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Dw. Dunphy On…The Primacy Of Rock Guitars

It is said that if you wait long enough, a trend will fall out of fashion, be ridiculed, then wind up being a trend all over again. I suppose it is true, only one is hesitant to start lumping musical forms in as “trends.” It feels very dismissive and something dictated by whim and not by need. For example, I found myself missing the primacy of rock guitars during a recent viewing of the Cameron Crowe-assembled Pearl Jam Twenty.

Let me just say how weird it is to watch a documentary set in the times in which you have lived. Many of us see the documentary as the expression of times long gone and people now dead—just think of nearly everything Ken Burns has ever done and you’ll get where I’m thinking. But here is a film that immediately drops me into a time I remember living through, those last days of hair metal where longhaired, mirror-shaded miscreants danced funny and sang of getting drunk and screwed sloppy. We also had the pop acts that, when they were still making headlines, were also most reflective of an illusion of the 1980s than the actual era. Into that came the feedback of guitar played loud, angry, not flashy but with a lot of energy.

It was kind of weird, really. A brother of mine who is dyed-in-the-wool metal appreciated Nirvana’s Nevermind for all of a few months. I recall us driving to my grandmother’s for Christmas with the tape playing through a half-dozen times. Pearl Jam’s Ten stuck around longer than that, but it too eventually went by the wayside. My brother Dan would drift back to Metallica, Overkill and Testament, but the larger populace would stay with the alternative rock acts for a longer time. We didn’t know how good we had it.

Matter-of-fact, we did an awful lot of complaining during that period, about who was true and who was selling out, about what the difference between an artist and a rock star is, about who was good, great, or sucked. And sure, there was a lot of music that truly was horrible at that time; they came, they saw, they went home and whined into microphones and slammed barre chords into their Sears guitars, and they wound up with recording contracts. That may be too simplistic an assessment, but it felt that way. We probably should have been grateful, even for the wanna-bes.

The music scene, such as it is, is so automated that even jokes about auto-tune no longer apply. Most pop songs are so over-produced and over-processed; to hear a guitar strum somewhere in the mix seems like a really big deal now. And even so, there’s still some good stuff happening, even if it is 90% synthetic. I refuse to fall into the trap of saying “everything made now is garbage,” because it is just not true.

But I have lived through a few musical cycles now where the guitar was the dominant force: most certainly the 1970’s was the most pervasive, followed by the alterna-90s. After that, the 1980s had enough guitars in tow to remind you it existed in the first half of the decade (bunched up against a whole lot of synth that has aged extremely poorly). The hard-rockers were rather in their glory for the second half, but only small portions of their efforts seem to reach me now. I listen to it still for memory’s sake, but some of it is just so silly and embarrassing. How did we ever think girls would like us just because we liked that stuff?

Finally, we had the early 2000’s microburst that was, really, nothing at all. In it there were White Stripes, Strokes, Hives and Vines, but darn little of lasting consequence (only the White Stripes has lasted long enough for anybody to get too gooey about the band’s eventual demise. The Strokes still exist but, right now, does anyone care enough to acknowledge it?) Where we stand now is mostly a guitar-free zone so far as the major pop charts are concerned.

And even the underground seems vastly different. Remember when blogs like Pitchfork seemed to revel solely in the most arch of independent music, and those who liked anything else were as stupid as the artists they liked? Today, they are a friendlier environment, which in itself is not a bad thing. They’re no longer the bitchy arbiters of what is good and what is worthless. But look at the stories that get the most frequent coverage on the site and you’ll recognize the change immediately. Odd Future with Tyler The Creator, a rapper, tends to show up the most, followed by singers who are far more glamorous than what used to pass for Pitchfork’s oeuvre. Remember Courtney Love’s streaked makeup or Donita Sparks staring down a camera lens in contempt? Now see Lana Del Rey, Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine, and Elizabeth Harper of Class Actress, all of whom are magazine-shoot ready. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either, but when you recall that whole ‘90s “underground manifesto” aesthetic, glamour can be quite disorienting.

