Corporate Rock Still Sucks

Symphony for a cutout bin: The Barenaked Ladies dampen the dim Bic flame of Modern Rock

Before we get into the bad news, let's take a moment to count our blessings, shall we?

1. Creed doesn't have another record coming out for at least a year.

2. That awful pre-Matchbox group with the unbearable singer--what was it, Whozit and the Fishboy?--anyway, they're gone, relegated to late-night, don't-drive-drunk PSAs. (Honest!)

3. Bush seems to be keeping a pretty lo pro these days. (The band, silly. Though I hear they're still big with aging white male voters.)

4. No more neo-ska or swing on rock radio.

I guess that's about it--unless you count the fact that, with Zone 105 all but excising new music from its playlist in its transformation this year to Alternative Classics, the Twin Cities now has no radio outlet for most of the dreck-rock (drock?) currently in release. Is that good news or bad? Sample the gunk the rest of the country is gagging on and decide for yourself.

All the non-"rap"-"metal" singles in question fall into four categories:

1. Your kitschy story-songs with "One-Hit" written on them ("Teenage Dirtbag," "Tangerine Speedo"), which make Weezer's "Sweater Song" seem pretty weighty.

2. Your humorless, virally virile New Machismo anthems. These range in heaviosity from the mulleted gang rape of Disturbed's "Stupify" [sic] to the Deftones' merely outraged "Change (In the House of Flies)" (if he needed change, he should have tried House of Pies.) The mid-area includes Linkin Park's "One Step Closer," whose chorus goes, "SHUT UP WHEN I'M TALKING TO YOU!" (No, you!) All vocals derive from Metallice-In-Pearlgarden.

3. Snotty Cali punk (born of Green Day/Offspring) that, in this context, sounds way better than it should. Suddenly Blink-182 seems sweet and fun and clever.

4. An elite cadre of bands that have survived since the hippie days when songs used melodies (U2, Chili Peppers, No Doubt, Stone Temple Pilots.)

The corporate radio soundscape has changed so radically in the past couple of years that all the Beckian pop nerds who found brief success on rock radio a year or two ago are now updating their Office Team bios. What's a one-hit wonder to do? He (yes, it's usually a "he") tours for a year or so on the strength of one lucky charm and then makes another album. Meanwhile, his label is sucked up by a conglomerate called Awfully Big Booze 'N' Things--which is itself hoovered by French Telecom Satellite Monster. His radio stations, already owned by Large Vibrating Egg TV Shampoo, have switched or narrowed formats. The necessary cash and gifts do not trade hands between Booze 'N' Things A&R guys and Vibrating Egg TV's radio executives. There is no get-fresh flow for One-Hit Joe. Short on talent and shorter on timing, he's one hard-luck sucker.

Worst of all, our hardly hypothetical also-ran discovers that his former spot on the rock playlists is now occupied by a swamp of reptile-brained, girl-fearing heshers. Unaware that their Bad Feelings--and their Sad, Mad Feelings about their Bad Feelings--are not instantly fascinating to others, these guys are as pretentious as glam rock or Britpop ever got, and drearier to boot--like Goth without the, uh, joy. And as far as calling it "metal"--Staind are not fit to blot Poison's lipstick.

Bitch, bitch, bitch, you might say. Of course corporate radio sucks. If you expect any different, you must have rocks in your head.

Nah, I've just got rock in my head!

But seriously, look--I yell because I care. Maybe the loss of one little one-hit pop band isn't a big tragedy. But the loss of a context for them is. It narrows the chances of the next good pop band. It also affects listeners. Radio, like magazines or TV, sculpts emotional realms--invents reality, in a mysterious way--especially for kids. Right now, the reality being offered by rock radio is unacceptable. The effect is an impossible-to-quantify, lonely grief that affects everyone differently, but supports a corrosive nostalgia for the past milked by formats like Alternative Classics. And such despair leads to cynicism--which is too common on college radio, and is so Not Rock.


Weed through the full-length CDs that today's one-shot singles are attached to, and you will hear the unmistakable influence of radio. All have been clearly produced to sound better coming through the compression chamber of HIGH VOLUME radio than on your stereo at home. Nothing inherently wrong with that age-old practice, except that, in their quest for pop gloss, few of these records even attempt to simulate any kinetic intimacy--the feeling the singer is singing to you, only you, and, simultaneously, addressing the universe. (I'm thinking, of course, of Nirvana's Nevermind, which perfected radio-friendly production without compromising emotional immediacy.)

