The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: People have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.
I think double-entendres are poetic. I find the sound of wanky guitar-solos making love to cocaine-crusted synth riffs to be magical. I’m excited when the words “produced by Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange” appear in an album’s liner notes. I can’t help myself; I like dumb rock songs.
I feel like this shouldn’t be a controversial opinion, but I suspect that it is. Dumb rock songs, to me, are like cheeseburgers or puppies: They are inherently likeable, and yet there are people who will argue on behalf of salads and kittens, and they will not be wrong. They will say salads are better for you, and kittens grow up to be smarter pets. Likewise, there are those who will always regard the “dumb” part of dumb rock songs (often construed to mean a lack of originality, artistic credibility, and/or lyrical smarts) as a negative. I do not. I can’t fathom how my favorite dumb rock songs could possibly be made better by being less dumb. Sometimes you need a song to be fatty and juicy, or to mindlessly bound up to you and incessantly lick you in the face.
Which is not to say that I like every dumb rock song, or even most of them. Like anything, most dumb rock songs don’t achieve what they set out to do, which is hit that special part of the pleasure center where joy is felt with a deep, primal reverberation that can’t be intellectualized or explained away. Only the most exquisitely dumb rock songs pull that off. Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” is that kind of song.
When “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” entered the popular consciousness in the early ’00s, it came on like a pack of zombies descending on a lonely country farmhouse, forcing its way through multiple entrances and rapidly infecting everyone it encountered. Many listeners first encountered it via iPod commercials, though Apple also featured “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” in ads for the iMac. (It was a dumb song for smart products.) The song also appeared on soundtracks for movies (Flushed Away, What Happens In Vegas) and video games (Madden NFL 2004, Rock Band) for the next several years. And then there was rock radio, where “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” circled any remaining survivors and picked them off one by one, as the song’s insistent hybrid of AC/DC guitar-crunch and Motown rhythm battered listeners until their spongy, tasty brains spilled out.
By the time “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” was released as a single in the U.S. in late spring of 2004, Jet’s debut album Get Born had already been out for about eight months, and hadn’t gained much in the way of commercial or critical traction. Formed by brothers Nic and Chris Cester, two Australian classic-rock fans who grew up outside of Melbourne, Jet made its influences obvious on the group’s first release, 2002’s Dirty Sweet EP, which derived its name from a lyric in T. Rex’s “Bang A Gong (Get It On).” The record helped Jet get a record deal with Elektra, and the band traveled to Los Angeles to make Get Born with future late-period Oasis producer Dave Sardy.
Right away, Jet was dinged critically for how derivative Get Born was. An infamous “stunt” review in Pitchfork by Nick Sylvester pilloried the band as bottom-feeding schlockmeisters cynically grasping at the lowest common denominator of mainstream rock. A slightly more favorable write-up in Rolling Stone offered mild, backhanded praise for Jet’s “slavish imitation” of AC/DC and the Rolling Stones.
Granted, that’s a pretty accurate summation of what Jet was. Get Born is a collection of spare parts stolen from older, better bands, and most of the songs aren’t all that great. (Though I remain a fan of “Look What You’ve Done,” which finds the unlikely middle ground between Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back In Anger” and Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home,” and “Cold Hard Bitch,” which I should be ashamed of liking and mostly am.) But Jet was also doomed to be disrespected as a result of timing: The band emerged in the wake of the much-ballyhooed “return of rock” movement, spearheaded by the media’s enthusiasm for The Strokes and The White Stripes. Those groups were just as susceptible to charges of standing on the shoulders of giants, but at least they did it earlier, when sounding like The Cars or a thrift-store version of Led Zeppelin seemed fresher, which left similar-minded groups that followed, like Jet, to take abuse from increasingly disenchanted music critics.
Jet found itself swept up in a pattern of creative breakthroughs and commercial exploitation that’s played out repeatedly in rock history. Just as punk begat poppy new wave and the original grunge bands spawned radio-friendly “bubble-grunge” acts like Stone Temple Pilots and Bush, the retro-rock bands of the early ’00s created a market for groups that were less reputable but in some ways more fun than the originators. As the recent outpouring of love for the Monkees—the original “less reputable but more fun” rock ’n’ roll rip-off—inspired by Davy Jones’ death shows, these groups tend to benefit eventually from favorable revisionism, often from audiences unaware that these bands were never seen as cool in their time.
If you’re inclined to look at pop music history as a series of movements led by legendary figureheads—whether it’s The Beatles, Ramones, Run-DMC, or Nirvana—you’ll end up with a firm grasp of what’s “important.” But if you’re looking for a party, you have to head to the shadows of those movements, where the Johnny-come-latelys and one-hit-wonders reside. This is the terrain of The Monkees, Billy Idol, “Bust A Move,” and “Interstate Love Song.” It’s here that all hope for being taken seriously is abandoned; the only attainable goal is to be liked—if not proudly, then at least inevitably—because people can’t help themselves in the face of such brazen delights.
The idea here is to hit people in the place where thinking stops and reflexes take over, which requires a ruthlessly low aim. The White Stripes’ conceptual deconstruction of the swaggering machismo at the heart of American blues music appealed to the head, and The Strokes’ all-for-one, one-for-all group dynamic amid New York City’s post-September 11 resurrection spoke to the heart. “Are You Gonna Be My Girl,” meanwhile, was directed squarely at the mid-section, where hips shake when provoked by a big beat and the crotch is alerted by the whiff of sexual suggestion. No wonder “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” was seized upon by advertisers: The song was designed to be liked by the body before the brain.
“Are You Gonna Be My Girl” is a veritable greatest-hits compilation of elements that people who appreciate rock music have responded to favorably for decades. It starts with a tambourine rattle, then a rubbery bassline, then a simple drumbeat, and then a chugging guitar riff that has elements of “Not Fade Away,” “Cum On Feel The Noize,” and “My Sharona”—I could go on—in its DNA. To dismiss “Are You Gonna Be My Girl,” as many did at the time, as a knock-off of Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” doesn’t go far enough. “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” steals from the totality of rock. It’s like an awards-show montage checking off highlights from 50 years of music history, only with a lot less dignity and class.
All of this makes “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” a dumb rock song, but it’s dumb like a shark, constantly stalking its prey with single-minded focus because that’s what it was designed by nature (or, in this case, a gang of Aussie blokes) to do. And, yes, I like it. I’m not sure I have a choice but to like it.