The Third Shift


  1. But the problem right now is that we have a surplus of rock records like {Grizzly Bear’s] Shields and a deficit of records like [the Black Keys’] El Camino. And I mean that in an ecological sense — even if you hate El Camino or mainstream rock in general, the dearth of this sort of music has made the entire system worse for all involved. In order for a band like Grizzly Bear to have any hope of getting on the radio, there needs to be a band like the Black Keys to convince the powers that be that listeners actually still care about rock bands. If a major label — particularly a label that can get you on the radio — is going to take a chance on a Grizzly Bear, there needs to be a Black Keys to make that investment seem feasible.

    What rock music needs right now is more gateway bands. When I was a kid, I never would’ve heard of or cared about Sonic Youth or Fugazi or Guided by Voices had it not been for the alt-rock bands I heard on the radio and saw on MTV. The popular bands connected me with the less popular bands. In 1984, when Born in the U.S.A. put Bruce Springsteen on the same level as Michael Jackson and Prince, a rock fan could go from the Boss to R.E.M.’s Reckoning to the Replacements’ Let It Be to Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade to Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime to Black Flag’s My War.

    It’s a different world for today’s 13-year-olds. But even now, casual music fans still listen to the radio and discover new artists via televised performances on middle-of-the-road award shows. The most successful rock band of the ’10s, Mumford & Sons, arguably had the biggest break of their career when they upstaged Bob Dylan at the 2012 Grammy awards. Maybe those young Mumford fans are now on a path that will eventually take them to Will Oldham, Mark Kozelek, Townes Van Zandt, and Leonard Cohen.

    When I said earlier that indie has failed rock and roll, this is what I meant: Indie bands haven’t done enough to compete. The status quo in indie rock these days is to make records aimed directly at upper-middle-class college graduates living in big cities. Only a small handful of indie bands attempt to reach listeners who aren’t already on the team; even the really good records reside firmly in a familiar wheelhouse of tastefully arty and historically proven “college rock” aesthetics and attitudes that mean nothing to the outside world. The distance is also geographic: If you want to see most indie bands play live, it helps if you reside in New York City or Los Angeles, because the bands probably live there, too. Otherwise, you have to hope that your city — and by “your city,” I mean a city within a couple hundred miles of where you live — is one of the 15 to 20 stops on the band’s tour.

    Steven Hyden, in the final part of his series “The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll”, encapsulates why rock music is in the doldrums: indie rock bands have abandoned the sounds, ambition and outreach that made rock music popular for a wide swath of people, and those sounds have largely been absorbed by pop & country acts (he checks Taylor Swift, Ke$ha, and Eric Church.) 

    And this is largely correct: indie rock, for lack of a better term, cut itself off from a lot of hoary rock cliches it found unseemly, hoary, heterocentric, and sexist. Personally, I find this an entirely valid and necessary reaction to the excess of the “winners” of rock and roll. But it threw out a lot of the musical signposts and sounds that make rock and roll fun and made itself the province of well-off white kids who are either from urban areas or become college-radio types.

    As someone who needed gateway bands on early 90s radio and MTV’s 120 Minutes to learn about the Minutemen, Black Flag, Minor Threat, Fugazi, the Afghan Whigs, Bikini Kill, the Pixies, Sleater-Kinney and numerous other bands that would change my life, I think this is a crucial point to make. What independent, DIY rock has made an admirable virtue has turned into an albatross — and its conventions need to be blown up as much as punk needed to blow up rock’s hoarier excesses.