ROCK Is Rollin' Three big cds crank up the volume on the charts after years of bubblegum pop. is the headbanger's ball re-starting?

  • Share
  • Read Later

The world has turned and left me here," sang Rivers Cuomo on Weezer's self-titled debut album. In the years since that double-platinum 1994 CD, that's exactly what happened, not only to Weezer but to an entire generation of rock bands that emerged in the early to mid-'90s. In that era, grunge, punk and "alternative" bands-Green Day, Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots-ruled the hearts and wallets of young listeners. Then, almost without exception, they dropped from the top of the charts, replaced by rap acts and, later, boy bands and girl divas. Some lingered but grew less relevant (Nine Inch Nails' 1999 The Fragile was a critical smash but a sales disappointment) or less edgy (a Foo Fighters song became the theme music for the nbc romantic comedy-drama Ed, for cripes' sake).

Weezer released the ruinously unpopular Pinkerton in 1996, then vanished long enough for lead singer Cuomo to enroll at Harvard and nearly complete a bachelor's degree. So before the release of the band's new (and also self-titled) record, Cuomo flatly predicted, "I think it's going to fail in every sense of the word."

If rock is good at one thing, it's dying, as it did, cyclically, with the rise of disco and new wave. But if rock is good at two things, it's dying and coming back to life. And so last month Weezer found itself making its debut at No. 4 on the Billboard charts, its video for Hash Pipe-an eccentric, grinding single about a transvestite hooker-breaking onto mtv's Total Request Live. Last week Break the Cycle (Flip Records/Elektra), an angsty slab of dysfunction-metal from Staind, entered the charts at No. 1, selling a surprising 716,000 copies in one week. Right behind it was Lateralus (Tool Dissectional/Volcano), from arty gloom rockers Tool, which came out at No. 1 a week before, displacing red-hot girl group Destiny's Child. (Weezer hangs in at No. 9.) Overnight-Hello, Cleveland!-kids were ready to rock again.

Well, not overnight. Rock never really died-after the alternative-rock craze bottomed out in the late '90s,

rap-rock hybrids like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock as well as more straightforward rock bands like Creed have clicked with audiences and gone multiplatinum. And record-company executives, like anxious analysts anticipating a tech bubble burst, have been anticipating a correction in teeny-pop's long boom. They have devoted more resources in the past year to signing and developing rock acts, believing the tweens who flocked to pop would soon be ready for a different sound. "They want [their music] to evolve into something else as they grow older and mature," says John Davis, vice president of Loud Records, a division of Columbia.

Teen pop isn't dead either, but even there, a shift is under way. The Backstreet Boys' latest, Black and Blue, sold a healthy 5 million, according to SoundScan, but that didn't touch the 11.8 million for their 1999 Millennium or the 10.5 million for 'N Sync's 2000 No Strings Attached. And few expect 'N Sync's July follow-up, Celebrity, to approach those heights either. More significant, long-reigning teen acts are, in attitude if not music, waxing more grownup, more rock 'n' roll. It may not be far-fetched to see the cultural roots of a rock revival in the moment Britney Spears ripped off her clothes at the mtv Video Music Awards last fall-Daddy, I'm not a little girl anymore!-or in the snarly, goateed look 'N Sync has adopted in its latest video. Bubblegum's fans are being led down a rockier road-and nothing rocks like rock.

But each of the rock successes of the past weeks were the product of years of touring and building grassroots followings. Tool first broke out on the Lollapalooza tour in 1993, and Lateralus, its first album in five years, was hotly awaited, though its sales were still surprising. Staind was godfathered by Limp Bizkit front man Fred Durst, who brought the band on the Family Values Tour in 1999, helped get it signed to Elektra (its first album, Dysfunction, sold slightly more than a million copies) and sang on its ballad Outside from the Family Values Tour 1999 CD. But even with a famous sugar daddy, success came after 18 months building cred on tour.

