Who started 'flyover rock?' Creed
My Pop & Hiss colleague Ann Powers mulled over the genesis and cultural ramifications of "flyover rock" in Sunday's Calendar, trying to pin down the reasons behind the huge popularity of bands such as Hinder, Nickelback, Daughtry and such. There is a lineage that goes back decades, from the titans of '70s codpiece rock through hair metal, grunge and "American Idol" outliers, and she articulates it well. To my ears, though, this latest crop of modern rock is actually a continuation of a sound and ethic that planted its roots in the immediate post-grunge '90s, and no man is more responsible for it than Creed's Scott Stapp. So let me be your Virgil, dear reader, into the maw of Creed's gifts to today's mainstream rock music.
There hasn't been much reason lately to reconsider the monolithic success of Creed in the late '90s and early 2000s, but now that Myles Kennedy of Creed-alum project Alter Bridge may be the new Robert Plant, let's all flash back to the waning days of the Clinton presidency when people still bought CDs. The raw numbers are pretty astounding: Creed's 1997 breakthrough, "My Own Prison," yielded four No. 1 rock singles. Its followup, "Human Clay," was an absolute juggernaut, going diamond (10 million copies scanned) in two years and yielding two of the year's most inescapable singles: "Higher," which spent 17 weeks atop the rock charts, and the expectant-childbirth anthem "With Arms Wide Open," which nabbed them a No. 1 pop hit and a Grammy for best rock song. Feel how you want about what this data mean for America, but no new rock band has remotely touched them in terms of sales and chart potency since then.
But more important to the band's legacy is the precedent it set for the viability of a few key ingredients that still define rock radio today. First and foremost is how Creed made Stapp's vocal traits the default in male rock voices. His timbre -- a kind of grumbly, wanton male earnestness that flattens and gnaws its vowels, wasn't always the dominant tone. No '80s rocker could survive without a competent falsetto, and even first-wave grungers wouldn't check a mic without a little gravel-chewing first. This will likely break Seattle Ann's heart, but Eddie Vedder probably invented the vocal style that would eventually begat David Cook. But in the grand tradition of all pop-rock bands in history, Stapp buffed the rough edges off and made a killing from it, and Chad Kroeger and his ilk have been aping it ever since. Even Axl Rose, of all people, is singing like Stapp on the new Guns N' Roses single, which is a terrible idea for so very many reasons.
Second, Creed's songwriting and production style have proven almost as durable. The band's EQ-scooped drums and hugely compressed guitar tone (almost always tuned to drop-D, a lower register befitting Stapp's range) comes, as Idolator reminds me, from a PRS guitar and Mesa Boogie amp combination that begs for beer-hoisting at the big choruses. Creed's churning mid-tempo rockers and halftime ballads such as "With Arms Wide Open" breed like rabbits in such gear settings, and any trip to Guitar Center will prove that particular equipment combination is still a prime irritant for bored rock girlfriends reading magazines in the store lobby. Nickelback and Hinder, both aficionados of the tone, have made some vague attempts to find grooves and strip-club rotation play lately, but Creed never really bothered with syncopation. After Creed reached the nadir of sensitive-dude arena rock sincerity, a little reprieve with more libidinal riffing from their offspring is to be expected.
All this brings us to the key socio-cultural ingredients of flyover rock, and whatever your criteria -- vague Christian influences, multi-generational enjoyment, a kinship to country music's topicality -- Creed was there first. They had the Christian thing nailed -- Stapp's father was a preacher and the band constantly alluded to Christian imagery in its songs. Heck, Stapp even looked a bit like Jesus with leather and silly earrings. Creed's songs, while distinctly of their own sonic time, were generally positive and soul searching in their lyrics in a way that moms could get behind, and "Human Clay" seemed to be the album that you got for Christmas from that aunt in 2000 who asked the Target clerk what the kids are into on the radio.
And you don't get more country than writing a power ballad about how joyful and awed you are at the birth of your child. "With Arms Wide Open" is probably the best example yet of a song that can glide over the ears of a secular listener yet be a total clandestine dog whistle to the abortion foes and Christian fringes. Other hits such as "What's This Life For" had a similar fill-in-the-blank emotional quality that purposefully leaves out the specifics. You could leave that question blank or answer it with "Jesus" just as easily. Creed had big riffs for the fellas, devoted-lover tunes for the ladies, a near pitch-perfect ear for the rock zeitgeist and precisely tuned antennas for the Young Life values crowd. All Creed's bases were covered except for that tiny and usually irrelevant-to-this-crowd demographic of rock critics, who uniformly loathed the band, much as they do Nickleback and Hinder today.
The one thing Creed never did was exhibit any real party-as-release-from-work traits in its lyrics, but Lordy did Stapp do so onstage and off. Creed were probably the first band to be sued by its fans for partying so hard that they couldn't play their own set, and Stapp's subsequent skirmishes with the law kept up a long history of unsavory rock behavior that included domestic violence charges and the now-requisite being drunk at LAX arrest, on the day after his wedding, no less. Nickleback just writes about living like rock stars, Stapp made a most unfortunate life of it.
So. As we ponder the socio-political meaning of "Lips of an Angel" and whether David Cook should be pro- or anti-eyeliner, let's all remember the real pioneer of "flyover rock" and strike an arms-akimbo pose for Mr. Stapp, Mr. Tremonti and the rest of Creed. They may be something of a punchline today (crashing meteors and mystical spires in a meadow?), but if Daughtry is moving millions in 2008, who's really laughing?
-- August Brown