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Friday, June 10, 2011

And the Band Plays On....

Kinda long.  I apologize.....

Yesterday I was jamming in the car to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" when I realized a sobering truth: I'm now that guy who rocks out in the car to a song from his senior year in high school.

Which is just fine with me.  First of all, like or love or hate Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" holds up really well in comparison to today's music.  And, though Kurt no doubt was NOT exactly the legendary, tormented artist some revere him as, Nirvana undeniably changed the face of rock music.  

When their most famous tune first debuted, most my friends and I just thought, "Cool new song."  Now, when it or anything else by Nirvana plays on the radio, I see in those first songs the seeds that would eventually sprout into today's contemporary music scene.  Something in me finds as much resonance with that song as any song today.

It's a testimony to Nirvana's staying power, because while I wouldn't describe myself as a "flavor of the day" listener who changes his favorites in accordance with what everyone thinks is popular at the time, I've found that over the past twenty years (Good. Lord. Has it been that long?) since I graduated high school, I've stayed very close to the contemporary music scene, growing along with the music.  Some songs I jammed to in high school I almost find painful to listen to now, simply because they just don't have that "staying power"  the makes them a classic.  Anything by Winger or Whitesnake or Guns N' Roses or even most of Motley Crue?  

Naw.  A lot of that stuff doesn't ring true for me, anymore.  However, "Dream On" by Aerosmith - older than anything by those other groups - comes on, and I get goosebumps.  There's something in that song that resonates far more powerfully than anything Winger ever did.

Because it's a classic tune.

Of course, that brings up the age-old discussion of "what makes a classic", which my students invariably bring up every year in Honors English. And, to simplify, I always tell my students that a classic can be defined - if it can be defined at all - by the following two rules:

1. its initial impact on the landscape of the time, how it changed its "scene", how revolutionary it was

2. how relevant it still is today, do readers/listeners/fans still "vibe" with it, for whatever reason

An example: I ask how many of my students grew up on The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew.  Sadly, very few of today's teens have cracked the cover of even one of these once-canonical tomes of adolescent adventure.   Lots of reasons why, not the least of which is their very idealized, "Golly-Gee-Whiz" tone of the teen experience (though I still fully intend to expose my kids to both series when old enough.  Contrary to popular opinion, idealization is NOT a bad thing).

Then, I ask how many of my students were raised on Dr. Suess.   Hands rocket to the sky; almost EVERY kid in the world has been read or read Dr. Suess on their own.  For whatever reason, those poems and fables and stories still have powerful resonance for both parents and children alike.  Of course, almost all those kids were also raised on a diet of A Series of Unfortunate Events and Harry Potter, and I like to wonder with my students how both those series will fare with time.  Will they endure like Dr. Suess, or fall by the wayside like Frank and Joe and Nancy?

So it is with music.  Some of the "cool" songs when I was a kid just sound so transparent, now.  Paper-thin.  "Welcome to Jungle" and "Sweet Child of Mine" and "Paradise City" come on the radio, and I kinda cringe.  

Now the Beastie Boys?

Crank that sucka up.

Maybe - and this makes sense, being a writer - a lot comes down to the lyrics, after all.  In the end I love music, powerful guitar riffs, thundering drums and bass, but for me its the combination of powerful, rhythmic music AND powerful lyrics.  And so far, I've avoided the cliched "I'm getting old and hate all this trash the kids call music today", mostly because it's the lyrics that matter most for me.

For example: Nickleback, for me, has become a throwaway band.  Seems like all they sing about lately are strippers, porn stars, or sex.  Meh.  Sex sells, blah, blah.  That's nothing new.  Same thing with Three Days Grace.  Or maybe I just got turned off by a word choice in one of their recent songs that I just thought was lazy writing: " night, I feel like a vampire..."

Really?  At night, I feel like a vampire?


BUT.  I hear their song "Let's Start A Riot" - and I'm rocking.  Because lots of us have been in that hurt, angry place they're singing about.  There's resonance there. 

And there's something in the screaming angst of Linkin' Park and Papa Roach and early Korn and even Skillet that I believe will defy time.  Same thing with the admittedly dense but powerful lyrics of Breaking Benjamin and Chevelle.  At first, I thought Disturbed to be a louder version of Nickleback, but some of their most powerful - and a little disturbing - songs like "Into the Fire" and "Another Way to Die" deal with matters that are little more important than titillation. 

Hollywood Undead?  Okay, yeah.  Fun listening, catchy beat, but I probably won't think twice about them ten years from now.

And of course, preference is king.  Like reading, we listen to what we like.  But for me, I've managed to keep current with the music scene because it's the CONTENT I'm after, the lyrics - not the method in which they're delivered, as long as there's rhythm and balance and order. 

(Oh. Snap.  Did I just pop out a nice little defense of the Ebook? GAG! Let's move on....)

You can also tell the difference between REAL music making and performing for the crowd, in my opinion a lot like writing something meaningful - something by Peter Straub or Rio Youers or Norman Partridge or Paul Wilson or Charles Grant, T. M. Wright, Ron Malfi - versus Joe Zombie Guy popping out another zombie, emo-vampire bigfoot mash-up. 

(That last indictment, of course, doesn't include Brian Keene.  The Rising, to me, is still the most original, well-written and conceived zombie novel of all time, so much so it reignited the zombie craze - altered the literary landscape - and it's so good, I'm not sure why we even need more zombie novels.  Ergo, IMHO - a classic).  

A great example of this, to me, is Metallica.  I LOVE Metallica.  I love how they've evolved, changed their sound, taken chances, and for them it seems like it's become all about the music.  Ironically, a lot of nineties bands - like Motley Crue and most noticeably Red Hot Chili Peppers - I HATED back then and still hate their old music but LOVE their new work now, because somewhere along the way, it became all about their ART, their music, not being "a rock band."

(insert personal opinion: it's about the ART, the writing craft, and NOT being a "horror author")

Anyway.  To bring this over-long blog post to a close, I offer this from Robert McCammon's Boy's Life, which sums it up perfectly:

...I really have tried to hold off the attitude aging.  In this regard, music came to my rescue. I believe music is the language of youth, and the more you can accept as valid, the younger your attitude gets....


  1. I am almost 20 years out of high school myself so much of this resonates with me. While I agree with most of your blog, I'm amazed at your opinion of Guns N Roses. Sure, songs from the likes of Winger, Warrant, Poison, etc. have fallen into obscurity to anyone other than hardcore 80's fans, but I feel that GNR is the one band from that genre that still holds up. You can still hear their songs all around, like the first guitar riff to Welcome to Jungle at sporting events to get the fans fired up. It comes on and everyone knows it. You hear Dream On and get goosebumps; I feel that way with Sweet Child O Mine. I still remember seeing the video for the first time and instantly falling in love with song and I still love that tremendously.

  2. Oh, I still hear G N'R, but some reason, it just does nothing for me, anymore. Of course, that is where the preference comes in....

  3. And I don't know..."Chinese Democracy" was supposed to be their big re-invention, and from what little I heard of it, I wasn't much impressed. Sounded like the same old thing. But I was always a lukewarm G'NR fan to begin with, so...

  4. Yes, Chinese Democracy was a poor imitatation of their earlier stuff. There were about 3 good songs on it.
    I keep up with current music too because I'm always thirsting for new sounds. Most top 40 music isn't my music of choice but I'm forced to listen to it plenty as that is what everyone else in my household likes. I liked your Chevelle reference. That's not a band that most people know much about. I've seen them in concert and really enjoyed them.