The overriding point is, of course, most of this music is key-and-sample driven with, at times, a guitar adding color, a world where O.K. Computer came and went, but Kid A stayed forever. Often the beat is a disco pulse and not a thunder drive. One more time: not a problem if the song is good, but I cannot help but miss that electric downstroke, the voice that belts out into the microphone, through the wires, ultimately out your speakers and into your brain.

So what is it then? I guess what I really miss is that communal aspect of the majority, or at least the majority I was in closest proximity to, liking that sound. Right now, the guitar just isn’t all that welcome, and by inexplicable extension, I don’t feel welcomed either. I recall different time frames where I could flip on a radio and what came out had a 50/50 chance of being instantly accepted. Now I just feel old, having seen the alternative realm overtaken by the Oonts-Oonts club kids, and no matter how hard I try to pump my fist, I can’t track the rhythm.

So if I could go back to the early 1990’s, I’d tell myself a few things. First, when Pearl Jam starts getting weird with Vitalogy, just roll with it and don’t be so critical. Appreciate Kurt Cobain while he’s here because it won’t be long. Sponge isn’t awful so quit complaining, and more often than not, Stone Temple Pilots is better than you first thought. Bush still sounds like bad Nirvana ripping-off, but Gavin Rossdale will marry Gwen Stefani, she’ll eclipse him with hyperpolished electropop, and he will be relegated to the world of being Mr. Stefani so, ha ha, joke’s on him.

Enjoy the ride, already. We may yet see the next wave of six-string slingers or we may not. But let’s try not to ruin the party before we even get there (he said to himself tentatively).

 

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  • Ozarkmatt

    At least we still have the Blues and Jam Bands. They will never sniff the pop charts, but they still realize what a guitar is for.

  • KingP

    Although not a Pearl Jam fan, I do appreciate the sentiment – with a few observations:

    -“Actual” pop radio was still pretty crappy back in the day, if I recall. What most of us get maudlin over is the memory of the ubiquitous “modern rock” format that mushroomed post-Nirvana.

    -The lack of authentic “rock” as we knew it could be a matter of economics rather than trend.  Our old standbys, although “alternative” in presentation, were still presided over by actual producers (Matt Wallace, Brendan O’Brien, etc) with budgets who operated in studios with real engineers and had an idea of when the product was “complete.” Some of the indie outfits seem to “want” to rock (I’m thinking Sleigh Bells, etc) but perhaps lack the resources to add key ingredients such as lyrical content, the rest of the band, etc.

    -Good “rock” is probably 60% attitude and style, thus the ascendance of the arty indie girls who, unsurprisingly, are easy on the eyes.  Four scruffy guys with beards with an inscrutable name (Deer Tick, Blitzen Trapper, ETC) and whose videos are moody affairs featuring wispy girls wandering in the forest are probably pretty good musicians, but will never gain much influence outside their hipster fanbase.

    Sorry to be so formal.  I’m working on a thesis.  

  • KingP

    Although not a Pearl Jam fan, I do appreciate the sentiment – with a few observations:

    -“Actual” pop radio was still pretty crappy back in the day, if I recall. What most of us get maudlin over is the memory of the ubiquitous “modern rock” format that mushroomed post-Nirvana.

    -The lack of authentic “rock” as we knew it could be a matter of economics rather than trend.  Our old standbys, although “alternative” in presentation, were still presided over by actual producers (Matt Wallace, Brendan O’Brien, etc) with budgets who operated in studios with real engineers and had an idea of when the product was “complete.” Some of the indie outfits seem to “want” to rock (I’m thinking Sleigh Bells, etc) but perhaps lack the resources to add key ingredients such as lyrical content, the rest of the band, etc.

    -Good “rock” is probably 60% attitude and style, thus the ascendance of the arty indie girls who, unsurprisingly, are easy on the eyes.  Four scruffy guys with beards with an inscrutable name (Deer Tick, Blitzen Trapper, ETC) and whose videos are moody affairs featuring wispy girls wandering in the forest are probably pretty good musicians, but will never gain much influence outside their hipster fanbase.

    Sorry to be so formal.  I’m working on a thesis.