Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What the Kids are Listening To

Listening to music these days is like living in your own little gated community. You are generally aware of what's going on in your own little niche (or age group) (or genre of music) but you have little or no idea what's going on in the other little gated communities. Methinks the main reason for this is that these days (2010s), there's very little music that's "consensus music," i.e., music that everybody agrees is good or popular. You know hipsters, teens, parents, lawyers, rednecks. Maybe PSY's "Gangnam Style" was a brief moment of "consensus music"? A very brief moment. But these are few and rare. And if you spend a lot of time within your gated community of taste, it's a rude awakening when you realize what's going on elsewhere. This is what happened to me a few weeks ago when I got a brief glimpse of what the modern American teenager is listening to these days. In Los Angeles recently, I found myself at a show (by an accident of timing) by a band called Falling in Reverse who I'd honestly never heard of. The show was at the Wiltern Theater, which, according to the internets remains one of the "finest examples of Art Deco style architecture" in the United States. Built in the early 1930s, the theater is on the western edge of Koreatown in LA, and has a maximum capacity of 2,000+ people. It's a stately and ornate theater, and one wonders what great stars (Fay Wray? Peter Lorre?) must have attended movie premieres here.

Who are Falling in Reverse? There are part of an entire universe of music that completely avoids conventional methods of publicity and exposure. These bands are never (or rarely) featured in places like Rolling Stone, Spin, Mojo, Q, or other mainstream pop/rock magazines. You will certainly never find them mentioned on Salon or Slate or paper magazines such as People or Entertainment Weekly. They are also never mentioned in indie-centric websites such as Pitchfork or Stereogum or All Songs Considered (which is, let's face it, more like Dull Songs Considered) and only sparingly mentioned in places like the industry standard Billboard (I could find not a single article about them in Billboard). They are never played on the radio. Even the AV Club, the freakin' AV Club!, that purveyor of the notion that everything ever made by humans -- every last detritus of low culture -- is worthy of serious discussion, has NEVER once mentioned them. They have zero hipster credibility. Yet, they are wildly popular, play kickass rock'n'roll and have a devoted fanbase of mostly early teens (evident the night of the show as a veritable sea of young acned teens screamed out every word to every song...)

Where do people hear them? My guess (only a hunch) is that much of their success has depended on a combination of newer social media conduits, particularly YouTube and Facebook. Their biggest "hit", "The Drug in Me is You" has over 12.6 million views on YouTube.

What do they sound like? Well, I had little idea until the show itself, part of Falling in Reverse's "The Thug in Me is You" tour, which unbeknownst to me included three (yes three!) opening bands. This was like a mini fucking Lollapalooza of teen punk! First there was a fairly workmanlike three-piece punk band led by Matt Toka, a minor figure in the Warped Tour circuit. The second act was letlive, a ferocious (and that is coming from someone who has seen the most ferocious punk bands of eighties hardcore) outfit fronted by a frenetic lead singer with an unholy scream combined with an oddly positive message of self-respect, self-growth, and (proto)feminism. The theme of their set was basically triumph over adversity. This wasn't explicitly spelled out, but there between the lines and wails was the story of a young boy from the bad side of LA who done good, who made something of himself, now 27 years old, who was able to invite his mom and sister to see him be a star at the Wiltern Theater. What can you say? You could draw a direct line from Minor Threat (!) to Let Live.

The ante was upped with the third opening band, Enter Shikari, named after the Sanskrit word for "hunter." The band are part of a relatively new sub-genre known as "electronicore" (cough) basically an amalgamation of hardcore punk and metal with bits and pieces of electronic music thrown in. (Think NIN's "March of the Pigs" but with more guitars). The UK-based Enter Shikari was hard and heavy but with a more melodic sense and yes, electronics (or what the kids these days call "dubstep breakdowns," 'cuz, you know, every successive generation must refer to the same thing by different names). Again, I thought of such nineties pop bands as Stabbing Westward or Gravity Kills who enjoyed brief moments of fame between the rise of NIN and the (inevitable) arrival of the ready-for-malls Marilyn Manson. All three of Enter Shikari's albums have apparently charted top 10 in the English charts but they have obviously not made much of an impression on American consumers, although their stage show would suggest a a potential and lucrative future here in the U.S. Judging from the (far too long) entry on Wikipedia, they seem to do nothing but tour constantly so I don't doubt that one day all this hard work will pay off. I see a certain demographic of American high school kids that would seriously like this shit.

