Popular music for the last 14 years has been ridiculous. To say it has been bad doesn’t do it justice. What has passed for pop since Hootie and the Blowfish started poisoning the airwaves in 1995 has been either a well polished and clinically wrapped soulless turd regurgitated by the stubborn hubris-dripping dinosaur that is the record industry (Brittany Spears, Pink, Puff Daddy, and every other mainstream rapper since Snoop Dogg), or a bunch of pathetic and juvenile whining thrown together all half-assed-like by true amateurs that never learned to play their instruments (Modest Mouse, Death Cab For Cutie, and all that other emo bullshit that no one with half a brain can tolerate for more than 2 seconds), and now the gross and repugnant combination of the two (the Jonas Brothers, Fallout Boy, All American Rejects).
Is it the record industry’s fault? To a certain extent, yes. When Nirvana exploded with Nevermind the record industry at large was forced to adapt and reconfigure its business model. All of a sudden glamour, flash, and money were out of style. The stuff that was bigger than life even 2 years earlier was a laughing stock overnight.
And reconfigure it they did. Like dominoes falling grunge bands were popping up faster than you could keep up. MTV bumped Headbanger’s Ball and replaced it with Alternative Nation. Every band in Seattle got signed to a major label just for wearing flannel and turning their broken amps up. For god’s sake remember Soul Asylum? They were fucking horrible! But I digress… The whole grunge revolution shook the record industry at its very core and it scared them. They never wanted to lose control (even for a minute) like that again. Finally somewhere in the mid 90s a slick executive figured out that if you throw enough money at a good marketing department you can sell anything. Hootie was the prototype. There was nothing about that band that wasn’t fucking terrible and the label knew it. They had no soul. They had bad fashion. They were unoriginal. Their music was boring. They had no taste. Do you remember that one video of theirs? I forget which song it was for, but it was the one where it was Hootie golfing with Dan Marino. Fucking GOLFING with the quarterback for the Miami Dolphins. What the fuck?!? I’ll tell you what the fuck. They were a fucking experiment. Market the shit out of them. Promote the shit out of them. Throw a million dollars at garbage and you’ll make a hundred million.
Sure enough it worked. Cracked Rear View sold 10.5 million in 1995 alone, eventually shipping 16 million copies to retailers by March 31st 1999. It is currently tied with several other albums, all certified 16x platinum, for the 15th best selling album of all times in the United States. People came out in droves to shell out their hard-earned cash for that nonsense even though you heard all those horrible songs constantly everywhere you went.
I remember browsing through the CDs in Circuit City in Maryland when I overheard a fortysomething overweight man with bad hair and a worse mustache ask the clerk, “Do you have Hootie and the Blowfish, Cracked Rear View?” I spun my head around to get a look at this stupid walrus. Not only because he actually wanted it, but because he couldn’t find it! Did he miss the gigantic display? Can he not find “H”?
The look on my teenage face was one of confused disgust. I just stared at him with my mouth agape and my face contorted in a grimace. He never looked at me, but if he had he would have either kicked my ass or looked away with shame. My point is everyone bought that record even though it was quite possibly some of the worst music ever made.
It was a nonstop party for record executives from that day on. Think about it from a business perspective. Why take a chance on an actual artist when your bottom line is profit? Artists are moody, they don’t take direction, they generally despise the business end of things, they are unpredictable, they want vast sums of money to bring radical and unorthodox ideas to life that often times are purely experimental, they’re often drug addicts, they’re narcissistic, and they’re stubborn. Why deal with all that when you can leaf through headshots, find a marketable face, hire a writer and some session musicians, and crank out a well polished piece of shit– and here’s the clincher– THAT YOU KNOW PEOPLE WILL BUY? Who cares about music as art when your primary function is to make money? They might as well be selling real estate, hotdogs, or carpet. To them music is a product and nothing more, and if you can lower your cost and your risk then you absolutely should.
And they did. Across the board. Don’t believe me? Do some research and look at the bands that met with large scale commercial success in the late nineties up until now that weren’t already signed by 1995. Here’s a short list:
Three Doors Down
Third Eye Blind
The Backstreet Boys
My Chemical Romance
Lil’ Bow Wow
Whoever that fucking band was that sang that Breakfast at Tiffany’s song
The list goes on and on.
