BY STEVE STEVENSON
While the term “post-rock” had certainly floated around prior, it was largely relegated to academic circles until critically-acclaimed-yet-critic-defiant releases like Radiohead’s Kid A and Sigur Ros’ Ágætis byrjun entered the semi-mainstream consciousness. In the last ten years or so, a masturbatory trend of overtly self-aware rock and roll history has unfolded before our ears, and it’s just about time to take its pulse. Here are 10 of the best and worst things to happen to music from 2000-2009.
In the later 1980s, hardcore bands grew tired of lifting weights and complaining about Reagan. A few groups began to explore more diverse themes in their lyrics, and the result was often disparagingly labeled “emo.”
Apparently saddened by this label, “emo” groups grew lamer and lamer. And lamer. Aaaand lamer. By the early zeroes, “emo” lost its epithetic value, the early strains of hardcore gave way to pop-punk, and a whole culture of fashionable self-loathing and loathsome fashion began to emerge.
In the early days, there was a band called In/Humanity that screamed shit like “Teenage Suicide/Do It Now!” If today’s emo kids were aware of their own heritage, they might be so kind as to oblige their idols.
PRETTY GOOD: Jacko dead
After his death on June 25, 2009, every media remembrance made two salient points about Michael Jackson.
1)He was a gifted performer who changed pop music, and
2)He may have had a controversial side.
The first point is almost beyond dispute. It would be a very difficult task to find someone anywhere on the planet who doesn’t like at least something Jackson put out.
But with regards to the second point? Saying Michael Jackson “may have had a controversial side” is like saying Hitler “may have made some bad calls.” Under any other circumstances, Jackson would have been considered a monster. He stole from The Beatles, molested children – or at the very least, quite clearly wanted to – and by the end, his visage became so freakish that it could give even the most journeyed shaman night terrors.
Also, he fucking changed colors.
In death, however, all of his transgressions were instantly absolved. And that’s the great thing about his death. Now we can finally break out the Off The Wall vinyl and “sha’mon!” with a clean conscious.
SUCKS: M.A., English rock
Boring, sexless college rock has been a blight on the music industry since bands like R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs enthusiastically put people to sleep 20 or 30 years ago. Amidst the social ennui that came from a somewhat functioning political and economic situation of the 90s, the genre persevered under artists like the Indigo Girls and Morrissey. Why? Just think of all the character types that sucked in PCU. These character types had nothing to spend their student loan refunds on besides vegan food and shitty cassettes.
In the past few years, dull musicians who read too many books have carried on the torch of Unemployable Grad School Experience rock. The Decembrists and Death Cab for Cutie are prime examples of bookworms who set out – not to make quality music – but to impress their ENG396 professors, and became marginally popular in the process.
Also, they’re ugly.
If music wanted to be books, it’d be books, not music.
PRETTY GOOD: Rustbelt Blues
On the opposite end of the hormone-levels-in-music spectrum, we have Rustbelt rock. This hats-off is more of a self-congratulating confirmation of my own experience, having spent most of the decade in the unbearably-cold-in-winter/unbearably-hot-in-summer Great Lakes enclave of Buffalo, NY – not just a city, but a state of mind.
Rustbelt is isn’t exactly a new genre – it harkens back to the early days of British blues: Gibsons through industrial stacks, sleazy pre-glam antiheroes, and the gloomy rumble that would come to be called “stoner rock.” And it is the perfect soundtrack for our decaying, failed industrial cities, from Detroit to Cleveland to Buffalo, and their oxidized resemblance to the caliginous, 60s England.
While most of the younger purveyors of the Rustbelt Sound surely spent more than a few questionable high-school moments absorbing the gimmicky, throwback sounds of The Strokes and The White Stripes, many went on to legitimately “live the lives” of their 60s and 70s idols; Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll were back – if only for a limited time – and good bar-brawl blues tunes flooded the rundown dives and pubs, once again justifying their splendid squalor.
If you are dismayed that your local classic rock station only plays the same 24 songs on repeat, then get within 200 miles of a dying, Great Lakes industrial zone, and check out bands like The Buffalo Killers, Quest For Fire, or Handsome Jack.
SUCKS: Radiohead doppelgängers
There’s already a Radiohead, and they’re called “Radiohead,” and specifically not “Coldplay.”
Radiohead was a ground-breaking, experimental band that can now rest comfortably in the echelon of comfortable bands that were once ground-breaking and experimental. Though In Rainbows (2007) was an all-around solid record, these guys can safely pump out Voodoo Lounges and All That You Can’t Leave Behinds for the rest of their days, and we’ll still defer to them like we do for grandpa’s racist remarks for an hour a week down at the home.
Now Radiohead has replaced Pink Floyd as the standby influence for every mediocre, college-aged safe-rock band in the world. You can drop modulated dominant 7 chords and accidentals wherever you want in your songs, but you’re still going to somehow manage to make it sound bland, and you’re still going to end up working for an architecture firm in three years anyway.
PRETTY GOOD: The Pastiche, Flash In The Pan, Hyper-Specific Genre
I was originally going to include Williamsburg, NY under the “sucks” category for the propagation of some pretty terrible music. The hip, Brooklyn neighborhood is to Pitchfork.com as Salt Lake City is to the Book of Mormon; someone seems to have read every music review on the website and formulated a cultural code by which all Billyburg hipsters must abide.
