J, A, C,
Oy, the R-word.
I’m beginning to wonder if rockism is even much of a useful metric anymore, what with the constant mutability of taste afforded by Last.fm and imeem and iTunes playlists or just the sheer volume of MP3 blogs (many offering full-album downloads) that have been popping up and making it incredibly easy to hoover up any and all sorts of music. Kids, at least, don’t trouble themselves much with the divides we do, I think, at least not until peer pressure forces them to choose a subculture (and with album sales on the decline, in addition to the unlikely arrival of artists who in other decades might have been relegated to the “120 Minutes” ghetto and now hobnob with Leno, everything feels like a subculture, no? Even Justin has been remixed by the DFA. Vive la différence.)
Still, if rockists are still rockisting, how come they don’t much ride for actual rock (“rawk” spelling optional)? I’m not just talking about Wolfmother or the Darkness or the Pigeons of Shit Metal or whichever Silverlake shaggy boys think it’s heeelarious to shred this week. Rather, where is the embrace of Daughtry, of Hinder, of Nickelback (hell, even the Foo Fighters, America’s least imaginative band, put out a good record this year)—bands who argue for the potency of rock ’n’ roll with astonishing brute force, single-soundedness, and lack of humor.
And, sometimes, a good song. I’ll say it—the Daughtry kid can sing, as he made abundantly clear on Idol last season. He’s got one facial expression, one vocal idea, and one way to hold the mic stand … and he’s sticking to them. His strong debut isn’t The Crane Wife, but had it come out, say, before The Chronic, he might have had a shot at being something more than a pop culture curio, a museum piece brought to life, an Encino Man for our time. As for Nickelback, they’ll forever live under the shadow of “How You Remind Me,” one of the great rock singles of the 2000s—their recent hits (namely “Savin’ Me“) are mere variations on the theme. But the reason these Canadians succeed where, say, Puddle of Mudd failed, is because the pain in Chad Kroeger’s voice is perfectly ambiguous, rejecting meaning. He’s not gut-wrenched or angsty or bitter; instead, he sounds raspy and dull, with a dash of exhaustion, and what’s not relatable about that? (Somewhere, Brandon Flowers is in a Harvey’s, trying to figure out where it all went wrong. Be on the lookout, Carl.)
Don’t worry—I won’t try to defend Hinder, even just to prove a point. (Though if anyone can explain to me why MercyMe has the spirit kids so enthralled while Seventh Day Slumber continues to languish in anonymity, I’m all ears.)
All of this is to say, not only is race embedded into this discourse (I’d be thrilled to see rockists ride for, I dunno, TV on the Radio, but that seems unlikely) but also class and geography. Those interested in keeping the genre alive and predominant should look no further than mainstream country, which does post-Eagles smooth guitar-rock better than anyone else. I mean, don’t tell me Rascal Flatts ain’t rock—on tour this summer, they covered “Hotel California” and “You Shook Me All Night Long.” They even cut a version of “Life Is a Highway” (not as good as Chris LeDoux’s) for the Cars soundtrack. (Take that, Shooter Jennings.)
Listening to frontman Gary LeVox, I sometimes get confused as to whether he’s from the South or from, like, Long Island (the truth—he’s from Ohio, which explains a lot). R.F. are the most regionally ambiguous country act going—more so than even Aussie Keith Urban—so the fact that they scored the highest opening-week sales number of the year is little surprise, except maybe to the Dixie Chicks. And Jay-Z. But if either of them had recorded a song as emotionally draining as “What Hurts the Most,” they might have had an argument in their favor. Even though I’ve listened to the song and watched the video maybe 100 times, I’ve still got no idea what it’s about, but it’s oozing regret, something country boys found themselves doing lots of this past year. See Dierks Bentley’s please-don’t-break-up-with-me-just-yet plea, “Settle For A Slowdown,” a holdover from his last album, and Jason Aldean’s “Why,” a stunningly raw rendering of hard masculinity melting under hot interrogation lights. While Ryan Adams was busy sparking life into ol’ Willie, Tim McGraw went and cut one of his more intimate numbers, “When the Stars Go Blue,” outright stealing it in the process. Even savvy lunk Toby Keith played faux naif with “Crash Here Tonight,” cuddling up to Heather Locklear in the video, and starring in a film, “Broken Bridges,” in which he reconnected with a daughter he never knew. If only newcomers Heartland had been in the loop, they could have landed their unreasonably treacly hit “I Loved Her First” on the soundtrack. An occasionally creepy, slightly petulant wrist-slap from father to son-in-law, it’s in the vein of Lonestar’s 1999 pop crossover “Amazed”—clean, wimpy, big and tacky, which is to say, pretty perfect.
There I go, being popist again. As for Ann’s call to talk multiculturalism, it sometimes seems that, in our set, interest in country is on par with interest in, say, tejano, and lesser than the interest in the music of Mali. Mystifying and bizarre and seemingly without remedy, Big & Rich be damned. Forget the genres you overlooked individually—what are we missing as a whole, and why?