The refrain from “Sequestered in Memphis” blared in my head with siren-like obtrusiveness for the past 30 minutes or so. A big, anthemic, arena-mongering rocker pleasantly punishing my earlobes. It energized me, and yanked me out of my chair. I had to reach for my iPod with outstretched arms.
It’s funny, the way a band like The Hold Steady, a rousing, Wall-of-Sound orgy of Springsteen and Elvis Costello as covered by Thin Lizzy – a band with a calling card amounting to playing merely the most timeless of classic rock, potentially posing as your neighborhood band – has failed to clutch the reigns of American superstardom. Its almost criminal, except for in this day in age, that crime doesn’t even qualify as a misdemeanor.
They play the style of music that would rattle your car speakers in any decade. Their latest album, Stay Positive, earning an 85 out of 100 on Metacritic, qualifying it for one of the ten best-reviewed releases of 2008, snuck in at #30 on the Billboard charts before meandering lower and lower, yet not due to overwhelmingly negative reaction from fans and media. Nearly everyone, from the critics to the collective, who heard the album loved it.
And it’s not like they suck live. Their concerts are energetic, passionate affairs, frequented by devoted-to-the-point-of-madness followers, who run the gamut from hipster cool-seekers to curious intellectuals to awe-inspired fellow musicians to simple rock revivalists. The performances are rugged, beautiful, emotional and spiritual. You walk out of a Hold Steady show thinking you just saw Moses read the Ten Commandments to you, with the actual burning bush in the background ablaze and real honest-to-goodness angels playing heavenly power chords. Novices and non-believers leave as scripture-toting devotees. They sell out. They kill. And there’s like 300 people watching. And that’s all.
Now, rarely, do the routes of art and commerce intersect. And often times, we revise our definition of ‘art’ to fit what ‘commerce’ has immediately embraced. See how “Pinkerton” has risen in the annals of lore. Genius is merely insanity gone mainstream.
But, it strikes me as peculiar that a band so lovingly revered by the majority of folks who are cognizant of the work they do, is so beguilingly recognized by so few. Why is it that a band numerous publications have pegged as “The Best Band in America” is not labeled by the masses as “The Best Band in America?” Could any of us pick the members out of a police lineup?
It’s not as if they are off playing some morose chamber-pop (We’re looking at you The National and The Antlers [two other bands to whom most of you said ‘the whom?’] or are simply too weird to ever be fully understood (Hello Mars Volta, Battles!) or plays dense, inaccessible hard rock (Dillinger Escape Plan, Mastodon) that is designed to alienate any potential for global consumption. Or their name isn’t, well … some variant of, ahem, F**k. (See, F**k Buttons, Holy F**k, F**k, F**ked Up) or (I kid you not) this –> SunnO))) or C++129. And it’s not like they are any of the numerous electronic or gimmicky bands out there like Passion Pit or Animal Collective, whose songs are more likely to be heard in iPod commercials than on actual honest-to-goodness radio.
This isn’t a band that’s consciously bizarre or would only appeal to snobs. This isn’t like marketing Scotch to a 22 year-old or Caviar to a nine year-old. They’re catchy, lovely, and appealingly rough around the edges. The lyrics are razor sharp and the hooks are memorable.
Then again, the most successful album in the United States in 2009 – at least in terms of sales – was Taylor Swift’s Fearless, by all accounts an expertly produced sugary-sweet country pop record spawning a couple of major hit singles. It sold 3.2 million copies. It would need another seven years of that level of success to be at the same dinner table as The Wall, Thriller, or The Eagles Greatest Hits 1971-1975. Something tells me, even accounting for the usual right side of the bell-curve drop-off in sales, Miss Swift’s fine effort might max out at quintuple-platinum.
But this isn’t meant to be a diatribe on the death of the music industry. People are still beating that horse, even though it’s been rotting in the sun for years. We know if you look just by album sales, the music industry’s expiration date came in 2001, as Napster broke and broadband internet connections caused digital downloading to become infinitely more convenient than waiting until New Release Tuesday, trudging off to your FYE and dropping $18.99 on the new long-player you’d been dying to hear for months.
But is Taylor Swift, being the (by that measure) biggest pop star in the United States, despite GRAMMY wins and magazine covers and ad nauseum CMT cameos, ever going to feel like the cultural phenomenon that Michael Jackson, Guns-n-Roses, Nirvana (and Pearl Jam – I claim that had Eddie Vedder pulled a shotgun on himself in 1994, we’d all be worshiping their exhaustively brilliant pre-No Code catalog whereas Nirvana would sound very much like a rougher version of the Foo Fighters, believe me when I say that in 1993 the bands stood as equals) or Eminem so clearly were?
