rock’n’roll whining is here to stay…

It is a time-honored rock-critical tradition to bemoan whatever the current trend is (even if it’s not a trend at all), to claim that this trend is going to kill rock’n’roll dead, and that this new trend is (variously) dull, lifeless, corporate, bland, excessively commercial, and (worst of all) quiet, sensitive, and sappy. A fine (read: crap) example of this article appeared recently in Pop Matters, written by one Chris Milam, who is — surprise! — a struggling musician himself. Milam’s hook is, of all things, Zach Braff’s character’s love of the Shins in Garden State, a movie that came out five years ago. Okay, so Milam isn’t fond of “sensitive” guys with acoustic guitars, whose music somehow manages to be “plaintive” and emotionally needy on the one hand, and “lifeless” and “bored” on the other. But he proceeds, rather ridiculously, to link this dislike not only to Braff’s character in Garden State, but to a rather jejune and elementary class argument (see, all these plaintive, emotionless, skinny white hipster dudes in “girl jeans” — shudder — are rich kids, from the wealthiest communities in the nation!) and the dullest possible contemporary pop-sociology (ooh! Facebook users are self-absorbed and bad, mm-kay?).

Speaking of “dull,” Milam assumes that if he finds music dull, it just is dull, and that it’s more or less intended as dull, but that its practitioners are so self-absorbed and entitled, what with being all 90210 and such, that they just don’t care that Milam wants them to sweat and bleed over a set of drums (which, even though all but one or two of Milam’s examples have drummers, he claims not to hear in their music). What Milam wants instead is someone from a poor family, which automatically grants authenticity, to groan and cry and emote all over the place, preferably while drinking and smoking and sweating a lot. Unsurprisingly, nearly all of Milam’s exemplary performers tend to play a conventional mode of masculinity to the hilt…and Milam’s gender-role anxiety bleeds a flop-sweat all over his page: the effete upper-class singers sensitively warble their quiet little tunes in falsetto or androgynous voices, they pack their slim, boyish physiques into skinny girl jeans, and they would never deign to anything so direct or manly as to use an instrument you have to hit forcefully, the drums.

Even if you accept Milam’s analysis because you happen to agree with his musical tastes, his attempts to add depthiness with his class analysis overfloweth with fail. The two best-known bands he namechecks as enemies of the state of rock’n’roll are the Shins and Death Cab for Cutie. So, James Mercer of the Shins, must’ve been born in Beverly Hills or something, right, and his parents must have been hobnobbing with the Kennedys and Rockefellers, right? Uh, no: his father was a long-term Air Force vet. And what about Ben Gibbard, from Death Cab for Cutie? He grew up in Bremerton, Washington…which, according to US Census data cited on the city’s Wikipedia entry, has a per capita income of about $16,700, which places it in the lower 40% of Washington state localities in terms of income. Look out, Grosse Pointe!

Milam also seems weirdly tone-deaf to signifiers of class and culture. He writes, “Youth culture is now practically sponsored by iTunes and Starbucks, and if that’s not a class statement, I don’t know what is.” In fact, Milam does not know what is. Starbucks’ ubiquity hardly confines it to wealthy consumers, and the fact that there’s a Starbucks seemingly on every corner suggests that even if people like to complain about their overpriced fare, they still can afford it. And iTunes is…free. Wow – gotta have a lot of money to download a free application.

As I said, Milam’s a musician himself. Click on that link to his website, above, where you’ll find a player streaming songs from his latest release. Play “Tin Angel.” Why, isn’t that…an acoustic guitar? And some “sensitive” singing? And no drums (not till a couple minutes into the song)?

Clearly, the man must be made of money…



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4 responses to “rock’n’roll whining is here to stay…

  1. Funny post – so true that every 5 years, someone writes about the death of rock in just the way you’ve described – and that this has been going on since 1975! If James Taylor was supposed to signify “the end”, where are we now?

    Milam should check out Hamell On Trial – Hamell being the first to agree that rock wasn’t better when the room was smoky…just gave us all asthma and COPD…but Hamell also keeps the spirit of edgy rock alive without falling over his amp…

    And hip-hop and mainstream country (two genres appealing to mainly lower income brackets) are equally as bland as sensitive alterna-rock, I might add. More guns, more hos, more illegal income, but nothing new there since Biggie died. And Taylor Swift is not even really “country” per se; breaking down her songs I actually hear more Cheap Trick than Loretta Lynn. LOL gimme a break.

  2. jontv

    The only thing I didn’t like about this blog post is that reading it made me feel obligated to read the original. My reaction could be boiled down to something like, “If the only critical tool you have in your toolbox is class consciousness, every problem looks like privilege.”

    I have developed a profound intolerance for any art criticism that seems to proceed from normative assumptions about the creative process. The implication that artists need certain qualities or qualifications, or need to proceed in particular ways — while pervasive — just strikes me as tragically narrow-minded. Any time you try to put a fence up around culture and say, “It’s only good if [X], but not [Y]”, somebody will come along with [Y] in spades and blow your [X] out of the water. I’m sure there are dozens of falsetto-singing, drums-eschewing bands out there that could kick this guy’s band’s ass.

    The great thing about art is that you make your own rules. I guess critics like this are good for putting up roadblocks for artists to crash through. But other than that, I don’t see the point.

  3. Rock has been dying for decades now. Hip-hop is the music of the young and rock will soon be as marginalized as jazz is today. I say that as a big fan of rock music, but the hand writing is on the wall. (Concert Hall!)

  4. I think I almost agree with yellojkt. Rock is now a music of then and, while it will always stay with us, it is no longer a vital force as it once was. Music is still fun, and there will always be people making something worth hearing, but rock has had it’s day in the sun.

    Fuck it, though. I still like new stuff, like Ultimate Thrush, or Desalvo.

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