The Black Keys’ class war on indie-rock
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If you ask a random sampling of rock music fans about Nickelback, many of them would probably say something like the following: “Rock ’n’ roll is the music I feel the most passionately about, and I don’t like to see it fucking ruined and spoon-fed down our throats in this watered-down, post-grunge crap, horrendous shit.” Hating Nickelback is a common “smart” musical opinion; it’s like preferring David Lee Roth to Sammy Hagar, or the first two Weezer albums to the last two Weezer albums. Yet when Patrick Carney of The Black Keys said those exact words in the most recent issue of Rolling Stone, it was considered mildly controversial, but only because many people (even those who agreed with Carney) missed the point of what he was saying.
I’m not interested in arguing that The Black Keys are better than Nickelback. That’s not the issue here. If you actually read the Rolling Stone story (or this recent feature in Billboard), as opposed to the pithy anti-Nickelback quote that circulated online last week, it’s pretty obvious that Carney doesn’t really care that much about Nickelback. No, the real enemy of The Black Keys is the exact opposite of Nickelback: indie rock.
Rolling Stone and especially Billboard spend a lot of time in their Black Keys stories talking about the band’s estrangement from the modern-rock mainstream and the indie-rock underground alike, with a particularly strong emphasis on the latter. In the Rolling Stone story, Carney talks resentfully about groups from New York City, with their “trust funds,” “cool clothes,” and chummy camaraderie with other scenesters, which didn’t extend to blooze-rock duos from Akron in the band’s early days. In Billboard, Carney’s bandmate Dan Auerbach is even more explicit in his criticism of the indie-rock establishment, playing up the distinction between his band and those bands in stark, class-based terms.
“There’s this weird thing that happened with being a successful band, and it has to do with rich, private-college kids who rule the indie rock world—kids who never really have to worry about anything, because they always have some sort of backup plan that they can safely fall into,” Auerbach said. “We come from middle-class families. We’re both college dropouts. Driving around the country, paying for everything ourselves—this is the backup plan. The only plan, really.”
One problem with this argument is that Auerbach and Carney both seem defensive about licensing songs from 2010’s breakthrough LP, Brothers, to seemingly anybody and everybody selling cars, soda, and hourlong TV dramas. It’s an odd thing to worry about, considering practically every contemporary indie band licenses songs, if given the opportunity. But Auerbach still makes a point to call “the whole idea of ‘selling out’” an “archaic indie-rock ideal.” Then he aligns himself with “blues and hip-hop guys” (“my heroes,” he says) who “take all the money they can get.”
It isn’t hard to poke holes in what Auerbach and Carney are saying. For one thing, they appear to have massive chips on their shoulders. (Actually, Carney essentially says “I have a chip on my shoulder” in the Rolling Stone story.) Second, they’re attacking straw men in order to (unnecessarily) justify their career choices. There are plenty of good reasons not to pursue the path The Black Keys have taken. It obviously worked well for Auerbach and Carney—their fine new album, El Camino is still in the Billboard Top 10, and they recently sold out Madison Square Garden in New York City in less than 15 minutes—but opportunities remain limited for new bands trying to make it on rock radio, where playlists remain stiflingly conservative, and stuck in the doldrums of post-grunge and ’90s oldies. (The number of rock radio stations also continues to shrink; Nielsen BDS recently reported that a No. 1 rock hit reaches 12 million listeners, vs. 81 million for a No. 1 pop hit.)
It’s possible to be a good band without a trust fund and also believe that “trying to be big” isn’t worth it artistically or financially. As rock’s portion of the pop-music spectrum grows smaller by the year, living modestly seems to make a lot more sense. But this, again, isn’t the point; the real story here is that The Black Keys appear to be consciously positioning themselves as an alternative to both Nickelback (and Nickelback-like bands) and indie rock—which seems, well, interesting.
The Billboard story gives a (perhaps unwisely) thorough accounting of how The Black Keys have been marketed over the course of the promotion cycles for Brothers and El Camino, with the focus being on how “off” the band’s brand is. The album cover for El Camino (which actually shows an ’80s era Dodge Caravan) is supposedly an example of this, showing The Black Keys’ “spirit of doing it the wrong way,” in the words of the band’s art director (and Patrick’s brother), Michael Carney.
Back in October, I wrote about how “you can be a rock fan and follow a genre of music that seems totally removed from what another rock fan might like.” I was suggesting that there are two distinctively different forms of popular (or semi-popular) rock right now: radio or chart rock, and indie rock. Now The Black Keys have presented themselves as a third option situated somewhere in the middle, designed for listeners turned off by the “watered-down, post-grunge crap” that’s dominated rock radio since the late ’90s, as well as fringier fare like Destroyer, Girls, Wild Flag, and other bands appreciated by those upwardly mobile, college-educated city-dwellers who (theoretically) turn their noses up at earthy, unpretentious blue-collar fare like The Black Keys.
It’s music not far off in spirit from the alternative music that rock radio once embraced: melodic, punchy, upbeat, punk-influenced but easily digestible, aggressive but not overbearingly so, and loaded with hooks. Too populist to ever fit comfortably with indie sensibilities, this option is still appreciably different from the self-pitying, macho-man groan-rock that currently defines rock radio. In spite of reports to the contrary, it was a modestly decent year for this insurgent (yet old-fashioned) kind of rock music in 2011, at least compared with a truly horrific 2010. The always-reliable Foo Fighters were a steady presence with the singles from Wasting Light, and The Joy Formidable proved a surprising breakout band with one of the year’s best rock hits, “Whirring.”
Then there’s The Black Keys, whose El Camino is the most enjoyable arena-rock record in a long while. I gave El Camino a positive review last month, but the album’s big beats and simple, repetitive, penetrating hooks have dug deeper since then. It’s a classic-rock record that’s fully absorbed the lessons of contemporary R&B and hip-hop without sounding remotely like either. Every song sounds like a potential single; when I play El Camino, I picture little kids singing along, and packs of young women dancing drunkenly in bars. It sounds, in other words, like pop music. And yet it’s also a record I can imagine convincing a 13-year-old to check out The Rolling Stones, The Stooges, or those ’90s Jon Spencer Blues Explosion records.
While I appreciate much of what’s happening in indie rock at the moment, El Camino reminds me how much I miss straightforward rock records that are made for a mainstream radio audience and are actually really good. That’s the kind of album that got me into music in the first place. More than anything, rock desperately needs gateway bands right now, groups with roots in the music’s history that can get on the radio and compete in the pop marketplace while building on rock’s continuum. The Black Keys want to be that band, and I’d like to see them pull it off.