Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Contenders Series #22: The Hold Steady - "Rock Problems"

In today's episode, we're going to see how many tangents we can string together into one blog post.  Ready?  Great.

Tangent #1

I love pop punk bands.  I would call it a guilty pleasure if I felt at all guilty about it.  I saw Good Charlotte in concert once at the Quest Club in Minneapolis.  I have told many people, on many occasions, that I think "I'd Do Anything" by Simple Plan is as close to a perfect pop song as we may ever get as a society.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves already, because I know if you added up the positive and negative values of everything I've ever said about pop punk as a genre, it would come out negative.  I complain a lot about pop punk bands.

So I guess what I'm really trying to say is that I love the debut albums of pop punk bands.  It's a perfectly wonderful, disposable package.  Power chords and lyrics about not fitting in with your high school.  It's as close to a universal as we have.  Everyone can relate to adolescent awkwardness.  Everyone can nod their head to a catchy riff.  And I can stay invested for the ten songs and roughly 28 minutes that make up a good pop punk debut CD.

But where do you go from there.  Your debut album was all over TRL, you co-headlined Warped Tour, and now all the tweens are clamoring for your next hit.  As I see it, there are three paths, and they all end badly:

(1)  Try to use your new stardom to say something about, like, our culture, man, and the way things are out there ... am I right, bro?  You may remember this failing horribly on Good Charlotte's second album lead single, "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

First of all, none of these kids are nearly intelligent enough to pull of social criticism.  I'm not asking for Noam Chomsky here, but you're watering down mediocre Chris Rock bits.

And second ... well, you have money now, pop punk band.  You guys are the celebrities you're railing against.  You're gonna tell us what's wrong with overnight celebrity culture?  That's YOU.

(2)  Try to keep writing songs about your life, your new opulent life, even if it's now no longer relatable in any way.  You may remember THIS failing horribly on Good Charlotte's THIRD album lead single "I Just Wanna Live."  "Oh man, it bums me out when I have to answer inane questions from Rolling Stone magazine.  Why won't they just leave me alone?  Am I right, you guys?  And what about when you have to get an alarm system because crazy fans keep coming to your house?  I know, right?"

Obviously, we already resent you for the fact that you turned three chords - that we know how to play, too - into millions of dollars and Nicole Ritche (eh, I guess we don't envy that last part).  You're not singing about us anymore.

(3)  Try to keep writing songs as if you are still in high school.  I don't have an example right now, but I fear that, when the reunited Blink-182 finally puts out their comeback album, it will be the same dick and fart jokes that were awesome when I was 15 (and they were 22).  Just gonna sound creepy at 40, guys.  Prove me wrong.

So what do you do?  Honestly ... what?

Tangent #2

And it makes you wonder if there are some things you just can't talk about.  I don't mean offensive things, or things that would get you in trouble in mixed company.  I just mean things that, above and beyond the subject matter, will relate badly on you as the speaker.  I come across this problem occasionally, most often when I talk about running.  First of all, just the sentence "Yeah, I'm training for a marathon" sends up huge d-bag red flags on its own.  More than that, though, I have complaints about the way my running habit is perceived*

*And the top three are:

(1)  People who think that, just because I'm tall, running marathons is somehow really easy for me, just like it is for those 5-foot, 100-pound Kenyans.  We're basically the same, those guys and me.  Genetics.
(2)  People who refer to a race of any distance as a "marathon," as in "Yeah, I did a marathon last weekend.  It was a 10-K."
(3)  People who think that, since Oprah put on some sweats and walked around New York for seven hours, her marathon experience and mine are somehow exactly the same.

The first two are just nit-picky, but the third one, I understand, really makes me sound like an elitist dick.  I know this.

And yet I keep talking about it.  I ran through my list of gripes with Sarah at the office awhile ago, and I asked her if there was anyway I could express those feelings without sounding like a terrible, almost-sociopathic human being.

Her answer:  "No."