Don’t base your sense of fashion and taste in music off a critique drenched in sarcasm and irony. You’ll end up looking like a mess, and you’ll commit more atrocities against human ears than the Green Berets Class of 1968.
But, in terms of music, hipster-indie is too diverse a field to lump together and shit on. And it is cute to watch a lot of the bands shoot themselves in the foot with their own uber-trendiness.
Whenever you ask a friend what a band they just name-dropped sounds like, and it takes them more than a few words to explain, the implications could go either way. A lot of bands pick and choose elements from different styles of music and combine them for better or worse. Ten years ago, for example, a bunch of douchebags decided it would be cool to mix shitty metal and terrible rap. Unfortunately, it caught on, and right now, scummy dudes like Fred Durst are a lot less homeless than they deserve to be.
Sometimes this strategy works, though, and you get bands that do something unique and put out a couple good songs. Writing and performing as Beirut, Zach Condon mixes Parisian jazz and gypsy music, adding a smooth 20s-style megaphone-crooner voice on top. Vampire Weekend puts out erudite yet simple rock songs with a subtle, Paul-Simon-just-got-back-from-Africa feel. Well, not that subtle. And Philadelphia’s Man Man sound like what would happen if Zappa and/or Beefheart did cabaret, and it makes sense that they are on the same label as Tom Waits.
The beauty of the hyper-specific genre is that it is extremely limited. These bands are capable of putting out a few great songs, or even a great album, but they are forced to constantly redefine themselves or lose their fans’ interest. They can’t really overstay their welcome, because they’re just a shade more significant than novelty, and there’s not much welcome to overstay.
Bonnaroo isn’t just a music festival. It’s a terrible music festival.
Now, I’m only assuming that, of course, since I’ve never gone to Bonnaroo. I’ve also never thought about sucking my friends’ dicks while we drink expensive beers around a bonfire in the suburbs while some dude in a Phish hat plays Dave Matthews songs on an expensive acoustic guitar. So I really have no business being there.
Bonnaroo is a celebration of Bro culture, which is sort of like a cross between Hippie culture and Yuppie culture; they like pot and naively praise bad music, but they are financially stable and have cell phones as well. Bros can be quite dangerous, too, as uncovered in this investigative report.
Bonnaroo takes place every summer (since 2002) in Tennessee, and originally only featured the worst strains of white music: country, bluegrass, and jam bands. It also featured reggae, but when your audience is 100% white and privileged, it doesn’t really count anymore.
In recent years, the Bonnaroo stages have featured mega-dicks from other genres, like Metallica and Kanye West. We can safely assume it wasn’t as “chill” as our Bro friends would like us to believe.
And now I begin the phase of my life where I never talk about Bonnaroo again.
PRETTY GOOD: The iPod
I don’t own an iPod, but they seem pretty cool. I guess you can keep like 95 days worth of music on them, and that seems pretty cool. Also, I searched for the words “ipod” and “boobs,” and unlike with most of my boobs-related searches, I wasn’t horribly disappointed by the results. Which seems pretty cool.
SUCKS: Guitar Hero
When Guitar Hero first came out, before I’d played it, I thought the premise had potential. As a musician, it was the first game that had really appealed to me since PaRappa the Rapper.
But then I saw it in action, and thought, “Wait, there’s only five buttons. And one string. And it’s virtually impossible to look cool playing it. The fuck?”
The game, first published in 2005, instantly took all the fun out of putting time and energy into learning the real guitar. When I was 14, I spent months trying to master Randy Rhoads’ nasty shredding on “Crazy Train.” Now some punk 8-year-old can put me to shame with a piece of plastic and two run-throughs on Easy.
To be honest, though, I guess I might just be jealous because I suck at Guitar Hero, and the more I try to play it, the worse I get at real guitar.
In 2007, EA Games released Rock Band, which is similar, though much better, ‘cause in it you can play the drums, and it turns out I’m fucking sick at the drums. Eat a dick, Mike Portnoy!
PRETTY GOOD: Digital Millennium Copyright
Common sense really dictates that item should have been in the “Sucks” column. But in the long run, it has sort of been a good thing.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act was signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1998, but its effect didn’t really come into play until the last ten years or so. The arrival of Napster in 1999 signaled a major shift in how music was administered on the public. The music industry had steadily evolved over the last half-century from an illegitimately mob-run operation to a legitimately mob-run one. Peer-to-peer file sharing, along with the advent of various music production soft- and hard-ware allowed people to become producers, and not just consumers of music.
After P2P file-sharing and cheaper recording methods ripped power over music production from the hands of Big Entertainment, the industry scrambled to find ways to maintain a profit from an art form that they’d spent decades stripping of all its, well, art.
For instance, the rap game, once merely co-opted by suburban whites, became a commodity only a step or two more important than a new line of jeans to them in terms of cultural worth. Hip-hop fans were forced to choose between the mainstream, pointless club shit, like post-Carter III Lil Wayne, or intelligent, freely disseminated, “underground” shit, like pre-Carter III Lil Wayne.
Similar trends occurred within other genres as well, and as people shifted away from mainstream music, sales went down. Overfed has-been musicians who’d been riding on “Digitally Remastered,” “Best of…” and “Monsters of…” sales were increasingly unable to depend on their eons-ago hit to make payments on their houseboats.
Long story short, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act taught us that big bands like Metallica were dicks, and we stopped liking them. New artists were forced to become more creative with how they marketed their music, and where there’s more creativity, there’s better art. And most of us are probably never going to buy a CD again.