It's tempting to liken this budding revival to the coming-out of grunge 10 years ago, when the President was named Bush, the economy was contracting and anxious Gen-Xers with guitars rode self-deprecation and power chords to the top of the charts. But Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam et al. could be said at least loosely to have a common sound, a common fan base and a common thrift-shop fashion sense. This season's rock monarchs share good timing-"There's a collective exhaustion now like there was [in 1991]," says Jonathan Poneman, co-founder of Sub Pop Records, which served as grunge's midwife. But the bands have little else in common.

Thus Staind's Break the Cycle is the sensitive mosher's album, heavy on commercial-metal power ballads à la Creed and emotive if inarticulate lyrics laced with therapy-speak (hence the title) that play like an R-rated episode of Oprah. ("Did Daddy not love you? Or did he love you just too much? Š Well, f___ them, and f___ her and f___ him, And f___ you Š") Tool, for its part, specializes in punishing, proficient metal with complicated progressive-rock time signatures: Metallica by way of King Crimson. It's also firmly in the progressive-rock tradition of noodly instrumentals, bloated song lengths and bombast; the band's florid lyrics ("Saturn ascends, the one, the ten. Ignorant to the damage done") and Latinate album titles like Ænima and Lateralus seem more than a little æffected. Weezer's stripped-down, raging and sardonic beach pop is Tool's pure antithesis (you could fit their blissful but brief new CD 21Ž2 times over onto Tool's nearly 80-minute monster).

If there's any musical link among the three, it's an emphasis on melody-at least compared with the testosterone-drenched, jock-rock chants of Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock. And that may help lure pop kids. "There's a lot more stuff that everybody can sing along to, that girls can take home and listen and sing to, as well as those guys hitting their heads on the wall," says Elektra A&R associate Jill Katona. But if the three don't make a movement, they may represent the desire for one, and a first taste of things to come. "There is a nation of great up-and-coming rock bands right now, and in the next couple of years we're going to see something really exciting," says Poneman of Sub Pop. "Have we made that switch and turned on a dime in one week?" asks Alan Light, editor-in-chief of Spin. "I don't know, but I think it obviously shows there's a hunger for something else."

That something else could be less homogeneous than grunge was, considering today's cafeteria-style music culture. "Kids aren't necessarily identified as being a heavy-metal kid or a punk kid or something else," says mtv2 general manager David Cohn. "There's no better evidence of that than the rap-metal thing." Says Katona: "Kids today with the Internet and all the access they have to tons of music have a wider array of interests. But you know: once into rock, always into rock."

Does this mean a return to musical authenticity after years of prefab pop acts? Perhaps-at least, there's hope for bands that actually record their own music-but don't expect a return of the grunge era's rejection of rock-star pomp and artifice (or its embrace of flannel). From the spiked bracelets and studded belts of runway fashion to the recent reappearance of Mötley Crüe's Tommy Lee on the cover of Rolling Stone, there's a creeping nostalgia in pop culture for the old-fashioned rock-star myth in all its showboaty, leather-pantsed glory. "If you're going to stare at your toes and play guitar and look depressed, that's not going to cut it," says Avery Lipman, president of Republic Records. "It's important for artists to be stars." (Even the dirge-slinging Tool is known for performing, glitter rock­style, in masks and wigs.)

Ironically, this is the same sort of glammed-up rock excess that alt-rock reacted against. But despite Weezer's nerd-rock image, Cuomo was originally inspired by such over-the-top metal acts as the Scorpions. "I was a metal kid at heart," he says. "But I couldn't do all the right poses and I couldn't wear leather pants." Who knows? Rock stardom could even be more fun for Weezer the second time around than in the alterna-purist mid-'90s. "At the time, it was definitely not okay to be successful. It wasn't cool," he says. "The whole rock-star thing was considered to be lame. Nowadays, it's totally come back in style." The world has indeed turned. Three hundred and sixty degrees.