How Bad Can It Be?: “Off the Bus and On the Record”

Written by Book Reviews, Books, How Bad Can It Be?, Music

Rock ‘n’ roll, of course, is all about The Kids. No matter what the makeup of its actual audience — and evidence suggests that it varies widely — there’s an assumption that pop music fans skew overwhelmingly young, and the more commercial the act the younger the presumptive audience. That assumption is sometimes trotted out as a preemptive defense against criticism: This music isn’t made for you, Mr. Critic Man — we’re doin’ it for The Kids!

Now, some of that is just bullshit face-saving — a cynical conflation of the ideas of “broad appeal” and “lowest common denominator” that’s frankly insulting to any audience, no matter how young — but there’s a kernel of truth in it. Youth is a time when, perhaps because our own lives are so small and proscribed, pop culture seems so terribly huge and important; it is life on an epic scale, in which we participate by proxy. In adolescence, especially, our skins are at their thinnest, our nerve endings so close to the surface that the joys and pains of art, of music, can touch us in a way that they never really will again.

And so it’s a good thing, I think, to spend time around young people, to revisit that perspective. The kids at The Rock Star Stories have been disseminating that view since 2001, when the Rich siblings — a quartet of showbiz kids from South Florida — started producing their cheapjack cable access-style weekly half-hour. The production values were strictly Wayne’s World level, but the Riches and their scrappy cohort of Boca Raton high-schoolers were soon landing interviews with national acts. From that grew a nonprofit youth media training organization, a show that airs in nearly 70 national markets, and now a new book. Off the Bus and On the Record transcribes 22 interviews from The Rock Star Stories, along with behind-the-scenes tidbits from the show’s on-air talent and production staff.

Given that the very act of journalism happens within the pop-cultural landscape, it’s inevitable that The Kids are themselves a big part of the story here. It’s a story we’ve seen before — teen journalist on a rock ‘n’ roll thrill ride. I’m not the first to raise the comparison — the publishers of Off the Bus and On the Record cited Almost Famous by name in their promotional materials, apparently without thought that it might not be an entirely flattering proposition. If there’s anything left to Almost Famous after you strip away the adolescent-male wish-fulfillment fantasy, you’re left with an impression that I can confirm from my personal experiences in bands — that most musicians are crass, dull, self-absorbed (“I am a golden god,” indeed) and none too fucking bright, and that the scenesters are even worse, and that the music that seems so important and means so much to all involved is mostly mediocre, and that only the romance and high drama inherent to the experience of youth makes any of it bearable at all.

The Kids of The Rock Star Stories never allow themselves to be as wide-eyed and naïve as the Cameron Crowe character, of course — if anything, they affect a glib cynicism about the business, foreshadowing their own deepening involvement with it — but their insights are instructive nonetheless. A few points about the modern rock scene, as gleaned from the pages of Off the Bus and On the Record:

The Warped Tour is still a huge deal for young fans — and for artists, too. Given a choice between sucking dust for six hours on a 90-degree day at the county fairgrounds so you can see your favorite band play a 35-minute set in broad daylight, or seeing that same band play a full show in a club with a beer in your hand — well, which are you going to choose? Festivals and package tours become less important to older music fans, simply because our increased income and mobility give us a greater choice of venue; but let us not forget that for The Kids, they can be a lifeline — a chance to see a bunch of bands they like, and learn about some new ones, in an all-ages setting and without blowing a whole summer’s worth of paper-route money.

What’s mildly surprising is how much the bands themselves seem to enjoy the festival circuit. Playing truncated sets in the open air in the heat of a Florida summer may not be your idea of an ideal gig, but for breaking bands it not only makes economic sense, but builds the audience. It also provides the opportunity to meet other bands, leading to the next point:

Despite all we’ve heard about narrowcasting and the fragmenting of the audience, the modern rock scene remains remarkably tight and cohesive. Maybe it’s just the selection of bands chosen for this book project, but one comes away from Off the Bus with the impression that the rock ‘n’ roll life is a lot like a small-town high school; everybody knows everybody else, and they’ve all got something complimentary to write in each other’s yearbooks. Names are dropped with gay abandon; bands play shows together, either as openers or on package tours; cross-band side projects spring up and fall silent, lasting only long enough to build a MySpace page. This supportive atmosphere doubtless helps bands keep their sanity in the dysfunctional drama of the music industry, but it does lead to some unexpected consensus wisdom; to wit “¦

Everybody — absolutely everybody — loves John Mayer. Seriously. In this Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, John Mayer is the undisputed Big Man on Campus. Nobody seems to have a bad word to say about the guy. Every musician who’s ever toured with him (and a surprising proportion of these interviewees have done so) raves about his generosity, his humor, his awesome guitar chops. It’s really tremendous. And it left me wondering: Are they talking about the same John Mayer? The bleating dipshit I’ve heard on the radio? Seriously, who knew?

It’s comforting to know, though that some things never change: the evidence suggests that most musicians are still crass, dull, self-absorbed, and none too bright. There are exceptions, of course — in one standout, the dude from Yellowcard talks frankly and intelligently about the compromises and pressures of label distribution, and the guys from Rooney come off as bright and funny, without being puerile. But many of the subjects take the enthusiasm of The Kids as license to act like fourteen-year olds themselves, lacing the interview with toilet humor and “your mom” gags. Some are just patronizing dicks, pouncing on an interviewer’s slip of the tongue to show how clever they are (e.g., interviewer asks “Was there any specific reason”¦” but stumbles over the word “specific” so it comes out “pecific”: shitheel from Fall Out Boy says, “No Pacific reason, but there might have been an Atlantic reason”: OH, WELL-PLAYED, SIR! YOU ARE A BIG MAN, MR. FALL OUT BOY, SCORING POINTS ON A MIDDLE SCHOOLER!).

But even that shit is relatively benign; what’s really squirm-inducing is bands totally macking on underage journalists. The comic high/low point comes when the scumbag from Maroon 5 oh-so-smoothly asks the eldest of the Rich girls how old she is, and then when he discovers she’s in her 20s — just a couple of years younger than him — he starts backpedaling furiously and unconvincingly. The behind-the-scenes squibs tease us with references to band misbehavior — interview subjects showing up drunk, or inviting The Kids back to the bus to get high, hitting on the girls, groping and even an instance of what any court in the land would call assault — but the authors refuse to name and shame. Indeed, they try to laugh the stuff off as “funny stories from backstage,” thus feeding in to the boys-will-be-boys attitude that enables this crap in the first place.

And what of the corresponding point — that the music, which seems so important and means so much to all involved, is in fact mediocre at best? Well, with an interviewee roster that includes the Academy Is … , Gavin DeGraw, OK Go, Gym Class Heroes, Fall Out Boy, All-American Rejects, and Charlotte Sometimes — well, there’s nothing you and I can really say about that, is there? The Kids, they know these things, in ways that we cannot. And what they don’t know, you can’t tell ’em; some things in life you’ve got to find out for yourself.