Not a single one of those bands had any artistic merit at all. They were all manufactured and prepackaged. They did what they were told. They were all phony and they were all heavily marketed by their labels, mainstream radio, and MTV.
But it wasn’t just the record companies. A major contributor in the dumbing down of pop music was the Riot Grrrl movement. A lot of people, mostly female, give me shit for my stance on this. They say things like “The Riot Grrrl movement was a huge step toward equality and a weapon in the fight against sexism. What bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, the Cold Cold Hearts, and Sleater-Kinney did was tear down the walls of pretension and the myth of rock stars as gods. Those bands proved that girls can rock just as hard as boys.” and, “When I was a scared teenager I would listen to Riot Grrrl stuff and rock out and I felt like I could do it too!.” There’s some truth in those statements, but they’re half-truths. Let’s analyze them.
“The Riot Grrrl movement was a huge step toward equality and a tremendous blow against sexism.”
On the surface it appears that way, but the reality is quite the opposite. It could have been true if any of the Riot Grrrl bands were any good at all, but none of them were. They were so bad, in fact, that the only reason anyone listened to them at all was because they were girls. What it actually did was convey the notion to anyone on the outside of the scene that girls are really bad at making music. While said notion is despicably sexist and obviously untrue it’s hard to argue that it’s not the picture that those bands collectively painted. Therefore the Riot Grrrl movement was not a huge step toward equality, but a tremendous blow against it.
“What bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, the Cold Cold Hearts, and Sleater-Kinney did was tear down the walls of pretension and the myth of rock stars as gods.”
But is that a good thing? What bands like Nirvana and Bikini Kill and labels like Kill Rock Stars and K Records were rebelling against in the early 90s was that the myth of rock stars at the time was so overblown that it was unattainable and out of touch with real people. Their ethos was you don’t have to fly in a helicopter and have an entourage to make rock music. All you need is a guitar, an amp, and some talent.
It wasn’t unlike the punk revolution of the mid 70s over in England. In fact it was the exact same thing. The English punks were rebelling against bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Yes, and Emerson Lake and Palmer because they had gotten too big for their britches. It was getting to the point where the only way to see a rock show was to pay an obscene amount of money only to get herded into an amphitheater or an arena and be kicked around and harassed by overzealous security. Combine that with a nationwide recession and it’s no surprise that bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash were playing their guitars in warehouses and shitty clubs and the kids were eating it up. Every teenager likes and deserves to rock out.
Their movement succeeded, but the victory was bitter-sweet. While Nirvana went on to become the very thing that they claimed to detest, Bikini Kill and Kill Rock Stars actually did it. They killed rock stars. They did it to such a degree that there hasn’t been a legitimate rock star since Kurt Cobain himself (at least not on the scale that he was) and the world has suffered greatly for it. Now Kathleen Hannah of Bikini Kill is in a shitty electroclash band called Le Tigre who, last I heard, was touring with Beck and suckling from his teat while Slim Moon, founder of Kill Rock Stars, finally revealed his true colors and sold the fuck out. He got offered a job and now he’s a scumbag A&R guy for Warner Brothers. He all but disbanded Kill Rock Stars and dropped every band except for the cash cows. I heard he lets his ex-wife run it now and that she’s the real-life equivalent of the rich woman from Major League who tried to move the Cleveland Indians to Miami. It just goes to show that the people that fight the hardest against an institution or an ideology don’t really want to change anything at all; they just want the power of the very thing they’re supposedly rebelling against.
Slim Moon and Kathleen Hannah never wanted to kill rock stars. They wanted to be rock stars. (Come on… Slim Moon? Really?) They just weren’t good enough, so the only way they could do it was to tear down the existing system and carve up their own empire where shitty rock was cool and being awesome was lame.
And now we’re left to wallow in the post-apocalypse of the world they destroyed because what Kathleen and Slim failed to realize, or more likely never cared about in the first place, is that the world needs rock stars. Rock stars do more than make music. They portray an image of Dionysian excess that everyone wants to experience on some level. They provide a vessel to live vicariously through. They provide a beacon of light and hope in an otherwise dark world where 95% of all the people in it are spending 95% of their time doing something they don’t want to do. Rock stars are more than musicians, they are living proof and a reminder that you can do whatever you want whenever you want to do it. And while David Lee Roth and Axl Rose may have looked like ridiculous clowns in 1993 it’s important to remember that the court jester was the only person in the kingdom that could make fun of the king.