Tangent #3

I complain about my job a lot, too, even though they pay me way more than they should, and they let me expense meals, and they let me wear minor league baseball t-shirts to work most every day.  And I complain knowing that I am lucky to have this job, especially at a time when many people smarter than me had to fight for inferior jobs in far-off places when they wanted to stay here.  But, all that being said, the majority of things that happen to me in a given work day are boring, annoying, or stressful, and I usually come home exhausted, and about once a day (sometimes a LOT more) I'm hit with the existential dread that someday I will die, and I will have spent X hours reviewing documents, and that I should go live life to the fullest somewhere ... and then but how will I pay off my student loans?  And how will I pay my rent?  And what about owning a home someday?  And kids?  YOU CAN BARELY AFFORD YOUR LIFESTYLE RIGHT NOW, AND ALL YOU DO IS GO TO CONCERTS!  YOU ARE TRAPPED IN THIS JOB FOREVER!  YOU WILL DIE IN THIS OFFICE!

Like I said, about once a day with that.  It gets dark sometimes.  But still ... I complain, and people see me as an ungrateful punk who takes his life of luxury for granted.  And they probably should.

Tangent #4

I think part of the problem is that our language is becoming more and more concrete.  Let me give you an example of something that just drives me nuts:

Ever since 9/11 (and I thought this would die out, but it hasn't), every sportscaster, after detailing some superstar athlete's heroics on the field, has to add this little self-serving disclaimer:  "But you know who the real heroes are?  The [choose one:  soldiers in Iraq/Afghanistan, firefighters, homeless shelter volunteers, etc.]."

Now ... is that really necessary?  Is that a distinction that had to be made?  Were there people out there who thought that Joe Mauer's bases-clearing double in the bottom of the eighth inning was the only thing preserving our American way of life and liberty?  Is it not possible, in our minds, to comprehend the idea that "hero" can have multiple levels of meaning?  Didn't we always do that, make that distinction?  What about Batman?  Can he be a hero?  Or do we need to specify:  "You know who the real heroes are?  People who really exist."

And so these sportscasters really say it as if they're catching themselves using a word incorrectly, as if they're trying to break themselves of a bad habit, because there is only one definition of the word "hero," and it is someone who devotes his life to a societally-necessary cause.

Tangent #5

Another one that drives me crazy:  When people hear about a minor policy decision (say, they're going to spend some money to fix potholes or something) and immediately launch into, "Honestly?!?  You're worried about potholes?  When [choose one:  we're at war, Prop 8 is still on the books, Mexican drug violence is threatening to spill over into America]?!?  You really think those potholes are IMPORTANT?!?"

Well ... yes.  I do.  Because "important" can have different levels of meaning.  I am not saying "the most important" or "of dire importance," but "more important than a lot of other stuff" and "important enough to invest some time and money."

Tangent #6

So is there room for a self-aware complaint?  It seems like there should be.  On some level, you can universalize experience.  Even if you're a newly-popular rock band, or a mediocre music blogger who's being paid far too much to do a job than an intelligent middle schooler could probably handle, the feeling is, at its core, a common one:

I am now in a new and strange place, and everybody told me it would be wonderful, and yeah, I guess it is pretty great, and I certainly don't want to go back to where I came from, but ... sometimes it isn't what I expected, and sometimes I mean that in a bad way.  So now what?  Am I doing it wrong?  Is there something wrong with ME, that somehow I can't embrace the perfection that my life is supposed to be?

Tangent #7

If you've read this far, you're likely a close friend or family member, and so you know that I believe Craig Finn of the Hold Steady to be one of the all-time great lyricists (and, y'know ... people), and Finn tackles this issue (though in far fewer words) on the song "Rock Problems" from the new album Heaven is Whenever.

Tangent #8

From the beginning, the Hold Steady had some built-in advantages when it came to the mystique and authenticity side of the traditional rock band's lyrical progression.

By the time the band released its debut album, it was a well-known fact that they were based in New York City, so an album full of misadventure stories and Minnesota location references came off as tales of the past, things experienced already, not "look how much we are partying right now" bravado.

On the albums that followed, this trend continued to the point where (and this happened right around Stay Positive) the band's stories could be read as advice to the new kids on the scene.  Craig's age also helps with this.  They can be taken seriously without having to be caricatures of bad boys.

Tangent #9

So maybe the band was approaching the issue from a different point of reference, a little more healthy distance than, say, Good Charlotte had, but "Rock Problems" comes close to showing the annoying side of being in a band without seeming ungrateful.  But ... of course I would say that.  Let's go to the lyrics:

The verses mostly set up his complaints:

"That one girl got me cornered in the kitchen
I said I'll do anything but clean
She wants to know what I liked being better
Trash bin or ice machine?