Such a process has more to do with mixing than production--and everything to do with how lead vocals are mixed. Which is why Incubus's Make Yourself (Epic/Immortal) is to be reviled, but in a grudgingly respectful way. Lead singer Brandon Boyd sports super-duper professional vocal stylings that are controlled at all times, especially at high-drama moments (at least two per song) when you'd like to hear the cracks. He's polished to a fine sheen, like the swoopy guitars and Police-inspired drums beneath him. But the vocal-dominant mix catches the ear, for better or worse. Okay, for worse, especially since that draws attention to the dumb lyrics of the single, "Stellar": "How do you do-oo wit?! Make me feel like I do!/How do you do-oo wit/It's better than I ever knew!" Still, even if you hate them (and you should), Incubus have an integrity you can smell. They don't steal a lot of riffs. They don't hide their weaknesses underneath a lot of posturing or production gimmickry. And like the child in that Billie Holiday song, they've got their own, God bless 'em, lousy or not.  

Fastball, meanwhile, are going through an, uh, exploratory period, looking for the missing link between the Beatles and Buffalo Tom. (Look on the bright side--at least they didn't find it.) The Harsh Light of Day (Hollywood) involves lots of prettily layered harmonies, Harrisonesque electric guitar, Wings-style strings, more key changes than a flophouse janitor--all that, and it doesn't even sound like America. (Not so country, nor so casual--nor so catchy.) "Morning Star" should be the single--sounds a bit like a smarter version of the "Friends" theme, with goosebump harmonies and highway-happy rhythm. Sadly, I think the single will be "You're an Ocean" (takes one to know one, dude) which feels like Ben Folds at his dumbest (Billy Preston, the eighth Beatle, plays a saloon piano on the number.)

A rung or two down the evolutionary ladder, Marvelous Three are simply dying for a jigger of Fastball's sincerity. ReadySexGo (Elektra) is a collection of poses that aren't even superficially convincing--that is, I don't even believe that they don't mean what they say. The result is almost like a series of Zen koans for rock geeks: Can a big fat rock hook also be totally forgettable? Can a band be forcibly melodic but not really song-driven? Answer: Yeah, sure. But it's gonna be a big waste of cowbells!

Vast's Music for People (Elektra) also deserves to die of pretense, if only because they sound like a cross between Pink Floyd and Echo and the Bunnymen, with little bits of Love and Rockets sprinkled all over the place. All drama, all the time. Ah, but then again, they charm in spite of themselves. How can I hate a band that sings, in complete earnestness, "The gates of rock 'n' roll will never close on me!"? And, best of all, they have melodies.

Of course, if it's tunes you want, you're better off with brand-newbies Tsar, whose self-titled Hollywood debut does its very berry cherriest to turn the world on with spazzy melodicism. This is elitist music for the masses, uniting ostensibly disparate influences in an intuitive way that feels weirdly outside of time (to borrow a concept from astrophysics). You'll hear Pooh Sticks, Sweet, Bowie--the opener, "Calling All Destroyers," manages to reference T. Rex, Kiss, and the Sex Pistols all at once! (Why didn't anyone think of that before? Besides Mötley Crüe, I mean?) The pomo referencing hints at a barely perceptible wistfulness underneath--but it's only apparent afterwards, because the band is super-excited about playing rock music! "The Teen Wizards" feels like an idealistic response to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," as self-conscious in its optimism as "Teen Spirit" was in its sadness. Who knew it was possible to be so calculating and heartfelt at the same time?

And finally, a few stinkers, in quick succession: The Barenaked Ladies, still getting into shticky situations, have a new album, Maroon (Warner Bros.) that poses the musical question: Could a band possibly be any nerdier? The answer: Harvey Danger. Those lads don't come up with anything as endearing as their gimmicky "Flagpole Sitta" on the new album, King James Version (London/Sire). Dense to a fault, the album is all brains--a dangerous proposition when you're not all that bright to begin with. Dumb-and-proud-of-it Fuel know better. The throaty angst on Something Like Human (but are they like human enough to listen to Music for People?) suggests it must be hell to be Fuel's lead singer, but it's just an eon in purgatory for the rest of us. Last (and maybe even not least--who can keep track?) there's Eve 6. On Horrorscope (Atlantic), they seem to be having a fantastic time making music that makes them feel like Big Boys, with vocoders, new-wave synths, and staccato, rap-inspired vocal delivery. I don't hear a hit, here, but then again, I'm not a corporate-radio programmer. And if I ever become one, please lead me to the bed, turn on side two of Abbey Road, and give me the little black pill.  

Bitch, bitch, bitch. Of course corporate radio sucks. If you expect any different--

You're right. I don't really know why I'm writing this. It's not like it's going to change anything. Maybe it's time for armed insurrection, or at least arson. Otherwise, radio is going to get worse and worse until it drives us all onto the Internet, and then it'll start copying net radio, just as network TV copied cable. I guess I'm writing this so that, if you feel the same, you'll know you're not alone. Kind of like what radio should do.

One last question: Am I alone?

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