I’ve been enjoying Steven Hyden’s Winner’s History of Rock and Roll series on Grantland. His focus is on some of the biggest acts in Rock and Roll history, mostly around and after Rock’s peak.
His Winner’s History is focused on just that- the winners. The biggest selling bands, the biggest names. All of the bands on his list, with the possible exception of Led Zeppelin, had explicitly commercial intentions.
The best part of the series for me has been Part 5: Metallica, because I saw their transformation from underground heroes to MTV stars in real time. I was never a huge fan, but the band commanded a great deal of respect in the 80s. The “Black Album” got them what they wanted- they were household names. I wonder how much it annoyed them that during the 80s that for all their effort they were being outsold by hacks like Poison and Motley Crue. After the black album they were on top.
I like this quote from the story:
Metallica worked for years to position itself as a larger-than-life band — which was precisely the worst thing it could be in that climate. It was like being stuck in a foreign land with a pocketful of currency that was suddenly worthless.
Because it sums up something I’ve been thinking about recently. Growing up, I thought of music as a force for good, a way to change society. Around the same time that Metallica was becoming a grunge band, Riot Girl was changing punk rock- making it more inclusive for people of different colors, genders, sexualities, etc. Which is great, except it’s like Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus, only to find out that the bus system was shutting down the next day anyway.
And of course, the story didn’t end there. Rock was still as dumb and male as ever:
Even at the height of nu-metal in the late ’90s, the alt-rock airwaves still afforded space to the occasional late-period bubble-grunge hit like Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy” to placate less aggressive listeners. But by the mid-’00s, radio executives ditched all traces of pop on rock radio in pursuit of an exclusively male and overwhelmingly indignant audience. Many stations stopped including women in their market research altogether. It was a risky, all-in bet that quickly seemed impossible to renege on. Tom Calderone, a former radio programmer and consultant, laid out the dire circumstances of this strategy in a 2005 New York Times article: “You got yourself into a corner that you can’t get out of,” he said. “When you become 65-75 percent guys, you’re leaving a huge audience on the table.”
Is there a point in trying to fixing mainstream music if you’re too late to get in on the ground floor? I don’t know. Hip Hop is only now starting to grapple with homophobia and sexism, and it’s been the dominant musical force in our society for 15 years at least. How long before it goes the way of rock and roll and gets replaced by something else and we have to start all over again? Or maybe I’ve been wrong all these years and society needs to change first.