The Real Innovation is Retro

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This is my first entry as a music columnist. I usually write and report stories for TIME magazine, but I like this format because music criticism is all about starting fights, and when my work is on the Internet wrathful response is just a click away. I know in real time if I'm doing a good job, because I get hate email.

So let's start with a divisive statement: all these "open-minded" artists are getting old. I mean the horde of platinum-selling genre-hybrid acts: rap-rockers (Limp Bizkit), R-and-B-rock-teen-poppers (Pink), pop-dance-post-punkers (No Doubt) and Latin-rock-pop divas (Shakira), who practice the eclecticism that has been hot since way back when it was settled that the electronica revolution was a non-starter. Their songs are generally okay, and occasionally breach the lower depths of pretty good, but they're last decade's news; Rage Against the Machine brought rap-metal mainstream in the early '90s, the Fugees dominated the middle-'90s with hip-hop that borrowed from rock and pop, Ricky Martin filled every supermarket with his Latin-pop blend in the late-'90s, and yet groups still sell records and turn heads with forms of fusion pioneered in the Bronze Age. For some reason, "Group X Infuses Genre Y with Genre Z" is still a headline.

Take Kelefa Sanneh's piece in the March 31 New York Times, "New Ideas from the Top of the Charts." Sanneh makes the excellent observation that the tops of the Billboard charts are filled with music that blends different popular styles (No Doubt, Linkin Park), while rock's rebel fringe (The Strokes, The White Stripes) has gone retro, inspired by ancient garage rock and punk. Sanneh allows that in many cases the latter milieu cuts better albums. But the story also seems to equate the mix-and-match stylistic approach of the popular bands with innovation and originality, and the apparent purism of the fringe with originality's opposite. Of Linkin Park, Sanneh writes,

"The group's album is formulaic, its lyrics are often inane, and even its catchiest songs aren't memorable. But Linkin Park also exemplifies hard rock at its most open-minded, with a line-up that includes a rapper and a D.J.; nearly every song juxtaposes heavy riffs with ambient electronic sounds. If none of this seems revolutionary, thank Korn, Limp Bizkit and Rage Against the Machine, who transformed rap-metal from a novelty into a commonplace."

So on one hand, Linkin Park is formulaic, and walks the trail blazed by older rap-metal bands. On the other hand, the group epitomizes a form of open-mindedness. One might suspect an elusive, scholarly logic is at work here (this is the Times Arts and Leisure section) but the argument only grows stranger. "Other mainstream rock bands are taking similar approaches, succeeding by embracing new or unusual styles," writes Sanneh, citing Incubus, "another D.J.-enhanced band," and Tool, who last fall put on "an impressive show that included lots of odd time signatures and a long interpretive dance interlude."

First of all, interpretive dance is never okay, and the dudes in Tool, of all people, should not receive encouragement in that field. Second, it's unclear what is new or unusual about DJs, ambient electronic sounds, or odd time signatures. The first two items on that list were fresh in the early '90s, when U2 mixed rock with techno sounds on their "Achtung Baby" album, and The Beastie Boys interspersed DJ scratches and rapping with heavy guitars on their hit song "Sabotage." By the turn of the century, both tricks were de rigeur among hard rock bands (to say nothing of the industrial bands that had been mixing synthesizers and samples with metal riffs since the Enlightenment). Only Phish would dispute that odd time signatures ceased to be fresh at some point during a King Crimson concert in 1971.

As for Sanneh's take on the retro fringe, it's true that "critics bicker about exactly which bands the Strokes are ripping off — Television? The Modern Lovers? Silkworm? but no one denies that [their album] 'Is This It' pays tribute to a quarter-century of punk and post-punk." Only this leads to a faulty conclusion: "While some acts earn millions of fans by trying something new, the Strokes delight an elite audience with stylish nostalgia."

This is not only unfair because the acts with millions of fans are trying things that have been popular for at least several years, but because the Strokes, all young men in their early twenties, came of age in the late '90s, and the proto-punk, punk and post-punk bands their sound recalls are '60s, '70s and '80s acts; is the idea that their singer, Julian Casablancas, writes songs infused with nostalgia for the Television album that played during his conception? His songs suggest he knows his late-'70s New York punk bands backward and forwards, but a distinctive voice emerges in every one, one that reflects the been-there-done-that milieu of early '00s Manhattan prep school youth rather than the conspicuously aggravated, dope-addled CBGBs crowd of twenty-five years ago. My guess is The Strokes would sooner die than hold forth with a Patti Smith-style poetry-reading-over-extended-jam-session, a jazzy, Tom Verlaine guitar solo, or one of the Ramones' ceaseless power-chord assaults, the way a nostalgia act might. Gen Y kids that they are, they're way too self-contained, insufficiently grandiose for that sort of thing. And thank God — it's that approach to the post-punk tradition that makes them original.

That also goes for Sanneh's description of The White Stripes' sound: "a drunken Rolling Stones rehearsal from 1965." The Stripes are blues-influenced guitar rock, and so were the 1965 Stones, but would the Stones have considered restricting their lineup to one guitar and a drummer, as the White Stripes have done? Composing a song entirely out of dialogue from Citizen Kane (see the Stripes' "The Union Forever," on their album "White Blood Cells," which is climbing the charts). Covering country songs in which the narrator is a woman? (The Stripes' best live number is "Jolene," made famous by Dolly Parton.) They do something new by playing with elements of '60s rock in a way nobody's played with them before. (Note: I'm the last person who should be defending the Stripes, who claim to be brother and sister but are a divorced couple. They're currently telling the press I reported this to be the case because they played a trick on me. In fact it was because I found their divorce records, and still have the photocopies, if anyone wants a peek.)

"New Ideas From the Top of the Charts" is a fine essay anyway, the first I've seen to describe the current divide in rock between the eclectics and the non-eclectics. I'd just love to envision The Strokes and The White Stripes, as well as the immense popularity of the old-school country "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack, as parts of a revolt against the self-conscious eclecticism that has become a rock cliché. That may be wishful thinking — "O Brother Where Art Thou" is most likely a second "Buena Vista Social Club," an anomaly everybody has to own rather than the harbinger of a trend — but popular music is due for a shake-up, and right now the best new ideas are coming out of rock that's just rock.