music. I want my loud, raunchy, fuck-the-establishment guitars! I want my singing to be screamed, or at least sung in a way that isn't necessarily auto-tuned or professionally trained. I want more bands like the Black Keys - a band whose Pandora station is on heavy rotation at Thought Ambience headquarters.

Related Posts:
Viva Roxy Music

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