Oh, woe are the winds of change that bringeth the lame to the forefront. My last article spotlighted bands who lost that loving feeling after their critical star couldn’t span the generational test of “What’s Still Cool.” There is also a flipside to that coin, one that’s much more bewildering: when lame bands become cool.
This musical abnormality has got to be a generational deal, for it makes no sense otherwise. These bands’ music doesn’t change, their videos are still embarrassingly hideous, and more times than not, they turn into creepier versions of themselves. So what gives? As it turns out, if you take three decades, it’s like a clean slate. The new generation has no clue what the critics said in 1983. They have no context to put them up against. What came before and what was bubbling under at the time? All they know is that this band existed before them and that song they’re singing is catchy as hell. Raise a fist, turn it up and let the good times roll ... while we all stand behind them wearing a painful grimace.
All right, let’s stop beating around the bush here. There are plenty of bands who fit this description, but maybe none better than Journey. Sure, at their height they were an unstoppable force, not just on radio and MTV, but in sales. But you wouldn’t find many critics throwing them into the Cool category. For music obsessives at the time, this was a band that their moms liked. It was a rock band that they “could really get down to.” And time treated them about the same way that Beavis and Butthead treated Winger. Once the ‘90s arrived, not even casual listeners would be caught dead listening to “Wheel in the Sky” (still turning, by the way).
But then something interesting happened: new kids were born post-New Kids on the Block. This was a generation who knew of Kurt Cobain in the same way I knew of Liberace: dead guy. The ‘80s were a funny part in their history books, something to mimic in costume. It was a whole decade of pop songs, one no different from the other.
If you look back, it was “Laguna Beach” and “Family Guy” that really did it with “Don’t Stop Believin.’” It was used in an episode in both shows in the same week and suddenly shot to the top of the iTunes downloads chart, which itself was in its infancy. The battle cry of the youth was, “What are these wonderful sounds?” while the rest of us replied, “Wait. What? Really?” Then you add in Tony Soprano and “Glee,” and the next thing you know, the dude from the Eels is dueting with Steve Perry. Forehead-smack.
(Side note: This argument makes Louisville band Cooler prophets with their song, “Rock Concert ’83,” with its loving refrain, “When Journey came to town. ...” Look it up.)
I’m guilty of it, too. Born in 1981, I thought the band America was pretty fantastic. Nice harmonies, cool songs about a Horse With No Name. Yeah, put on the “History: America’s Greatest Hits” album and we’ll all go down to Ventura Highway. But as it turns out, America was looked at as a third-rate CSNY when they were getting started.
And while we’re here, let’s add Billy Joel into the mix. He’s a fun example of the twists and turns all around. First he’s cool as part of the late ‘70s piano scene that also birthed Tom Waits. Then the pop thing happens with “Uptown Girl” and we all had a chuckle. By the time “River of Dreams” came around, even Captain Jack knew he wasn’t an artist you’d necessarily preach to your pals about. But here in 2014, dude’s a legend.
So what does this all amount to? As usual, not much. We may learn the same thing time and time again, but it’s worth the reminding. You can like what you want to like, and there is a good chance, if you just wait long enough, you’ll be vindicated in the end. Probably not by your friends, but by their kids. Or their kids’ kids. I mean, I’m still waiting for Bob Seger and Bryan Adams to have their day. Who comes next? Shall we take bets? Hootie? The country crossover is a powerful thing, so it’s possible. Good Charlotte? Ick. Linkin Park? God, I hope not.
Kyle Meredith is the music director of WFPK and host of the nationally syndicated “The Weekly Feed.” Hunting bears was never his strong point.