Like many of you, when my friends and I get together we talk a lot about music – which bands we’re into these days, which albums are the “must-haves.” We go back and forth, disagreeing, getting nowhere of course. And it was during one of these conversations with one of my more knowledgeable friends, Sam, that we got into the subject of “generation-defining” rock bands.
In a rare moment of agreement, Sam and I both realized that there really hasn’t been a seminal band since Nirvana. No group that has emerged in the last 20 years has been able to genuinely hold the title of a band that both represented an era and made amazing records at the same time.
Think about it. Who are the Rolling Stones or Guns N’ Roses of this era? If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll realize there is this void that exists.
Now, unlike my buddy Sam, I’m actually a huge fan of music these days. Some of my favorite albums to date – Dirty Projectors’ “Swing Lo Magellan,” Fiona Apple’s “The Idler Wheel…Ever Do,” Beach House’s “Bloom,” Kurt Vile’s “Walkin’ On a Pretty Day,” and Jack White’s “Blunderbuss” – have all come out in the past three years. But, as much as I love Jack White and consider him to be one of the great songwriters of his generation, I don’t think anyone would say his work as a solo artist, the brains behind the White Stripes or even his unfortunate collaboration with the Insane Clown Posse defines an era.
This has to do with a lot of things. Part of it is our generation’s access to nearly any record they want, usually without paying for it. I’m one of the few people I know that still buys CDs, but the truth is I never listen to them in that format. Some are still in plastic wrapping, unopened. But, I’m still happy I paid for them.
When I was doing my radio show and needed some specific songs, my roommate showed me how easy it was to download them. I know. I’m late to the game and people laugh when I tell them I pay for music, so I gave in. I also justified it by reminding myself that Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa are dead and Les Claypool isn’t exactly hurting for cash. But still, I feel dirty about the whole thing.
Just the fact that we can make a few clicks and have an entire artist’s catalogue makes it almost impossible not to devalue what everyone on the record put their heart and soul into for decades.
The days of lining up around the block for Appetite for Destruction are long over. Most of us will just sit on our computers or iPhones and stream whatever new record has just released via NPR or Pitchfork. We’ll link to it on Facebook or Tweet it or maybe do a short write-up on our personal blogs.
And a lot of these records are really good. Some of them are even great. But the ability of artists to make records that change the national consciousness and embody a larger-than-life persona is gone. We know too much about everyone. Celebrity TV shows, magazines, blogs and even artists themselves (through social media) cover almost anything that happens to them.
At this point in the article, I know what you’re thinking. You’re saying to yourself, “Come on Dave, surely things aren’t that bad! What about Kanye?” The fact is I do like Kanye and he has put out some of the best music in the past decade, but most of what Kanye does is celebrate Kanye.
Take his song “Clique” for instance. The lyrics to the chorus are: “Ain’t nobody fucking with my Clique/ clique, clique, clique, clique/Ain’t nobody fresher than my muthafuckin/Clique, clique, clique, clique, clique/As I look around, they don’t do it like my/Clique, clique, clique, clique, clique/And all these bad bitches, man, they want the/They want the, they want the…” (He’s talking about his penis.)
Basically, it’s a bunch of guys saying “We are the coolest group of friends ever, we’re cooler than you and the hottest women in the world want to have sex with us all the time.”
Bragging over a beat, albeit a pretty good one, isn’t a valuable piece of art to me. It’s taking advantage of awkward suburban white kids, singing along hoping to catch even one tenth of one percent of Kanye and his friends’ swag.
I know what you’re saying to yourselves now: “Dave, stop being so damn close-minded. Have you even heard the new Justin Timberlake record? It’s off the chain!”
And the truth is I haven’t. But I do watch TV and did see his song repeatedly played during commercials he starred in for Bud Light. This is how music stars do it these days. Whether it’s Beyonce pushing Pepsi or Jay-Z starring in Budweiser commercials, pop icons these days are more often than not using their own star power to enrich themselves financially and inflate their frequently oversized egos.
Even Wayne Coyne, the eccentric lead singer of the Flaming Lips, cashed in on his weirdness with a psychedelic commercial for Virgin Mobile. He asks us to “retrain our brain,” and maybe that’s what I need to do. Maybe I need to retrain my brain and give up this childish idea that musicians deserve to be put up on pedestals.
There won’t be any more Lizard Kings. There won’t be any more punk-inspired rockers from the Northwest who change the face of an industry and genre in the process. Maybe it’s Kurt Cobain’s fault that we no longer worship rock icons the way people idolized Jimmy Page or Eddie Van Halen. Cobain came off as just a regular guy, someone you might see hanging out at a record store. He strived for success but didn’t want to be in the limelight and ultimately couldn’t handle it. The heroin probably didn’t help either.
Many of the greats of yesteryear are still going – and that’s the problem. They’ve had their day, but people still flock to their shows to remind them of a time when rock bands mattered more. At a certain point-probably in like five years-they’re going to be rolling the Stones out in wheelchairs, while an even more wrinkly Mick belts out “Satisfaction.”
So while Dylan, the Stones and the remaining members of The Who are still performing, I guess it’s time to face the facts: the era of the dominant rock band is over, and all the Lizard Kings are either dead or getting there.