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Are Gimmicks and Cheap Tricks Turning Rock into a Joke?

on August 24, 2018, 12:00pm

The release of Weezer’s cover of Toto’s “Africa” this past May could be charitably considered a win for the alt-rock legends. Their latest studio album, Pacific Daydream, received enough scorn from fans to almost jettison the goodwill regained from Everything Will Be Alright in the End and the White Album (though it’s hard to listen to it and think it’s not exactly what Rivers Cuomo wanted to make). A band that’s no stranger to saying “fuck it” covering a beloved/internet-appreciated song/meme cultural artifact as a result of a 14-year-old’s Twitter campaign? It has to work.

And it did. The cover made it to the top of Billboard’s Rock Airplay and Alternative Songs charts. To bring it full circle, Toto just released a cover of Weezer’s “Hash Pipe”. That they didn’t go for the more obvious choice of picking a track from the band’s more beloved first two albums is perhaps the only (mildly) surprising part of this story. (Though maybe it’s for the best that we don’t hear Toto’s version of “Goddamn, you half-Japanese girls do it to me every time.”) Earlier this year, the even more memed-to-death Smash Mouth exchanged covers with Car Seat Headrest. In a few months, don’t be surprised if REO Speedwagon and Modest Mouse enter each other’s oeuvre.

And it’s getting fucking exhausting.

It’s hard to not be a part of the problem (assuming you consider this a problem), to see a headline like “Weezer Covers Toto” and not click it. Like ordering the same meal at Chipotle, it delivers exactly what one expects, to the point of questioning why even bother. Thanks to our collective obsession with post-irony, the concept of novelty is all but defunct. When seemingly everything is a joke, nothing is funny.

Certainly humor has its place in music, but it’s disheartening to feel like humor is being forced out of some kind of Mad Libs-style generator. The people behind them know exactly what they’re doing. Mac DeMarco covering a Japanese standard at the Fuji Rock Festival is commendable, but it isn’t going to be enough to garner clicks. So, Post Malone comes out to play the egg shaker, and you suddenly have a scenario worthy of the Family Guy manatees in that one episode of South Park (“You think that’s baaaaaaad? Remember the time I saw Post Malone play the egg shaker with Mac DeMarco at the Fuji Rock Festival?”).

Then, there’s Death Grips collaborating with Shrek director Andrew Adamson on their latest album. Year of the Snitch is one of their best albums, and gimmicks are the lifeblood of Death Grips and their following, but a case like this feels more like appeasing their fans’ expectations of them to be “random” instead of just letting their (often great) music speak for itself. At least when it was revealed that Robert Pattinson played guitar on Government Plates, the news came after the fact, and their coming together felt organic.

Distractions are necessary. When have we not needed them? And lucky for us, we live in a time when we can filter out the bad news by not clicking on it. Accuse the media of fear-mongering all you want, but there’s more than enough to be stressed about. See a headline about some terrible government-sanctioned oppression, and shimmy your cursor over to that story about Billy Corgan and Smash Mouth feuding over the Shrek soundtrack (never let the post-ironic comedy gold of Shrek go understated). It’s not going to cheer you up, but it’s not going to make you feel any worse, right? We’re somehow suckered into falling into the unearthing of gossip from over a decade ago, even if there’s no actual creative process occurring, partially based on ensuring that Billy Corgan continues to look ridiculous.

After the 2016 election, the consolation that “at least there’s going to be plenty of good punk rock” was dense enough to be shut down almost immediately. But it’s as if we’ve shifted too hard in the opposite direction. As the world burns, we’re developing an allergic reaction to sincerity. Deadly serious perspectives aren’t inherently better than overtly snarky ones, but the best art is that which realizes honesty and levity aren’t mutually exclusive. Kendrick Lamar has become the most acclaimed rapper working not because every song is a lecture on race relations or has hype verses about syrup sandwiches, but because he’s giving each line rightful consideration.

Sure, Weezer and the other aforementioned acts might not be aiming for acclaim with these occasionally amusing antics, but what’s the point of being creative if you’re not going to try? A novelty cover like that means they’ve won before they’ve even plugged in their guitars. There’s no risk, but somehow there’s a reward in this fish-in-a-barrel approach to getting attention. Pacific Daydream was frequently an embarrassment to listen to, but Cuomo’s almost guileless dedication to letting more sensible heads prevail is strangely admirable. Hearing him cover “Africa” competently is more bearable than listening to another second of “Feels Like Summer”, but is it any more gratifying in the long run?

Enough editorials have been written asking if rock is dead to make that vague question an absolute parody of itself. Assuming “rock” is any act that uses electric guitars, drums, bass, and vocals in fairly conventional ways (which include indie rock, blues rock, punk, post-punk, emo, and a thousand other subgenres), then, no, rock will never completely die, and those lamenting its downfall may be doing so more out of fear that — gasp — hip-hop is taking over. Pitting genres against each other is worse than doing the same with artists, but if rock wants to make a case for its continued social importance, it’s not a good look that some of its most potent stories seem to be of long-in-the-tooth acts taking the piss but not even trying to deliver a punchline.

For all the moaning about so-called “Soundcloud rappers” relying on gimmicks and hype instead of actual artistry, they do inspire passion, both positive and negative. Hate on Lil Pump, Playboi Carti, or Trippie Redd all you like, and it’s questionable whether any or all of them will stand the test of time, but they’re dedicated to their craft and have tangible personas. Even if hip-hop isn’t immune to gimmicks, it’s still made and followed by people who are looking for how it can evolve and offer their very-candid takes. Comparatively, rock can feel like that kid in high school who’s way too obsessed with letting everyone know how much they don’t give a shit. It’s an extreme case of senioritis with no graduation date.

There are thankfully rock artists who are bucking the trend somewhat. Father John Misty might garner scorn for being ostentatious, but an album like Pure Comedy, frustrating as it can be, leaves you with a feeling of stepping into one’s chaos-riddled mind. Will Toledo might have exchanged covers with Smash Mouth, but Car Seat Headrest’s rendition of “Fallen Horses” does exactly what a cover should, giving a pre-existing song another artist’s voice (and making Smash Mouth sound beautiful isn’t too shabby either). Both acts have personas and lyrics that lend themselves to a plethora of shitposts, but their recorded output has earned them a reputation as acts worth following, and that’s not something that should be taken for granted, lest the future of rock is amalgamating everything into a joke and filling the airwaves with bands that get press because they sound like Led Zeppelin. Prominent rock or rock-adjacent artists who have a distinct POV and are willing to showcase vulnerability or unique perspectives, such as Father John Misty, Car Seat Headrest, Mitski, and Courtney Barnett, should be appreciated, but it also shouldn’t feel like they’re pulling all the weight while flippancy is confused for creativity.

Like any other fad, zeitgeists have expiration dates. Prevailing attitudes don’t suddenly die but instead gradually evolve. But cynicism and apathy can be difficult to shake, especially when music and other art forms can give power and at least the illusion of hope when things seem bleak. Naive as it might seem, these artists hopefully got into music because they believed in its power. That power can be serious, absurd, or something else, but it at least signals that they care. The further we condone capriciousness in place of thoughtfulness, the more we have to consider who exactly the joke is on.

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