“Flyover Rock” Is The Future Of Music

mariasci | November 3, 2008 12:00 pm

“It’s weird to me that the glorification of ignorance is finally (maybe) about to fail in U.S. politics, but it’s still a good look in blue-state coastal elitist music journalism,” Marc Hogan writes, referring to Ann Powers’ article about what she calls “flyover rock,” and what others have called “red-state rock.” Powers argues that the genre–which includes bands like Nickelback, Hinder, and Daughtry–is unfairly dismissed by what is variously called “the coasts,” “the media,” and “elitists.” Her musical analysis highlights the sound’s eclecticism and tries to relate their lyrical focus to a particular way of life–hedonism as a release, multi-generational entertainment, and “openly emotional,” which probably sounds more convincing when the example at hand isn’t Hinder’s “Lips of an Angel.” Powers wasn’t trying to be condescending, but Hogan’s case is helped by her assertion that Sarah Palin gave her baby the middle name Van as a Van Halen tribute–something even a Van Halen fansite recognizes as a joke. So is it ultimately more condescending to dismiss Nickelback because they don’t sound like the music you like, or to try to appreciate them because that’s what “real people” listen to?

That’s a pretty evergreen question for critics, so let’s see if we can’t dance around it a bit. Ex-ska punker and current Hinder/Daughtry/et al songwriter Brian Howes complains that “the media are looking for the next cool thing, whereas Middle Americans just want good music that makes ’em feel good.” But this is a little disingenuous. There have always been rock bands dismissed by critics that proved immensely popular with the public both on and between the coasts: Kiss, Led Zeppelin (Howes’ argument is one that runs through Zep bio Hammer of the Gods), and even metal itself all fall into this pattern. What’s new here is the other side of the equation. Powers writes: “Since the days when former art-school kids the Rolling Stones declared themselves exiled on Main Street, populism has served as a normalizing counterpoint to rock’s freaky bohemian tendencies.” And that was great when freaky bohemian bands were selling lots of records and getting lots of attention. As Howes points out, however, “The people in Middle America seem to still buy records.” The other folks–consumers of what we might as well call “blue-state rock” to be consistent–don’t so much. If all we care about is continuing to hear music that sounds like it’s trying to be freaky and bohemian, that’s fine. But if we care about music as a cultural force, it’s a problem.

Howes doesn’t actually name a band in his critique of the media’s focus on the “next big thing,” because who would he name right now? (TV on the Radio? Vampire Weekend?) Kiss v. Pink Floyd seems like a real red state/blue state kind of taste division since the sides were relatively equal in numbers. But blue-state rock is a third party right now, and it suffers from the same problem all third parties do: the media won’t cover it, and no one wants to get too invested in it because it doesn’t seem viable. Lots of new bands feature the kind of biographical or thematic hooks that the non-music press could grab onto, but it’s very hard to justify covering bands that are selling so few records.

Though the rhetoric of rock is that it’s something that exists at the margins of society, it’s always drawn a lot of its power from its importance. And playing music that only a few thousand people seem to care about doesn’t, by extension, seem important. Third parties may come up with some great proposals, but without the votes–read here as album sales–there’s no chance that they’ll have any influence on the collective enterprise at hand. As long as Hinder’s selling and your particular indie fave isn’t, more people outside the music-writing bubble will think “rock” sounds like Hinder.

‘Flyover rock’ rocks the heartland [LA Times]