- Rock isn’t doing its job right now, says Nick Hornby. He’s on to something, but he needn’t be so pessimistic.
No fewer than four people e-mailed or notified me last Friday about a New York Times commentary by Nick Hornby, one of my favorite authors. You guys all know me too well.
It’s a searching piece in which Hornby ponders rock music and aging, and how pop music can, at its best, unify people. It’s a quiet call to arms, a request by the aging Brit that rock n’ roll reclaim its role as the great social gathering force. As always with Hornby, it’s well-written, if a bit self-absorbed and crotchety. Having read it a couple of times, I’m a bit embarrassed at how much I relate to it, but also annoyed that Hornby only gets it half right.
Kicking off his polemic, Hornby offers a vignette about a favorite group of his, Philadephia roots-rock band Marah. He decries the fact that this band, who shared a stage at Giants Stadium with fan Bruce Springsteen not six months ago, is passing around the hat at a north London club gig. This expands into a thoughtful treatise on the role of rock music as people age; “that high-low fork in the road” between populist art and high art; and why excellent bands that don’t fit into a neat, modern pigeonhole can’t build an audience anymore.
If I could sum up Hornby’s point in 50 words or less, it would be this: Rock musicians used to carry themselves as if they were speaking for the whole world. Now, successful musicians seem content to broadcast only to the sliver of audience they think will “get” them – they alienate, not unify; talk small when they should think big.
To his credit, the 47-year-old Hornby doesn’t yearn for rock that speaks to his middle-age concerns. Quite the contrary – he thinks rock, even for young people, could stand to be more breathless and green:
- I’m talking about the energy, the wistful yearning, the inexplicable exhilaration, the sporadic sense of invincibility, the hope that stings like chlorine. When I was younger, rock music articulated these feelings, and now that I’m older it stimulates them, but either way, rock ‘n’ roll was and remains necessary because: who doesn’t need exhilaration and a sense of invincibility, even if it’s only now and again?
Hornby is something of an expert on pop music and aging: he wrote High Fidelity, the ur-text on 30something record geeks. His characters seek solace in their culture-porn as they learn to deal, fitfully, with the larger world. As he nears 50, Hornby finds himself at sea, as modern music provides less solace than it once did; you can’t be an overgrown kid when even the music you admire makes you feel like a scornful adult: “[T]he squeaks and bleeps scattered all over the lovely songs on the last Wilco album sound less like experimentation, and more like a despairing audio suicide note.”
Much as I suspect Matt Parker and Trey Stone secretly relate most to their nastiest South Park character, the jingoistic and selfish Cartman, it seems the more I read Hornby that his secret hero is not the protagonist of High Fidelity, Rob Gordon, but rather the loudmouthed pop purist Barry (famously played in the movie by Jack Black). Reading Hornby’s complaints about Wilco, you recall Barry walking into Rob’s record store, air-guitaring to a riff in his head, and instantly proclaiming that the twee Belle and Sebastian track playing on the store’s sound system “sucks AAAAASS!!!” Nothing, it seems, irritates Hornby more than music that’s too hip for the room – and too hip for him.
I read Hornby’s latest manifesto as an apologia for his last widely read manifesto. That would be his most infamous article, an October 2000 New Yorker review of Radiohead’s Kid A. Radiohead fans and detractors have been debating this now-renowned screed since its publication (I myself touched on it in a previous blog post). If you’ve never read it, suffice it to say that rarely has a formerly cool, rock-friendly writer seemed more out of touch.
Hornby didn’t get Kid A, Radiohead’s bold lurch toward the left of mainstream rock, and said so proudly, defiantly in his New Yorker piece. Mostly, it made him angry that the so-called Band of the Moment was so willfully trying to polarize and divide audiences.
[That review may well have led to Hornby’s downfall at The New Yorker. Just last month, the magazine announced it had hired superb New York rock critic Sasha Frere-Jones as its new popular-music writer. In reporting this news, one media gossip column noted that Hornby’s tenure in the position had been marked by sporadic column inches and lackluster copy.]
What really got under my skin about Hornby’s Kid A rant wasn’t the fact that I loved the album, that I’m 15 years younger than Hornby and that he had instantly branded himself a fuddy-duddy. It was that he was applying an excellent argument to the wrong album. Kid A is a challenging album, but it’s alienating only if you allow yourself to be alienated by it. The same goes for Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the album he mentions in the Times piece. The bands in question are adding noise and clatter to what are essentially well written songs. These are not albums for everyone – but neither was Springsteen’s Nebraska, Dylan’s John Wesley Harding or the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat, to name three albums Hornby would no doubt defend.
If I may be so bold as to try to make Hornby’s point better than he does, I think his thesis in both the old New Yorker review and the new Times piece is that rock music, at its best, is centrist and populist. It reaches for artistry in spite of itself, expresses universal truths in streetwise code. It shouldn’t have to choose between popularity (Britney) and artistry (Sigur Ros). Excellent point, right? The problem is, when Hornby makes the argument, he veers back to the same old the-kids-make-such-noisy-music-these-days argument that brands him a smug Boomer. And I know he’s not one. No one who wrote so empathetically about ’90s indie-rock fans (High Fidelity) and 13 year-old Kurt Cobain fans (About a Boy) can possibly believe all good music ended in 1979.
So the Times piece is a relief, sort of, because it refines Hornby’s Kid A thesis and applies it not to a single album but to a pervasive cultural trend. More than ever, says Hornby, modern bands are alienating huge chunks of potential audience, because they’ve been raised to believe a sliver is all they can get. Nowadays, we live for the moments when an artist just goes for it – tries to win all the people, not just those in his cultural ghetto – and is rewarded for it.
The best example, says Hornby, is OutKast’s recent smash “Hey Ya!”:
- In truth, I don’t care whether the music sounds new or old: I just want it to have ambition and exuberance, a lack of self-consciousness, a recognition of the redemptive power of noise, an acknowledgment that emotional intelligence is sometimes best articulated through a great chord change, rather than a furrowed brow. Outkast’s brilliant “Hey Ya!,” a song that for a few brief months last year united races and critics and teenagers and nostalgic geezers, had all that and more; you could hear Prince in there, and the Beatles, and yet the song belonged absolutely in and to the here and now, or at least the there and then of 2003.
Power, brother! But if Hornby can find something from the last 12 months to get excited about, why does everything look so dismal to him? Maybe these moments of pop-music harmony are rarer than they used to be, and god knows I hate the nicheification of culture as much as the next guy. Maybe when I’m 42 instead of 32, I’ll have a much dimmer view of the outlook for pop music. But for now, a world in which the White Stripes, Missy Elliott, Kanye West and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are considered pop stars can’t be all bad, can it?