Too Sexy for Their Rock

Fashionable retro rock has jumped the shark. Here's why

Recently, I went on vacation. It was a spontaneous trip. My best friend, Kevin, was about to head off to England for a year, and so on a Friday morning I decided to hop a plane from San Francisco to Southern California, take the following week off, and go climb a mountain with him. I've done this kind of thing before, the spontaneous vacation thing. It involves packing quickly, often inadequately, and, as far as music is concerned, grabbing whatever CDs are on your desk without giving it much thought.

Music that you listen to on a road trip tends to leave a lasting impression. Inevitably, after about two hours of driving, when it's pitch black outside and you've run out of things to say, you and your buddy just sit there, listening, and staring into the night. It was under these circumstances that we put on the latest from Las Vegas's hot-rock phenom, The Killers. The first five songs on Hot Fuss -- especially "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" and the ubiquitous single "Somebody Told Me" -- are clean, catchy, New Wave bliss, the keyboards shrieking out amidst charging guitars and pogoing bass lines, all of it arranged around driving choruses. The Killers may be ripping off The Cure, Blondie, and half a dozen other Eighties hit-makers, but when its shtick works, it works. When it doesn't -- and it definitely does not on the entire second half of the record -- it sounds like paint-by-numbers pop pabulum designed by the A&R division of NASA.

Then there are the Scissor Sisters from New York. Here is an act that's so self-consciously gay/cool it makes Avril Lavigne look legitimately punk. Featuring band members with names such as Jake Shears, Ana Matronic, and Babydaddy, the Scissor Sisters look like they raided Hedwig's closet and play disco-tinged rock inspired by the likes of Elton John, The Bee Gees, and David Bowie. Like The Killers, everything about the band seems calculated to the point of being offensive, which doesn't mean the songs suck; far from it, in fact. Tunes such as "Take Your Mama" and "Laura" are irresistible. It's just that enjoying them leaves me with the same bad taste in my mouth as eating an entire bowl of brownie mix.

Do these emperors wear no clothes? Franz Ferdinand
Dan Rogers
Do these emperors wear no clothes? Franz Ferdinand
The White Stripes
Courtesy of Press Here Publicity
The White Stripes
Scissor Sisters
Courtesy of Universal
Scissor Sisters

Still, as we drove, Kevin and I found ourselves bouncing and grooving, nodding our heads and singing along, both on the way up the mountain and three days later when we drove the six hours back home. The experience raised a question for me about what's going on with alternative music. Namely, what's it mean to the current alt-rock moment when such obviously calculating groups are crashing the party?

With that question in mind, I attended Franz Ferdinand's recent concert in the Concourse Pavilion at the San Francisco Design Center. The Concourse is airplane-hangar huge, and it was nearly packed to the gills with 16- to 24-year-olds dressed to the nines. Guys with two-hours-to-get-it-this-messy hair, wearing tight jeans and tighter T-shirts, mingled with attractive girls with hoop earrings dangling from their ears and hot-pink blouses hanging off of one shoulder, Molly Ringwald-style. It was Sixteen Candles all over again.

When Franz Ferdinand took the stage -- with three of its four members wearing shirts and ties -- the crowd was pretty drunk (OK, I was pretty drunk) and followed the band through every rhythmic twist and turn. The air was filled with beach balls and the sounds of screaming fans, dirty guitars and Alex Kapranos's sneering vocals, handclaps and the occasional keyboard, and lots of urgent, careening drumming. The songs flew by, the band having sped them all up, intentionally perhaps, or merely as an unconscious response to the giddy, impatient energy of the venue, which, when Franz Ferdinand played its ubiquitous single "Take Me Out," exploded like a henhouse full of chickens into which someone had dropped a fox.

It was a great show.

Driving home in a friend's car after the gig, it seemed all too appropriate to put on the new Interpol record, Antics. Would you believe that it's pretty damn good?

Like Turn on the Bright Lights, the record begins in a languid stupor, with the floating high notes of a Hammond B-3, the distant thumps of a simple drumbeat, and vocalist/guitarist Paul Banks announcing to his crush, "We ain't going to the town/We're going to the city." What follows on the next nine tracks is cleverly cosmopolitan, polished and regal, yet filthy, the soundtrack to illicit love affairs that take place between midnight and sunrise. Shimmering, icy guitars color the record, dancing and chiming throughout Banks's verses, then bursting like flashbulbs during his choruses.

Indeed, an amazing album -- but probably one of the last of its kind. Why? Back in 2001, The Strokes and The White Stripes broke into the mainstream and changed the face of alternative rock. At that time, popular music was defined by plasticity. You had the overproduced bubblegum pop of Britney and Christina, the overproduced emo-grunge of Creed and Live, and the overproduced rap-rock of Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock. People were hankering for something "real," and the dirty guitars and sullen stares of The Strokes and The White Stripes were just the ticket. Finally, music could be "authentic" again.

Thus began the age of retro rock, the sound of bands that steal from groups that existed B.N., or Before Nirvana. In addition to The Strokes and The White Stripes, acts such as Yeah Yeah Yeahs, French Kicks, The Walkmen, The Vines, The Datsuns, The Libertines, and dozens more roamed the Earth. Each had its own sound, more or less, but all of them -- with their shaggy hair, rumpled jeans, and coy, pasty visages -- could be placed under that one giant umbrella.

Now, the upside of this trend is that, by and large, it produced some great music. Fashionistas or no, Yeah Yeah Yeahs are one fierce trio, and I'll concede the same for Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, Scissor Sisters, and, to a lesser extent, The Killers. But, merely as a matter of timing, Interpol's Antics is the beginning of the end, for it arrives when these bands are truly starting to become caricatures, plastic and prefabricated, and offering no new outlook on the world beyond catchy narratives about hitting the club. I'm not saying that everybody has to be tortured and overwrought, but when a band's thoughts are trained strictly on making it big, its music tends to lack pathos. And while these groups may end up making some snappy, sultry dance rock, it is, at the end of the day, pretty disposable snappy, sultry dance rock, no less contrived than music made by the boy bands and rap-rock stars they replaced.

Once upon a time, Interpol's snooty fashion sense was excusable because it was an anomaly. Now that it's the norm, it's going to get old quick. So here's what I'm willing to bet: Despite its brilliance, Antics will be forever remembered as the album that marked the time when retro rock jumped the shark, going from early-'00s movement to late-'00s embarrassment. We can expect a Creed-like version of The Strokes to show up on MTV any day now. I can expect my fifteen-year-old sister to ask for a set of hoop earrings and some leg warmers for Christmas.

Oh well. At least Kevin and I got in one good road trip with the stuff before it rotted like old fruit.

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