When I talk about music with people of my generation, I routinely come off as the “get off my lawn” old man, even though I’m younger than Kurt Cobain was when Courtney Love shot him. I almost never listen to new music, and more often than not I look down upon and make fun of every modern band that my contemporaries adore. It might be news to some that I don’t do this simply because I’m an asshole. I genuinely believe that the music of today can’t hold a guitar lick to the music of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. However, it’s not because I believe that musicians can no longer write great music; it’s because I believe that they are writing the same great music.
I am pressured by everyone I know to branch out and listen to different styles of music. This is funny to me, since listening to music I’ve never heard before is basically a hobby for me. But I have a favorite genre (hard rock), so it’s assumed that because I listen to mostly that one genre, it must be because I choose not to hear anything else. This would be like me saying I like McDonald’s over Burger King, and somebody’s reaction being that it’s because I only eat McDonald’s and never gave Burger King a fair shake. It’s incomprehensible to people that, possibly, I have tried both and found McDonald’s to be superior. When people like anything, especially the arts, any argument against it is perceived as ignorance, willfully or otherwise. The truth is I listen to all types of music, even genres that have let me down in the past. I’ve eaten a Whopper. The Big Mac is better.
So, one day, I decided to give The Black Keys a listen. I couldn’t name a single song they wrote, or what their music sounded like in the most general of terms. All I knew is the The Black Keys are an untouchable band; anyone who ever speaks of them does so in the upmost adoration. Critics, fans, other musicians. This band, by all definitions, is a “good band”. By most, they are great. So, I gave their album Brothers a spin. Let’s see what greatness the 21st century has churned out.
Apparently, it is mid-level 1970s rock.
What’s useful about listening to all types of music is that the more you listen, the more your brain becomes a quiet encyclopedia of references. Every music listener has this, at varying degrees. You don’t have to be a rock and roll historian to hear Creed and think of Eddie Vedder. But you might need to dip into that reservoir when playing Brothers, because anyone that has an extensive knowledge of rock music will be able to tell you that this album is nearly a replication of T. Rex’s 1971 record, Electric Warrior. Both albums’ title tracks are identical in a way that just can’t be a coincidence. Not to say that the Keys ripped the song off. More than likely, the similarity between “Everlasting Light” and Rex’s “Mambo Sun” is merely the songwriters having that tune in their brain and being unable to filter it out. That’s fine. It happens. But as Brothers continues, the melodies, vibe and overall sonic message the Keys are trying to convey also mimics T. Rex. The groovy, danceable yet dirty licks. The vocals feel like they are being sung while copulating – not with a woman, but with the microphone. Simple blues scales riffing in circles to create ambience rather than amaze. These are stylistic techniques that made T. Rex (and a handful of other 1970s bands) stand out from the pack. It was music to fuck to, and it didn’t care who you were fucking. It was fresh.
It’s not so fresh now. While the structure of The Black Keys’ music is comprised of the same bones and tissue as T. Rex and David Bowie, they do not share the same soul. It’s like sitting through the 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho; yes, the story and plot and all the theatrical devices are the same, but we’ve already lived through those emotions. Where the Psycho reboot failed was that it tried to recreate – literally – every step. It wasn’t an interpretation, nor did it have the balls to say that the original had flaws and that this version was going to perfect it. It just did something that had already been done. That is The Black Keys.
What’s interesting about it is that the main problem of the band – its time in history – that makes them obsolete, is what’s keeping them afloat. 20-somethings today can hear both T. Rex and the Keys back-to-back and will almost 100% of the time choose the latter, even if they’ve never heard either band. That’s because The Black Keys sound modern. In that same way, if you’d never heard “Bang A Gong (Get It On)” before, there is an excellent chance you’d guess it was from the 70s. And when faced with two options that are the same, with the only difference being the date in which it was created, modern people are going to choose modern things. The Black Keys’ success isn’t built upon anything they are doing; it is built upon the fact that they are doing it, and doing it right now.
The question becomes: if The Black Keys give the listeners of today the same feelings that other bands have given to their predecessors, what does it matter? The answer to that lies in how much you value rock and roll, its history and its future. If all you want out of music is immediate pleasure, The Black Keys give you that. But it is at the expense of those who came before them. The more albums the band sells, the less T. Rex matters. That’s unfair. How can we get to where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been?
And that’s my real problem. You don’t have to be great to do great things. CKY mixed death metal riffing with pop songwriting, yet gets make fun of. Marilyn Manson brought a seriousness to Alice Cooper’s theatrics and is nothing more than a faded punchline. That’s fine. What won’t get written about is how bands like that took lessons from their idols and applied them in new strategic ways, creating something that had never been done before. Sometimes, it doesn’t work very well (see: Manson’s last decade), and sometimes it does (1996’s Antichrist Superstar). But it’s ballsy and it’s dangerous to attempt such things. It’s everything rock and roll music is supposed to be about. To hash out old themes and do what others have already done? That’s boring. It may sound good and touch us at the surface, but it never gets to the core of the rock spirit. That type of music doesn’t move us forward. That type of music is the music of The Black Keys. It’s the music of today. And of yesterday.