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This is partially intended as an addendum to the recent rant on bland retro-popheads, titled “When did the World Get So Unoriginal?” by our esteemed editor, Mack. I’m wholeheartedly agreeing with his main thesis (albeit without judgment against J.K. Rowling, because I like Harry Potter, dammit), and adding one significant point.
And naturally, we will get to it via a quick story.
There I was, with my beautiful girlfriend, catching the Stone Temple Pilots’ June show at the Hollywood Bowl. We were both into them somewhat, even the albums no one really likes (No. 4 and Shangri-La Dee Da), so we had at least a handful of familiar songs we were waiting to hear.
About 10 minutes into the set, the obligatory wave of fashionably late bros and sorority chicks showed up. This element was expected, since due to some cosmic theorem they make up about 85% of the band’s following. But I was completely bewildered and even disappointed when, during the ¾-set arrival of “Plush,” a nearby group of sorority chicks suddenly got all antsy, huddling together in a secret conversation until one of them finally turned to the people next to them and said, “Oh my god, what’s this song called?” At first I thought I was hearing things, but then it happened again, during “Interstate Love Song.” My jaw was floored. I get it -- some people’s memories of these songs are a little dimmed by lite beer and accessory distraction (I might have heard someone singing the lyrics, “Driving on a Sunday afternoon / I swerve my Bug between the lines…”). But someone just spent $50 on tickets, fought traffic and crammed into a packed bleacher row without knowing the name of the band’s 16-year-old major radio hit single. It seemed like a big monkey wrench just got tossed into the gears somewhere. What was wrong here?
Then it occurred to me that the world’s sea of music fans might be a lot shallower than I had previously thought. Do some people pretend to be into bands? Do some even pretend to be into music? This needs to be explored further.
Suddenly, I started noticing the telltale signs of music-fan fakery everywhere. Go to YouTube, type in “Radiohead,” and notice the query-suggestion tool at work. The first song listed is “Creep,” always. Since it works by search volume, it says “Creep” is the most sought-after Radiohead song on YouTube. This is excruciatingly lame.
(Side note: if you’re about to skip to the comment section and rave about the hostility of Radiohead fans, just can it for a paragraph or so. I’m a reasonable man, so this might actually make sense to you, legitimate Radiohead-hater.)
Since 1993, the era of flannel-sporting grungemeisters on skateboards, Radiohead has released six albums that have gradually transformed their style, and the course of rock. They have spawned every sort of copycat band, from ‘90s party-rock bands to atmospheric sway-bands and acoustic ballad-singers, and most rock critics compare their musical progress to that of the Beatles. It seems that nowadays they have some slightly more interesting material. So why in the town of Fucksville, West Virginia do fans continue to gush over the band’s bonehead debut single?
I’ll tell you why. It’s because Miley Cyrus, Hilary Duff, Shakira and John Mayer pointed an M16 at them and convinced them that being into Radiohead is as American as eating Grand Slams at Denny’s and shopping for Converse Allstars, and the only way the typical peer-pressured 7th grader can accommodate that request is to stick to T-shirts, posters and “Creep.” They don’t really have a choice. When being cool in the age of viral videos requires one to stay current hour-to-hour, not liking Radiohead is a dealbreaker, likely to result in one’s swift trash-canning or lunch-grabbing. Can you blame them? It's a tough call.
View now, for the record, exhibit three: The Strokes at the Gibson Amphitheater, March 2006. Being highly motivated Strokes fans, my slightly inebriated friends and I were willing to pack in among the underage hipsters and over-reactive high-schoolers to see the band we’d followed since their debut. Was I surprised to see that almost half the audience was under 21 and giggling abundantly? Not at all. I was completely baffled, though, to see that by the 20-minute mark most of these urchins were sitting down, staring at their shoes and texting people. While a stumble-drunk Al Hammond Jr. nailed the hell out of the solo to “Ize of the World,” a 15-year-old in front of me texted “what did she say?” to one of her fellow brownie scouts. What the effing hell is going on here? This never happens at small shows, or at Sunset Junction in front of the Buzzcocks and Blonde Redhead. What’s different here?
Here’s my theory. The Strokes and STP are popular bands, right? But what makes them so popular? Maybe it’s because … they’re popular. They’ve become accessories. You wear them on your wrist to look cool, and you don’t even need to know one guy’s name or one song title. You probably don’t even need to pronounce them right. Just like a cool pair of sunglasses, or shoes befitting your social sect, or a cell ringer with a good double-meaning, Arctic Monkeys can be your ticket to the most brisk reaches of cool-town. Coldplay will do it, too, if you play it old-school. Vampire Weekend might work, but you need the right hair to pull it off. It even works with vintage: the Temptations will get nods, but AC/DC is missing the point. Billy Joel will confuse people, kind of like wearing a fanny pack.
It seems wierd that there was a time when the only place to get concert T-shirts was at concerts. Now with a rather large portion of music fans placing almost as much value on the street cred as on the band itself, concerts fill up with people who are there mostly because they want to be seen there, and maybe even because they want to hear the one or two songs they recognize. A $50 ticket is the price of being able to talk about it the next day, show your friends pictures and be questioned by enamored peons. Does this sound cynical? It is. But I guess if it sells tickets and keeps the Mars Volta in afro picks and moustache trimmers, I say let them eat cake. And when Radiohead sounds a little tired during “Creep,” I’ll understand completely. Hey, I might even answer when someone asks me what it’s called.
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