“Those bands proved that girls can rock just as hard as boys.”
I won’t disagree that those bands could thrash around and make loud noise, but it takes more than that to rock, or at least to rock well. It takes talent, skill, and taste which none of those bands had any of, but most of all it takes practice which none of those bands ever seemed to do. A few months ago I heard a bootleg recording of Sleater-Kinney playing at Ladyfest a couple years back. They played a cover of Dude Looks Like A Lady by Aerosmith. Their guitars were out of tune, none of them had any sense of rhythm at all, they had bad voices, they couldn’t sing in tune, they didn’t play the right chords, and even though the recording was pristine they sounded terrible. This is after being a PROFESSIONAL ROCK BAND for more than 10 years. Now we all know that Aerosmith sucks, and that 80s post-heroin Aerosmith really sucks, but at least they can play their fucking instruments! Steven Tyler may be a sellout whore and a shameless moron, but the dude’s got a set of pipes. And while I don’t like the music that Aerosmith makes I can’t say with any legitimacy that they are a bad band. Sleater-Kinney and their ilk on the other hand are downright terrible.
“When I was a scared teenager I would listen to Riot Grrrl stuff and rock out and I felt like I could do it too!”
And therein lies the problem. What the Riot Grrrl movement really did was open the floodgates for every hack asshole wannabe to get their hands on the prize of fame and fortune that should be reserved for legitimate artists. The reason people felt like they could do it too is because they could. Anyone could. If you give anyone a guitar they will be able to play it as well as any member of any Riot Grrrl band in fifteen minutes, and I’d bet that most people, if they practice, will be able to play it better than all of them in a month.
Music isn’t special if anyone can do it. The fact that not everyone can do it is the source of its magic. If everyone can do something then it is reduced to a common function like making toast or cleaning a toilet. While I like toast and a clean toilet I like music more. I value it more because it is worth more. I’d rather have to shit in a public bathroom in a bus station for the rest of my life than have to listen to nothing but bad music for even one day. As much as the punks and the Riot Grrrls claim to want equality the simple fact is we are not all equal. Some people can fix cars, some people can design space ships, some people can slam dunk a basketball, some people can perform a heart transplant, and some people can make music, but not everyone can do all of those things and some things, music included, are best left to the professionals.
One of my favorite David Byrne songs has a line in it:
Rock bands died when amateurs won
He said that in 1997 and at the time I didn’t quite understand what it meant. Now it is apparent. The world is so flooded by shitty bands right now that it is nearly impossible for a genuinely good band to survive. The old saying, “the cream always rises to the top” is no longer applicable because we’re no longer talking about a cup of coffee, but an ocean of suck that is so vast and so murky that the cream gets swallowed up and lost. Because of the Riot Grrrls everyone thinks they can be in a band, but they never stop to think about whether or not they should. It’s actually gotten to the point where going to a rock show is a chore and a social obligation instead of the exciting and euphoric experience it’s supposed to be. The Riot Grrrl movement lowered standards so much that it’s not worth putting the time and effort into actually being a good band because nobody seems to be able to tell the difference anyway.
But that’s not the Riot Grrrl’s fault. All those grrrls ever wanted to do was rock out and Slim was willing to pay them. I can’t say I blame them. No, the brunt of the blame lies on you, the masses, for ever lending any of that utter bullshit any credence at all. I blame everyone who ever spent their (or their parents’) money on a Bikini Kill patch, a Sleater-Kinney album, a Bratmobile tee shirt, or a Cold Cold Hearts 7”. There were plenty of actual hard-working bands making legitimately good rock while all that bullshit was going on and by opting to fund the lie and the scam, by falling for the trick, by being a sucker, you gave a big fuck you to a lot of people that weren’t trying to rip you off, but were actually trying to make the world a better place. And all of us, the ones who weren’t fooled, the ones who gave a shit, the ones who tried, now have to flounder in the wake of your herd mentality and your bad taste.
You’re the reason that radio sucks, and while Slim Moon may have shot John Lennon you’re the ones that crucified Jesus.