Odds are, no. Taylor, who might be a fine young gal, will never command the spotlight as universally and as durably as those mentioned in the previous passage. Neither will the Jonas Brothers. Neither will (enter a list of the other 10 best-selling 2009 albums) Susan Boyle (#2!), Lady Gaga, Andrea Bocelli, Miley Cyrus, Black Eyed Peas or Kings of Leon. They can’t.
Michael Jackson, Eminem and Jay-Z, all cultural institution holdovers from pre-2001 whose previous unarguably superior work occurred long before the internet, file sharing and social networking changed the way the human mind and collective was quite literally (and figuratively!) wired, also appeared on this list, despite releasing marginal work at best (or, in some cases, just merely kicking the bucket and having an easily accessible Greatest Hits compilation).
Nobody is going to remember the first time they heard Only by the Night or Eminem’s latest album or Jay-Z’s third motherf**king Blueprint.
And although it is easier to share great music (I know I inundate the 500-or-so sorta friends on Facebook with links to playable songs I find personally cathartic or invigorating), it is actually much more difficult to share the EXPERIENCE of hearing great music. The death of the album and the rise of the a la carte playlist means you can download select tunes at your leisure without ever committing to an entire album. The Soundtrack of Your Life differs vastly from mine.
Most people hear their songs from viral videos, or as backing music to Grey’s Anatomy or Jersey Shore, or in car commercials. In fact, culture as a whole has splintered and fractured so greatly, that it could appear as though celebrities themselves only become famous due to opportune timing and clever marketing. Tila Tequila is partially to blame. She became famous merely by amassing an army of Myspace friends the size of Metropolitan Chicago.
And, Myspace, additionally, is an excellent example of something that could have been a cultural watershed but wasn’t. After coming tantalizingly close to being the all-encompassing social networking doorbuster, it limped to the finish as Facebook took the lead. Myspace is the Lazer-Disc of Social Networks. Flaming out in a matter of relative minutes. But Tila Tequila remains, and yet I’ll bet more than half of the United States couldn’t explain what she did, or who she was.
And yet Facebook, although it allows us to peer more deeply into others’ lives than we’d ever dreamed (or wished) we could – and not always for the better, I might add – doesn’t actually connect us further. It merely adds another low-level contact method with those we deem appropriate with ‘connecting.’ (I use the term loosely.) It’s for when an email is just too personal, or taking our friends with us anywhere is just too much work. Now, you can listen to our play-by-play and highlights. A real-time Sportscenter for our everyday lives. “Hey, I’m ALIVE. And that’s INTERESTING.”
Not only has technology created new ways for us to “connect” with people, but it – in turn – has spawed new ways for us to avoid other people, and society as a whole. How often have you gone out to dinner with the three other members of your dinner party thumbing away furiously on their Smart Phones? An a la carte society will likely never be riveted universally, and durably (that’s the other key ingredient) the way it was when Kennedy got shot, or Thriller went platinum 25 times, or when women repeatedly went and bawled their eyes out to Titanic in theatres.
We digest things quicker. We read into things faster. There is so much coming at us that holding onto any speck of attention requires great effort on the part of those who are vying for it. And with that, we are all guaranteed not to fall for the same things, not to internalize the same messages and experiences, not to meet each other at the world’s largest festival for god knows what.
People don’t get together anymore. That’s why Woodstock ’19 won’t happen. By that time, we’ll all be watching comfortably from our HD TV as it is streamed to us live, perhaps from the Sahara – you know, just for effect.
We’re all now selfishly shutting out what could be considered relevant and indulging in our own personal time-sinks and attention-grabbers. We Tweet about our experiences in real-time, and hope other people have the discipline and interest to stop tweeting their own milestones to take notice. We’re a country of sharers and watchers, except we’re all watching something else.
And that’s why a band like The Hold Steady can go largely unnoticed, despite being largely canonized. They are a niche empire in an age of post-imperialism that’s fractured greater than post-U.S.S.R. Yugoslavia. We’re all “dependent, undisciplined and sleeping late” when it comes to unifying and riding the wave of what’s coming.
They’ll tour again (they’re touring now!) and they will sell out small venues, and will release another album in May that likely drives Pitchfork wild yet won’t even be available at Best Buy in a Kansas suburban shopping mall.
And those who hear it for the first time will tweet about it, and some of us will look up from our iPhone and gaze around with a glaze, wondering if we missed something seminal. And some of them will forget within minutes, and some will retweet.
Or we’ll take a picture of the concert, except not of the band. Just a hand-held self-portrait of us and our two friends slugging bottles of Bud while The Best Band in America plays in the background.
And we’ll claim to have perspective. Which we rightfully will. After all, nothing that’s happening is that important to everyone, but what we’re doing right now absolutely should be.