Some writer by the fridge said he didn't make the gig
Wants to know if I was drunk
He said the kids that he knows from the net
Said the sound kind of sucked"

The "trash bin or ice machine" line is a reference to semi-famous lyrics from "Most People are DJs," from the first Hold Steady album.  So, the lyrics DO show off a fair amount of positives:

It's some kind of post-show party.  Doubtless many people have stopped by to say many kind things.  There are girls around, and they seem interested.  They know about your songs, they've really dug into those lyrics, they want to go even deeper.  There's music press at the event.  He wants to talk to you.  He mentions the internet, where other people are talking about you.  It must feel good ... right?  A lot of attention, a minor celebration, this kind of happiness has probably become routine by now.

On the other hand ... maybe you don't want to talk to some crazy obsessive fan about lyrics you tossed-off almost a decade ago.  Maybe they didn't mean much then ... what could they mean now?

And this writer ... he wasn't even at the show, and he's asking you for a quote to basically back his thesis that you suck?  And who are these kids on the net?  You don't need that kind of nit-picking.  Where are they when you sound good?

Did the sound suck?  Maybe.  But you play a lot of these shows.  They can't all be perfect.  You're trying, aren't you?  It's not magical, not every night.  You want it to be, but it can't.

On the whole, how would you rate your life?  Pretty good, sure ... but ...

The chorus here provides the level-headed counterpoint:

"She said I just can't sympathize
With your rock and roll problems
Isn't this what we wanted?
Some major rock and roll problems"

So yeah ... I've got rock and roll problems.  Isn't this what we wanted?  Isn't it?



  1. Way back in 2003, in between Good Charlotte's second and third album, I worked at the Barnes and Noble Cafe in Glendale, CA. While Good Charlotte is from Maryland they either lived in or had a studio in Glendale at this time. Here are some random musings stemming from my interaction with them.

    They are 0% punk- They would come in to the cafe routinely and order the kind of drinks reserved for 17 year old girls (who drink them instead of eating) and Morbidly obeese individuals with type 2 diabetes. Every day it would be Iced Carmel Machiato /w extra carmel or Chocolate Brownie Frappachino with extra brownie bits or just a cup full of chocolate syrup with a shot of espresso and whipped creme. (ok that last one was made up) No Punk would drink these let alone at Barnes and Noble Cafe (Proudly Serving Starbucks Coffee, but no you can't use your god damned starbucks gift card). If you are tired in the morning and a Punk you should be drinking black coffee (prefferable prepared in a rusty sauce pan over a hotplate) and chain smoking camel reds.!!!!!

    They understand how much they suck- A friend of mine's girlfriend (who was awesome cuz she was three years older than us and bought booze) had a cousine who was dating a member of Good Charlotte and got to hang out with them a few times. We gave her shit for this b/c they seemed like the biggest tools imaginable. She kinda stuck up for them saying that they were actually big fans of bands I liked. Their favorite bands included the Cure and Depeche Mode ect. The interesting thing was that they admitted making their kind of music because they lacked the talent to compete with Robert Smith and company. This brings up an interesting question.

    Is a self aware tool more or less of a tool. Is the fact that they understand and accept their toolish limitations yet push forward in their toolosity more toolish than, say, Nickleback (bad example b/c nobody is more toolish than Nickleback) who I believe have no clue that they are giant Tools?

  2. "Rock Problems" is an OK track. Not bad, not great. What I liked about this post was the style. Different. Kinda like if bullet points went on PEDs. That said, I did not read all of the post due to the length. (I didn't have a spare three hours.) But again, the style -- both your writing and the changed format -- were very enjoyable.

    Sincerely, Some dude that works with words

  3. I read the whole thing... this is one of the best music blog posts I've read. You started by not even mentioning the subject of the review, wandered all over the place, talked about your life, dropped some damn funny lines ("Homer, it's not Batman!"), and finally drew all of your previous tangents together to successfully support the thesis of your review. Well done.

  4. I have two friends who I truly think deserve the success they have in life. You're one of em. Don't beat yourself up.

    Also, I downloaded a Good Charlotte song once. I was immediately ashamed, but the damn thing was catchy.

    And I think we all wish we were Batman.

  5. Will and Adam:

    "Batman's a scientist."