- No rock band wants to make white-bread suburbia music. But the culture of niche marketing drives them inevitably towards it. Makes you wonder how a guy like Elvis was loved by so many different demographics.
A couple of nights before Thanksgiving, I met my friend Brian at Mercury Lounge on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to see a showcase of a new band. Well, new to a major label, anyway – the Exies have just been signed to Virgin. Brian, a Billboard editor, has lots of contacts at EMI, Virgin’s parent company, and someone put him on the list for the show. I was his plus-one. We’ve been in these circumstances before; for whatever reason, Mercury, with its manageable size and semi-hip downtown location, has become the labels’ venue of choice for small showcases of promising new rock bands.
The Exies hail from California and made their name in the late-’90s Los Angeles rock scene, where their riff-heavy rock reportedly attracted the attention of Stone Temple Pilots’ Dean DeLeo. Their major-label debut will be out about a month into the new year. Virgin is doing a pretty good job of setting up the Exies – MTV2 has just broadcast a “You Hear It First” profile on the band, and it just so happened I saw it the day before Brian invited me to the show. The band members give good interview – they come off as unpretentious, self-deprecating and reasonably smart (”Exies” is a cheeky play on the Existentialists, a ’60s philosophy movement). I run hot and cold on the band’s kind of meat-and-potatoes rock, but EMI has been releasing some good rock acts lately (the Vines, OK Go, Coldplay), and so I went into the gig with an open mind.
The boys played their hearts out, but I came away convinced that the Exies are not my kind of band. This does not mean, however, that they won’t sell records. The Exies have a grungy, bashing rock sound that in its best moments sounds like a thrashier Nirvana but more often sounds freeze-dried, a little too studied. Though informed by post-grunge rock and punk, the Exies’ lamer songs are tousled instead of tough. It’s the kind of rock we started to hear on “alternative” radio in the late ’90s: one-word-name bands like Fuel, Filter, Tonic, Lifehouse, Nickelback. (Can I get some props for even remembering these bands’ names?) In short, no matter how good the Exies’ intentions, they’re on their way to producing Volvo Rock.
I coined the term Volvo Rock a few years ago to refer to rock that sounds like it was created by a focus group to target a 25-to-40-year-old suburban demographic. Truthfully, my term is kind of dated – I probably should have called it “SUV Rock,” but that doesn’t roll off the tongue, and there are too many asshole SUV owners. My archetypal Volvo Rock listener isn’t an asshole – she’s friendly, well-intentioned and wants to hear new music, but the bands that light her fire on the radio can’t be too dangerous; the White Stripes sound like noise to her. (She’s not necessarily a she, but her male counterpart is probably listening to more retrograde music, like the same old AC/DC or Steve Miller Band records he liked back in high school.) She’s not necessarily a soccer mom – she can, in fact, be quite young – but she’s a consumer with plenty of disposable income to spend not only on CDs, but on the stuff advertised on radio stations that play this music. Like the car in its title, Volvo Rock is safe, a lifestyle accessory.
What’s perverse about the existence of Volvo Rock, in its numbing uniformity, is that it’s the product of a culture of more choice, not less. We now have more niche genres than we can count, and more bands with a wide array of influences. Yet bands like the Exies end up being produced by people like Matt Serletic (Matchbox 20, Collective Soul) who move them toward uniformity. That’s because in our niche entertainment universe, artists have to super-serve a niche, not play to the masses. Gone are the days when a Zeppelin or a Police or even a U2 could play to everyone by being themselves; in the old days of mass culture, when we had fewer choices, bands believed they could win the hearts of all of us. It’s heartbreaking to see a band enter the business already aware that their only goal is to be the kind of act that vaguely satisfies a sliver of us.
A few nights after the Exies gig, as I settled on the couch after Thanksgiving dinner, I flipped around the tube and landed on NBC’s Elvis Lives. The program was produced by RCA Records to help them flog more copies of the big-selling Elv1s 30 #1 Hits during the holiday season. As I watched the slickly edited montage of testimonials to the King by current pop acts, I got to thinking about what it takes to sell an artist as universal as Elvis in the current market. The last two decades of Presley’s life, he was a purely commercial enterprise, and it’s hard to argue that even half of his career moves were motivated by artistry, rather than by product-shifting. Still, last night, what struck me about the footage of Presley himself in Elvis Lives was how unpretentious, how variety-show-simple his performances were. He wasn’t playing to any one group in the audience on Ed Sullivan or the ‘68 comeback special or Vegas; he was there to entertain them all. It was a stark contrast to the parade of artists on Elvis Lives declaring fealty to the King – Britney to Bono to Rob Thomas. “Hey, I like Elvis,” each seemed to be saying, “and even if I’m the only person on this show whose music you like, you should like Elvis, too.” Each niche was served, each demographic targeted. Perhaps a few Volvo Rock listeners were convinced to go buy the Elvis CD, and it might be refreshing for them to get reacquainted with music that wasn’t produced specifically for them.