State of Rock: Audience voting leaves hope for the future

BY JEFF LEVEN

There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on in rock n’ roll these days. As album sales slumped markedly over the past year and the all-too anonymous Linkin Park emerged as the first among underachievers, the panic attack began. Fingers are pointing these days. Artists are increasingly critical of the major-label oligopoly that has even the most popular artists sign away an astounding percentage of their royalties, while the labels have gestured vaguely towards the internet crying something akin to wolf as the institution of copyright theoretically disintegrates thanks to a few million college kids and their T1 connections. Stern speeches at the Grammies, battles in the press. But as the policy war rages on in the media, I find myself putting on my headphones and thinking that maybe, just maybe, there is a more simple and elegant reason why the big machine of rock n’ roll isn’t churning up its usual pile of green goods. It’s the music, stupid.

There is a fine line between fun and formula, and in the past few years the mainstream music industry has so flagrantly crossed it as to render the line itself unintelligible. An example– there is nothing wrong intrinsically with pop music. It can be a lot of fun. There was a time when Michael Jackson, for instance, was very good at it. And, for the first few seconds of the late ’90s, there was no reason to think that a boy-band or two was going to throw the industry into a tailspin. But the sheer over-inflation and repetition and crass assembly-line reformulation of it all has simply stopped being interesting or fun or all that profitable. There are too many boy-bands, there are too many generic R&B acts that all sound the same, there are too many bands with singers that sound like a cut-rate Eddie Vedder, and finally the audience has voted with their ears and stopped buying it in the gleeful quantities we are expected to.

But the good news is that I think that the buck is about to stop here. Recently there have been, to my eyes and ears at least, a series of developments that suggest that the music industry’s current slu-mp need not be a permanent one and that, if anything, the quality of its output may in fact be on its way to improving:

1. Crossover artists: One of the reasons that people lionize the ’60s music scene so much is that there was always a true flow and mix between genres. Rock bands would share the stage with folk groups and world music acts, everyone loved Motown records to death and the cultural divides that dictate today’s buying patterns were simply less accentuated. Around the mid-late ’80s, the concomitant rise of hair band metal and rap really began a split that is amazingly pervasive today — namely between the two fiefdoms of rock/metal and R&B/hip hop. Thankfully, though, new artists are starting to emerge who have begun to bridge the divide and blur the lines between these camps — people like India Arie, Nelly Furtado and Alicia Keyes, artists whose R&B has a certain rock or folk or jazz flavor to it that makes it a less easily categorized creature. In an age where so many things fall into their predictable little bins, albums like the ones people they are making are, if nothing else, a tremendous breath of fresh air, and probably a good sign.

2. Blowing kisses to the punk rock legends: No one has made a lot of noise about it, but if you look around, late-’70s to mid-’80s punk and indie rock has had a particularly active rou-nd of remembrance of late. The Ramones and the Talking Heads were inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame; Television played UCLA’s gigantic All Tomorrow’s Parties festival; Mission of Burma did a few reunion gigs; and now Patti Smith is putting out a retrospective. Part of this is just a generational shift, but part of it is also, I think, a search for truly individualistic and innovative musical role models at a time when music sorely needs them. Punk has a lot to offer to a culture fed up with formula and hype and bombast–it is stripped-down, brutally honest, and unabashedly direct. No games, just rock. The fact that so many of its greatest exponents are just now getting another 15 minutes of fame hints at a possible renaissance in the vanguard of rock experimentation — punk bands that aren’t just pop bands with tattoos (Blink-182), but actually may have something more vital to say.

3. The new hype is smart hype but it has also thankfully failed: A lot of the bands whose names make regular appearances in my columns — Ryan Adams, the Strokes, etc., are part of a phenomenon that seems to me at least to be relatively new — completely hyped-up bands that are actually trying to capitalize on what a lot of people would consider to be among the most genuine postures of the musical past. When Ryan Adams played Boston last week, his show was one big testament to how much he likes the Rolling Stones, and, likewise, bands like the White Stripes are referencing not only forgotten classics like the Standells or the Trogs, but also the Cramps and so on. The good news is that the major labels have decided that as opposed to putting out another Creed, they should try to put out another Stones. Certainly a step in the right direction. But the even better news is that the rock press has generally called their bluff, recognizing that some of this stuff is fun and reveals a bit of talent, but also generally refusing to buy into the illusion that this is anything new and groundbreaking, at least just yet (I wouldn’t yet assume that none of these groups has something more unique in them). So the reawakening of critical intelligence is a plus.

So, anyway, perhaps all is not lost in the music world just yet, particularly since a million college kids with T1 connections are going to be doing a lot of comparison shopping and when the music gets better, we the audience will once again vote with our ears.

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