The Music Club

Emo Reigns—And Whatever Happened to Meaningful Rock?

Dear Rob, Sasha,

“Cultural relevance” sure is a fleeting and chimerical thing, Rob. Here we are two days into this throwdown, and nobody has mentioned Everycritic’s (former?) heavyweight champions of Meaningful Rock—and I’m leaving those wormy Brits right in the can where they belong. (Hint: The band’s name starts with an “r” and rhymes with “madio shed.”) So for the time being, I suppose we’ll have to make do with subcultural relevance, which like it or not means emo.

In a simpler age, Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba would be penning sonnet cycles to his coy mistress. Or he’d be Tommy James. I don’t consider the melding of these two archetypes an evolutionary advance, and I suspect that many a 15-year-old who doesn’t agree with me by the time he’s old enough to drink will find his friends responding to those frantically misspelled late night IMs with less and less frequency. But Carrabba can casually mention an unknown band like Thursday in an interview and— kerplowie! they’ve got a hit record. Even Kurt Cobain never had that kind of impact when he name-checked the Raincoats or the Vaselines.

Yet as subcultures go, the worldview and infrastructure of indie hip-hop feels healthier to me. Jean Grae (as strident as a lone gal in an all-boys-club is perhaps doomed to sound) and Canadian rambler Buck 65 (on Warner Canada, but that may as well be an indie for all the good it does down here) put out two of the strongest, strangest stretches of music I heard this year. From Cali’s Quannum Projects to New York’s Def Jux, undie rap has established an underground network of labels and clubs and fans similar to the one indie punks saw gutted by the alt-rock rush a decade ago. Except so far, nobody seems dumb enough to want to be Nirvana, especially the likeliest candidate: Atmosphere’s Slug, the cornerstone of the Rhyme Sayers label in Minneapolis. He’s a passive-aggressive cutie, he nimbly dissects the pathology inherent in contemporary masculinity, and on Seven’s Travels he continues to ease into popularity with the wisely wary distrust of mainstream success you guys have been talking about.

Need another reason to stay out of the majors? At my house, Sasha, the Drive-By Truckers are the best rock band in America this week. So of course Lost Highway, the Universal subsidiary that signed them on the strength of last year’s Southern Rock Opera, hated the band’s even stronger new disc, Decoration Day,and the Truckers had to schlep their music over to the indie label New West instead. And that’s from an “artist-friendly” imprint.

So what do all these trends mean—for music, for musicians, for the biz? I’m too poor a profit prophet to venture a guess. After all, who among us can accurately predict the future? (OK, Clive Davis. And maybe Nas.) I can’t even figure out the present. For instance: The No. 4 record in Billboard last week was Now That’s What I Call Music! 14, another compilation of the most familiar pop singles of the year. If everyone is downloading tracks instead of buying records, how does this happen? I guess if you can get people to buy bottled water, selling them tunes they’re already sick of ain’t no thing at all. In any case, I’m strangely reassured by this proof that we consumers remain as irrational and exuberant as ever.

Keep hope alive,

P.S.: I love Beyonce too, but every time I watch her flouncing desperately in her videos, I think of the Buffy musical, where the demon makes people dance until they burst into flames. Lighten up, B!