Monthly Archives: April 2012

America’s Black (Keys) Problem – The Nickelback Complex

I’ve been listening to hip-hop for, basically, my entire life. I guess it sort of started with Biggie and Puffy – I had bootleg cassettes of their albums back in elementary school, and from them I moved on to Mase, The Lox, Jay-Z and, basically, the rest of the New York scene. Back when my friends’ parents were buying them Green Day’s Nimrod album, my mom was buying me DMX’s It’s Dark and Hell is Hot and Busta Rhymes’ Extinction Level Event. I was once given detention in elementary school because my teacher overheard the ending of the “Ruff Ryders Anthem” playing in my Walkman – the part where shots are fired and DMX yells “talk is cheap, motherfucker!” Suffice it to say, I fell in love with love with hip-hop fairly early.

Growing up in white suburbia, though, most of my friends started listening to Blink 182 and Green Day and Sublime – basically the suburban punk rock starter kit. Eventually I started listening to some of this music, too. Over time, however, my tastes have evolved and I’ve now gotten to a point where rock & roll and hip-hop both share an equal part of my heart. For many different reasons, a musician like Lou Reed, or Morissey, means as much to me now as, say, RZA, or Andre 3000.

At some point between Kurt Cobain’s death and the rise of Nickelback, though, it seems as if real rock music left the collective consciousness of American popular culture. Rock stations around the country were gutted and transformed into Top-40-spewing, corporate jukeboxes seemingly overnight and it created a culture in which Flo Rida became more recognizable than the best rock band in the country.

Music today, as an industry, has become so consumed with commercial viability that indie cred has, almost, become a liability – bands who are considered “indie” today are still incredibly popular, their fan bases just aren’t populated with fifteen-year-olds whose parents buy them New Kids on the Block lunchboxes.

Before new explosions in social media, and a rise in great music websites, if a band “sold out,” it meant something – they were tired of being broke and said “fuck it, let’s go for the money.” The concept of selling out today, though, seems almost archaic – part of this has to do with an inability to define commercial success. At one point in time, selling records was the ultimate sign of commercial appeal – a band’s popularity was directly proportional to their ability to sell records. Nirvana’s Nevermind went certifiably diamond – it sold over 11.5 million records; they were, inarguably, the most popular band in the world.

Today, however, in the age of BitTorrent and slowly dying record companies, commercial success – in rock music – can’t be measured in terms of record sales. In the past, artists toured in support of their album; today, artists record albums to diversify their live show – few people are willing to pay big money to see the same band play twice without new material. Success in today’s era of rock music has to be measured in a band’s ability to headline music festivals and sell out arenas. So, today, if you’re headlining a major music festival, like Coachella, it’s a sign of commercial viability – the biggest player in this summer’s festival circuit is The Black Keys.

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Filed under Essays