Recycled Rock 'N' Roll
Jammin' and yearnin' without restraint, Hootie & the Blowfish and the Dave Matthews Band vie for the top spot of Billboard's album chart as they reject the anger and irony of grunge and its puny progeny, alternative rock. Oasis free-associate over the top of old Beatles tunes and are called the saviors of guitar-pop, while the long-defunct Fab Four blitz the media once again with two collections of outtakes and oddities and end up saving the Christmas shopping season for music business. Alanis Morissette caterwauls with great calculation about blowjobs and old boyfriends over standard-issue '70s radio-rock and is hailed by some as a new kind of post-feminist wild child. Smashing Pumpkins deliver a grandiose double-CD riff on Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, and the thing flies out of the stores.What's happening here? Writing in The New York Times last month, Jon Pareles argued that the current dominance of safe, new-school folk-rockers like Hootie and the Matthews Band who've conned the musical lessons of the '60s doesn't mean that baby-boomer tastes have captivated the young. Rather, wrote Pareles, the current interest in the recycled sounds merely represents "a lull in the generational battle."But is that all that's happening? Not counting the Beatles, the aforementioned acts have sold more than 40 million albums over the last two years. Mass satisfaction with the achievements of rock's past indicates that rock 'n' roll has lost its way as a music of rebellion. The question is: Can it regain that vitality? Or is rebellion now beside the point in guitar-based music?Most rock critics and hard-core rock amateurs embrace the idea that punk-rock and the do-it-yourself musical subculture it spawned brought new life to a lumbering, over-inflated artform. The "classic rock" decade had a bankrupt vibe. Something had to balance out the extended jams and laser theatrics that threatened to turn rock -- theoretically, the music of youthful rebellion -- into just another entertainment commodity.With its anti-professional esthetic and glib anti-establishment politics, early punk nearly succeeded in doing just that. But the fact that Nirvana's breakthrough in the U.S. charts came 14 years after the Sex Pistols' demise demonstrates that, for all the critical noise, majority American tastes remained unmoved by the return to rock primitivism. And two years after Kurt Cobain's suicide, two of Nirvana's major-label efforts, Nevermind and their folk-rock-leaning MTV Unplugged in New York, linger at the bottom of the Billboard album chart. And what of In Utero, the band's more determinedly abrasive follow-up to Nevermind? It's nowhere to be found. In the '90s, tuneful and poetic primitives find their way into rock's conservative pantheon; noisy rebels who defy audience expectations become footnotes in critical histories read by 10 or 20 maniacal aficionados.Indeed, of all the American bands inspired by punk who have made a strong impression on the pop-cultural consciousness, only R.E.M. and Pearl Jam have moved beyond the trends they rode in on and become bona fide icons. Why? Because they really aren't musical rebels. For all their experimentation, R.E.M will never shake the vestiges of the Byrds that show up every time Michael Stipe reaches another thoughtful chorus, and Pearl Jam's allegiance to the past was confirmed when they contracted out their services to Neil Young for the recording of the Canadian icon's Mirror Ball CD. In terms of esthetics, both bands have strong ties to '60s and '70s rock. R.E.M.'s chiming harmonies, Pearl Jam's Suthin-style guitar jams -- these elements of the old "classic rock" are what allow them to reach a broad demographic. No wonder Hootie & the Blowfish cite R.E.M. as a major influence.Of course, for nearly 20 years a fragile network of clubs in the United States and Europe has provided performance and sales opportunities for outre, nonconformist groups. But the rise of "alternative rock" (less a genre than a marketing label) has meant that tiny venues once wholly devoted to supporting real experimentation must now play host to legions of fledgling major-label acts whose grubbing-for-a-hit mentality and slavish devotion to the guitar-rock legacy of grunge do nothing to cultivate iconoclastic scenes and adventurous audiences.Who are rock's iconoclasts these days? Certainly not the fading wave of pop-punkers who followed in the wake of Green Day's clever melding of the Clash, the Sex Pistols and the Monkees. Faced with the sad reality of the Sex Pistols' summer nostalgia tour, Rancid, Goldfinger and all the other sprightly, fashion-conscious outfits who bang around to a 2/4 beat seem trapped in a weird cultural zone of fake accents and filched style. As for the Pistols themselves, the fact that Johnny "Rotten" Lydon is now offering up his patented snarl on television for the benefit of Mountain Dew proves once and for all that, despite loud protests to the contrary, punk wasn't so radical that it couldn't be regrooved as pure commodity.In other words, Hootie and Matthews need not worry about grunge or pop-punk or those vaguely different alterna-bands that play the colleges one year and register for summer classes the next. The only doors they're knocking down lead to the paneled offices of big-time record executives.Ironically, rock's current iconoclasts don't identify themselves with guitar-based rock 'n' roll at all. Instead of going with the program, "post-rock" acts like Chicago's Tortoise and members of the kitschy Cocktail Nation headed up by Combustible Edison reject the mainstream altogether and dance around the edges of the indie rock that supports them. More important, they challenge rock fans' demands for simplistic narrative songs and mock (albeit gently) their allegiance to the guitar-bass-drums nexus of rock instrumentation. They also ignore alterna-land's fascination with emotive, angst-ridden