Rockpinions by Jonny Steiner

Posted: March 16, 2008 by Maximum Mike in The Rocking Chair Blog

Every band has something to say. That is nothing new. Part of our connection to the artists we love is based on their ability to make us feel, to make us nod along in awed assent as we allow our emotions to be manipulated by people we will never meet. This relationship works best when the feelings are shared or at least familiar. Take the song “Better Man” by Pearl Jam in which Eddie Vedder sings about a woman who is in an abusive marriage but is too afraid to leave. Sadly these are ideas that while we may not all know on a deep personal level, anyone who has read a newspaper has heard something to this effect at one time or another. What is truly indicative of the gift that musicians possess is the ability to transmit emotions upon the listener even when the experience is not shared. Much of Alice in Chains’ catalogue is filled with heroin imagery, and the pain of being a junkie. I have never partaken in such an experience however I find myself moved very deeply by the music. On the other hand you could say it is the knowledge of Layne Staley’s untimely death from an overdose that focuses my hindsight into 20/20. The true judge of a band’s capacity for moving an audience is that audience itself. If a band sings deep and heartfelt songs from an implausible perspective they will not last, if they last at all. To stretch an earlier example, who would be a fan of Alice in Chains if after every show Layne Staley went back to the tour bus, drank tea while reading Robert Frost, then went to bed at ten pm?
Is not enough to have emotions to draw from, songwriters need a greater depth of experience in order to better captivate their audiences. I have been a fan of Sevendust for quite some time. (I have a lot to say about them but Michael says when I start to ramble scale it back, so know for the future that there is more where this came from.) From their debut album much of Sevendust’s lyrics came from the pain of crumbling relationships. This theme continues to be so prevalent in their newer music that while the compositions continue to be tight and well produced, Lajon Witherspoon’s one trick lyrics have gotten boring. On the other hand, sometimes the music speaks for itself. In the case of bands like 311 and Duran Duran, (never thought I’d mention those two names in the same sentence,) each band’s music is interesting enough to see past their repetitive lyrics of feel good times and love stories.
The real test of a band’s mettle is when their statement is not emotional but rather political or social. Bono of U2 (I knew I had to tie this in somewhere) once said something to the effect of “We had to have something to say before we could say anything at all.” This was a reference to U2’s early days touring Ireland as a cover band in the early 1980s. Their debut album “Boy,” touched on the political and religious messages to follow in their later music, but they seemed to focus on the sound and melody more so. They faltered on their second release “October” when they tried too hard to push forward creatively and emotionally, and sometimes came across as pompous. Their career was marked by similar successes and failures until the release of “The Joshua Tree” in 1987. It was in this album that they found their true voice. From the sweeping epic “Where the Streets have no Name” U2 finally seemed to understand how to marry their message with the music. Helping their believability was the fact that hailing from war torn Ireland, they experienced significant tragedies that to this day is an obvious influence on their music and their lives in general.
The opposite can also be true. When a band comes to their social commentary from an unauthentic approach their believability comes into question. Take Green Day’s modern classic “American Idiot.” Oh yes, I am going there. From the start of Green Day’s career they slipped into the punk scene on a tirade of snotty lyrics and unabashed arrogance. The music was tight and full of great hooks that appealed to the Grunge scene even more than the actual punk predecessors they were trying to imitate. By the time they released the single “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life,) they were moving away from Punk and their sound was trying to achieve a certain degree of adult respectability (not that there is anything wrong with that.) Once it seemed they realized that Punk was popular again, they decided to get back to their roots and there you have “American Idiot.” Not that there is anything wrong with that. The problem is the irresponsible way in which they pushed their ideas about post 911 America on the listeners. Here is a band that while musically talented has ridden in on the coattails of every wave of Punk Rock that they were a part of. Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols has said: “It pisses me off that years later a wank outfit like Green Day hop in and nick all that [Punk] and attach it to themselves. They didn’t earn their wings to do that and if they were true punk they wouldn’t look anything like they do.” There is something seemingly unwholesome and irresponsible about 50,000 British kids singing along to “American Idiot” on Green Day’s recent DVD “Bullet in a Bible.” It was not as though they were telling a cautionary tale, like Elvis Costello’s anti Thatcher anthem “Shipbuilding.” They were not rallying people to action either like “Ohio” by CSNY. Green Day seems to be making money off of the fact that they are airing the United State’s dirty laundry to anyone that will listen. That ought to get some hate mail. But maybe I think more people read this than actually do.
When a band creates a statement for the listener, it is usually a challenge. How do we all share this communal experience in terms of our own beliefs and culture? Popular music today has deteriorated to the point where much of the youth of America listens to what MTV tells them to. It is through that we must find our own way our own message and our own Rock experience. It is not up to bands to tell us how to feel like it seemed the Dixie Chicks did when they came out so publicly and recklessly against the war in Iraq. The reason we love these artists so much is that they show us something about ourselves that we might not have noticed or been able to articulate before. Rock is the artist’s outlet, to be sure, but they are making it for us. It is sad when sometimes it seems they forget.


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