Thursday, July 21, 2016

Rock Elegy

My recent ‘best of the White Stripes’ post got me thinking about the band’s breakout in the early 2000s and how it coincided with the end of rock music’s relevance.  Now, I’m not actually blaming the White Stripes for this…the writing was on the wall for rap, hip-hop and pop to make its massive resurgence that has continued to this very day.  That wave was coming no matter what, though if I could blame anyone (which is the point of this post!), I’ll point the finger at the Strokes and music critics.

It could also be argued that music criticism itself died in the early 2000s, since the Rolling Stones-style, Lester Bangs-ish ideal of the critic as tireless discoverer of new music peaked at the moment Lester Bangs himself was played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in ‘Almost Famous.’  Up until that moment, the music world still revolved around the romantic idea that rock could double as a movement, sort of like how grunge, ahem, “saved” music* in the early 90’s.  A decade later, when disposable pop was again topping the charts, it seemed like every critic in the world decided en masse that music had to be “saved” again, this time in the form of garage rock.  The “the” bands (the Strokes, the Vines, the Hives, the White Stripes, etc.) would be the stars of the next golden age of rock.

* = since I’m on record as stating that Nirvana is the most overrated band of all time, let me pause a moment for a super-hard eyeroll

The problem was that basically aside from the White Stripes, none of these bands had the chops.  As much as I loathe Nirvana, I’ll at least admit that they brought something to the table that mainstream music hadn’t really seen before, plus grunge was then legitimized by the likes of Pearl Jam or Soundgarden.  The White Stripes were very much doing their own thing, equal parts old-school blues rock and the goofy modern gimmickry of the brother/sister schtick and the colour scheme, so they weren’t exactly the banner figures for a genre.   The Hives were similarly gimmicky, and I had literally forgot about the Vines before this very post.

As for the Strokes, they’re not really a bad band.  I’ve heard *maybe* four of their songs, and one of those songs (what else but ‘Last Night’) is actually really good.  I dislike the band themselves much less than I like the inexplicable cult of personality that rose up around them, fuelled seemingly entirely by music critics.  They tried so hard to make the Strokes happen and it just utterly and completely went nowhere.

I can’t blame the band for getting stuck in an ocean of hype, though in a way, I suppose I probably can since the Strokes seemed to design their entire persona as a pastiche of other acts.  Big chunk of the Ramones, healthy dose of the Velvet Underground, maybe a bit of New Wave style in there…it was a Frankenstein’s monster that resulted in the Strokes seeming instantly familiar the first time you ever saw or heard them.  Great for marketing purposes, since rock media fell all over itself for a band that looked and acted just like their favourites.  The Strokes seemed less like than a fresh entity than they seemed like Malibu Ramones with a new hat.  It would be one thing if their music was great enough to establish themselves, yet they’re the definition of a one-album wonder.

Fast-forward to 2016 and here’s rock music, more or less stone dead as a mainstream musical entity.  No rock band founded in the last 15 years can sell out an arena tour, let alone stadiums.  The idea of a chart-topping rock single seems impossibly quaint.  This isn’t a comment on the quality of modern acts; there’s lots of great rock music out there, it’s just that it’s all stuck beneath the glass ceiling of popularity with no hope of escape.  Rock had a strong run of around 40 years as music’s dominant genre but that run is clearly over.  Moreover, music criticism is also essentially dead.  People are as eager as ever to be turned onto new music, though now they have the technology that can literally find new favourite for them based on listening patterns, so a breathless review from a new-age Lester Bangs doesn’t carry any weight.

Man, this went a long way from a fun little retrospective of the White Stripes, eh?

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