lead singers who, as pop culture critic Martha Bayles has noted, make a bid for significance by "turning up the knobs."The new iconoclasts may pump up the volume from time to time, but their stock in trade is the cool. Combustible Edison and their ilk are pop-cultural archeologists who delight in unearthing square cats from the '50s like Frank Sinatra, cartoonish composers like Juan Garcia Esquivel and Martin Denny, and thoroughly worked-over pop forms like bossa nova. These retrograde sources gain a measure of campy currency when reconstituted by restrained, thirtysomething hipsters dressed in garish lounge jackets and billowy chiffon evening gowns.In other words, the Cocktail Nation is a put-on. They emulate a musty version of the cool precisely because it flies in the face of contemporary rock's search for meaning in overwrought emotions and overamplified guitars (don't forget, even Hootie and the Matthews Band rock out from time to time). The unauthentic lounge culture the Cocktail Nation has established in major cities around the country only resonates when measured against the moribund alternative rock scenes Combustible Edison and many of their fellow travelers cut their musical teeth in. Ripped from that context, the Cocktail Nation's mediocre jazz and smirking exotica would have as much hip cachet as a clever sketch-comedy bit.To put it another way, the ironic tinklers and cool crooners can't leave rock 'n' roll behind; they can only find new ways to react to and annoy it. In that sense, lounge, space-age-bachelor-pad music, the new exotica -- whatever you want to call it -- is parasitic. It's inventive anti-rock music, to be sure, but its future is really bound up in the movement of the mainstream. If more high-profile rock singers like U2's Bono and Natalie Merchant begin offering eclectic cabaret material, the cocktail will quickly lose its kick.Post-rock also rejects power chords and chest-thumping lead singers, but it doesn't combat them with irony. Instead, pointy-headed post-rock acts like Tortoise, Barry Black and Laika diffuse rock's heat into atmospheric soundscapes. The results of their labors vary enormously (e.g. Tortoise offers shifting instrumentals while Laika prefers metronomic grooves and Barry Black goes in for lazy, pseudo-ethnic rambles), but all post-rockers feel compelled to dismantle the musical legacy of Chuck Berry: the regularized guitar riffs, the self-revelation, the mating-ritual beat. As post-rock theorist Simon Reynolds put it in the Village Voice last year: "With its droneswarm guitars and tendency to melt to ambience, post-rock first erodes then obliterates the song and the voice."At times, post-rock's emphasis on atmospheric daubs of electronic sound and spare rhythms makes it seem awfully similar to dub, techno, jungle and the other reggae-and disco-influenced club styles that hold sway in the U.K. In fact, Tortoise have been identified with England's dub scene ever since they were included on the much-praised Macro Dub Infection Vol. 1, a compilation of narcotic, bass-and synth-heavy acts. But an allegiance to live performance as well as apprenticeships in more recognizably rockist indie bands separates Tortoise and other post-rockers from the flavor-of-the-month whirl of club music. They'll play rock venues and gladly entertain rock crowds; they just don't play rock. Or at least not the blend of metal and punk that was made popular again by grunge.Tortoise and other post-rockers definitely have antecedents. By the late '60s Pink Floyd and Soft Machine were fooling around with electronic colors and evanescent song structures; in the '70s the "Krautrock" played by German bands like Can, Neu! and Faust used some of the same mechanical beats, fluid (but not quite ecstatic) jams and synthetic atmospheres that are the stock in trade of most post-rockers. And, as Reynolds points out, Brian Eno made a rich exploration of evanescent ambient music years ago. None of these post-rock progenitors managed to shift the mainstream; in fact, their cool pursuit of the avant and the abstruse generally petered out in wan repetitions and overly intellectualized noodling.Right now, post-rock seems rebellious and revolutionary when compared to the noisy stasis of grunge and the nostalgic strumming of Hootie. But how long will it be until the pointy heads drift down a dead end of unstructured sound? When they do, they'll become soulless free jazzers or, worse, poorly trained proponents of avant-garde art music. And let's face it, that's never gonna be the sort of stuff legions of suburban teenagers are gonna slap on during keggers, or gently grooving baby-boomers are gonna moon over with their significant others.Taking rock beyond the recognizable song, the cathartic lyric, really means leaving its established audience behind.So that leaves us with Hootie, the Dave Matthews Band, Oasis, Smashing Pumpkins and the all other platinum sellers who've found satisfaction in affectionate recycling. Some of them clearly understand that a kernel of rebellion once animated the classic rock styles they now ape. But after grunge's angst, pop-punk's thrash and indie/alternative's ironic posing, they're not about to slam their audience with the heavy shit or fool around with musical mind games. These days boomers and the bulk of younger rock followers want something that's familiar, safe, easy to digest, and rock's current kings and queens are only too happy to oblige.And why shouldn't they be? The last rebel music that mattered -- hip-hop -- was drawn and quartered by politicians, moral crusaders and other conservative critics who see any kind of adventurous popular music as a threat to the status quo.If Hootie et al. want to strum their guitars and make the big money, they have to stick with wax-museum simulation. As for any twinge of they rebellion they may feel, well, the market has dictated that rock isn't about going against the mainstream culture anymore.