After three bands, I was approaching band fatigue. But I had downed three beers by then so I was sufficiently lubricated to enjoy people-watching. Enter the main act: Falling in Reverse. Their music is basically a trifecta of punk, metal, and pop. So nothing new. Bands have been playing this stuff for years. But there are reasons why their performance made even jaded me stand up straight. First of all, they know that playing live is not just about the music, it's also about performance, and this was entirely performance. This was the theater of the (punk) absurd. Their frontman is a guy by the name of Ronnie Radke, a charismatic young man (now 29) who walked non-stop from one side of the stage to the other during their entire set, dressed in a suit and skinny tie. What came immediately to mind was the feral spawn of Mick Jagger and Freddie Mercury. It was hard not to be transfixed by his presence. 100% star material. The band, meanwhile, were here to entertain, not to wallow in their personal angst. Most of the songs were indeterminable from the others, and they either seemed to be about (a) being pissed off at somebody or (b) wanting to fuck somebody, or um, both. Much of the lyrics were vaguely misogynistic, not surprising given that our friend Ronnie has an unsavory record of despicable behavior to put it mildly. Radke, a not tall man with still very youthful almost baby-faced features, spent about two years in prison for his involvement in a murder. Recent continuing spats with the law include "domestic assault" on his girlfriend (which apparently caused "corporal injury" to "his spouse"). There are many other line items on his arrest record, far too many to mention, but I wonder if that's also part of his draw. Certainly, the thousands of young girls who no doubt would make themselves fully available to service Ronnie were only too eager to overlook his past indiscretions. A quick search of Ronnie Radko-devoted tumblrs will either make you very afraid for the future of humanity or just plain depress you.

Falling in Reverse played a tight set and I was not bored at all. A bit of everything here: punk, metal, the big pop chorus, a lot of inbetween song banter sprinkled liberally with various attacks on Ronnie's enemies, past and present. [In case you're interesting, here are reviews of shows on the same tour, from Chicago and Orlando.] The band were competent enough as musicians: there were metal solos, drum solos, synchronized hopping, and matching suits. But Ronnie was really the centerpiece, his vocals alternating with from screaming to Freddie Mercury-esque operatic flourishes.

This is not music I would ever listen to at home or on my headphones. Maybe if I was 13 and had never heard any punk in my life, sure it would be revelatory. But I give them props for putting on an a solid hour of entertainment. While their songs on album sound generally sterile and unimpressive, live they pummel and pound and keep your attention, a not inconsiderable achievement in an age when nobody has the attention span for anything. Is it good for 13 year olds? That I can't answer. But you know, one of my favorite songs as a 13-year old was "Midnight Rambler' by the Rolling Stones, probably one of the most misogynistic songs ever, and I somehow managed to turn into Mr. Feminist.

I noted above that no one really talks about these bands. This is not entirely true. Two magazines, one based in the U.S. (Alternative Press) and the other based in the U.K. (Kerrang!) frequently put these bands on their covers and do headline stories on their respective websites. So there are outlets for these bands. Interesting story about Alternative Press. Back in the eighties and nineties, AP was a super cutting-edge music magazine, catering to a kind of indie-white-college-student-hipster demographic. It was through them that I discovered Aphex Twin, Autechre, Oval, and a lot of fringe electronic music. I'm sorry to say that I actually subscribed to the magazine for many many years but I did learn an enormous amount of new music from AP. Then, at some point in the late '90s I noticed that it was basically bought out and began targeting the teen market. So my subscription lapsed. But I guess it still remains viable with that demographic. What's on the cover of the latest (January 2013) issue of Alternative Press, you ask? Falling in Reverse, who the magazine named their "Artist of the Year." Take that Frank Ocean!

P.S. Thank you to my fellow companions at the show, one a fan of Falling in Reverse, and the other a curious observer such as I. 'Twas a fun evening all around. A trip to Pink's afterwards would have been the perfect conclusion.


Anonymous said...

Awesome write up of the show!

The YouTube connection and publicity cannot be overstated. That is the main (and sometimes the ONLY) way that "obscure" teen music like FiR is discovered.

When I was a suburban kid growing up in the early 90s, the ways that I discovered music were: 1) mixed tapes or CDs given to you by friends; 2) MTV & radio; 3) magazines; 4) walking around the record store. Really, if you think about it, #1 (mixed tapes) is the only method remotely having to do with how YouTube and other social media sites influence music tastes today. The "related videos" bar on YouTube is pretty much like having a million friends recommending songs or bands that you may like.

spaceman said...

You make a very good point about the importance of YouTube. In a way, YouTube is like a continuously changing mixed tape. Somebody should do study or something on the "related videos" feature. That's really the one major source of popular culture for the under-30 set.