So Steven Hyden came out with the last installment of his Winner’s History of Rock and Roll, focusing this time of the Black Keys.
I like the Black Keys. I first hear Thickfreakness and wasn’t impressed- sounded exactly like it was recorded in a basement, and it apparently was. But Rubber Factory I liked a lot. I moved on to other things for a while, and didn’t really hear much of them again until the last couple years when they really started to be played on the radio a lot.
But what’s interesting to me about The Black Keys, and you might as well add The White Stripes in to this list as well, is how they came out of the garage rock movement of the early 2000s and how the movement largely disowned them when they became famous. By any stretch of the imagination The Black Keys and The White Stripes are just as rock-nerdy as any indie garage fan. I can’t even listen to interviews with Jack White. I’m a rock fan, but I’m not a rock nerd, and I just don’t care that much about rock history or vintage gear.
But both bands had hits. Real radio hits, not some song you’d hear once a month on alternative stations.
How did they do it? Steven fills in the details on The Black Keys. They came out of the midwest, largely bypassing the indie scene, or so they say (this may be more of the band’s own mythology than actual truth). They got tired of being critical favorites (and being broke) and brought in a producer Dangermouse and started adding instruments. I like their radio hits. I’m glad they’re doing well. The White Stripes, I suspect, are famous because Jack White is a vampire or made a deal with the devil. I’m glad he’s doing well too.
So why don’t other bands try to produce radio hits? I don’t know. Steven says this, and I kind of agree:
When I said earlier that indie has failed rock and roll, this is what I meant: Indie bands haven’t done enough to compete. The status quo in indie rock these days is to make records aimed directly at upper-middle-class college graduates living in big cities. Only a small handful of indie bands attempt to reach listeners who aren’t already on the team; even the really good records reside firmly in a familiar wheelhouse of tastefully arty and historically proven “college rock” aesthetics and attitudes that mean nothing to the outside world.
What I hear mostly on our local alternative station is either the hits of the past (roughly the 90s + some old punk tunes) or music that I just don’t care for. My friend and I joke that every indie hit sounds like it belongs in an Apple commercial. For lack of a better word, it’s cutesy, and it’s just not my thing. I like my music big, dumb and obvious.
But here’s the thing, I can barely stand classic rock radio either. I like The Cars, I like the occasional 70s Aerosmith, I like some Led Zeppelin, I love The Stones. But Bad Company, Foreigner? I don’t even know who they are. KISS is a bad joke. Bob Seger, The Nuge? Barf.
I love punk rock. I love garage rock. I love music made by amateurs. But I don’t want to feel like a snob either. I have no need for cultural capital and I have no hipster fiefdom I need to protect. Steven argues that if we want a thriving underground, we need to have a thriving overground. I agree.
Right now I listen to Top 40, because it doesn’t cause me any cognitive dissonance.
I thought he might bring this up, and I was glad that he did:
If you happen to be part of the audience that rock music used to cater to — if you work an unsexy job in an unsexy town in an unsexy part of the country — you’re not really invited to the party anymore. Which is OK, because there’s still a form of rock music that’s made for you, it’s just not called rock music — it’s called country.
I have tried to listen to current country. I can’t. I fucking hate it. How couldn’t I? Brad Paisley is calling me a pussy and every other damn song is about Jesus or getting cancer. The movie of my life can be a big enough bummer without adding a country soundtrack. We live in a divided nation and country services one half of it quite well. You can’t knock it for doing that.
I’m fucked, pretty much. I have always loved pop and I’ve always tried to write songs that would appeal to anyone. I like big dumb rock, I like clever, subversive rock. I want everyone at the show to have a good time. I’m not hopeful for the future of Rock and Roll, and Steven doesn’t seem so hopeful either.
I want it to matter outside of my own head. Either way, I’ll be listening. Will you?