Grammys 2012 notebook: The junking of commercial rock music
Look at the five 54th Grammy Awards nominees for both rock performance and rock song and it’s easy to envision an afternoon stroll through some enchanted forest: “Walk” by the Foo Fighters is competing against “Down by the Water” by the Decemberists, Radiohead’s “Lotus Flower,” “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” by Coldplay, and Mumford & Sons’ “The Cave.” How calming.
Since when did rock dudes making music in a genre once known as “the sound of the city” enjoy hiking in the woods so much?
You can almost feel the dewy bliss of nature dripping into your ears — and in the perfect world, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” arguably the most durable rock ’n’ roll song of the year, would be the avalanche that crushed the entire scene. But genre distinctions are the Achilles’ heel of the entire Grammy game, and if we start questioning which song fits in what category and who decides what gets nominated where (the record labels), the whole house of cards collapses.
But what the hell, somebody’s gotta do it, and, as if on cue, here come the Grammy-nominated hard rockers, approaching in the distance with their anger and looking like cartoon thugs: Mastodon, Foo Fighters (nominated, curiously, in both categories), Sum 41, Dream Theater and Megadeth carry their songs of aggression “Curl of the Burl,” “White Limo,” “Blood in My Eyes,” “On the Backs of Angels” and “Public Enemy No. 1,” respectively. Scary.
Is the distinction that exists between so-called rock music and hard rock music the subject matter, the type of guitar distortion boxes used, and the quality of falsetto? Probably. It’s a battle between cavemen and nature boys, at least a little testosterone required. Where do the lines blur, and why? Is it a subtle class distinction — the blue-collar hard rockers versus the more “erudite” rock artists?
No wonder the commercial wing of the rock establishment has been relegated to afterthought status: This year it’s a men-only club in a battle among the same dozen groups mixed and matched into the categories in a way that should jade even the most enthusiastic rocker. There’s the aforementioned fact that the Foo Fighters are able to leap from rock to hard rock as if on whim; that Coldplay is nominated for rock song for “Teardrop” but for pop song for “Paradise,” the latter of which is no more or less “rock” than the former.
Radiohead’s “The King of Limbs” is nominated in the alternative rock album category, but a song from it, “Lotus Flower,” is in the running for the two major rock song awards. It’s likely that had “Rolling in the Deep” been sung by Coldplay’s Chris Martin instead of Adele, it would have landed in a rock category; had it been sung by Rihanna, it would have been in the running in the R&B categories.
And if rock remains relevant, it’s despite the Grammys. Last year, it should be noted, women such as PJ Harvey, Feist and Lykke Li made way more inventive and acclaimed rock records, but among the five relevant categories there are zero female nominees. Even the alternative music album category, the place where the Grammys normally lets their freak flag fly, ignored acclaimed work by Kate Bush, Wild Flag, Tuneyards and St. Vincent, among dozens of others.
That doesn’t mean that rock has died, of course. Hey hey, my my, and all that. But it’s surviving right now as an accent in other, more expansive genres, an ingredient in a more dynamic conversation occurring within a similar kind of culture clash that created rock ’n’ roll in the first place. Where rock ’n’ roll was born in the late 1940s and early 1950s from the collision/combination of country & western, electric blues, R&B and jump music, the current intermingling among hip-hop, global electronic dance music, rock and R&B is colliding to create some not yet fully formed genre of its own.
Rock’s becoming junked for its parts, dismantled as its most beguiling characteristics — that four-on-the-floor bass-snare swing, its energy and its rebellion — are finding better use elsewhere on the charts.
Rapper Kanye West, of course, is the king of assemblage, a fearless adapter of any music that catches his fancy, be it the French house music of Daft Punk, the baroque pop of Jon Brion or the indie falsetto of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Bruno Mars steals from doo-wop as much as he does hip-hop, tosses in a rock strum and happy-go-lucky Sublime reggae-lite vibe, none more prominent than another. And Lady Gaga is the missing link between Elton John and late-period Cher that we never knew we needed. And the line between country music and soft rock is at times barely distinguishable.
Commercial rock has painted itself into a corner because it seldom surprises, seldom swings, and no longer possesses the creative authority to drive a conversation the way that pop, hip-hop and electronic dance music do. Innovation is discouraged, the exception being Radiohead (who can barely be considered “commercial rock” at this point), whose experimentation has become nearly as codified as Mastodon’s able riffs.
The Foo Fighters’ “White Limo” was produced by Butch Vig, who oversaw the recording of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and replicates the feel of 1991 nearly exactly. Mastodon’s album “The Hunter,” a fantastic period piece, is banging its head against a wall by relying on a sound that, though abrasive, isn’t any more shocking or forward-thinking than Slayer’s “Reign in Blood” from more than two decades ago. Dream Theater’s destined-to-be cult classic “On the Backs of Angels” is prog metal locked in a rococo time capsule.
Go down the line and you can connect each rock album to the past, the exception this year being Bon Iver, whose music merges gentle folk and soft rock with expansive post-rock structures and achieved a big boost of fame through his work with West. Rock has become a group of self-referential subgenres whose ancient languages seldom intermingle. Arcade Fire took album of the year last year, it’s true, but that was like putting a bandage on a concussion.
The simple truth is that the guitar’s got absolutely nothing on the computer as a sound maker as far as adaptability and ability to create the kind of dissonance that once was rock’s monopolistic domain. The guitar’s versatility in the midrange, made more dominant when electricity changed its character and augmented in countless ways with the arrival of distortion pedals, pales next to the millions of filters and sound patches available with Pro Tools. New noise is scarier than old noise, after all.
The insane Skrillex bass-drop that has become the electronic producer’s trademark is the sound of the new distortion, one that’s way fresher and more suggestive of youth alienation right now than three chords and a scream. No Grammy-nominated artist this year made a more innovative and aggressive record than Skrillex, which doesn’t necessarily make him a visionary as much as he is a portent: His noise and rebellion emanates from a laptop and not through a distortion pedal.
But as long as it’s loud and can channel angst, isn’t that rock ’n’ roll?
-- Randall Roberts
Photo: Bruno Mars performing on stage at the Gibson Theatre in Universal City on Jun. 12, 2011. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.