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Rock star in the basement
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I'm convinced that the biggest impediment to fledgling rock and roll bands making it in the modern landscape isn't a lack of talent or exposure or even gonzo self-destruction or drug use on the part of the artists — it's the fact that with virtually every American under the age of 25 trying to be a rock star, there simply won't be enough audience members. Gigs are going to start consisting of about 200 eye-linered, vintage T-shirt wearing, pompus and talented lead singer/hell-raiser types and maybe six audience members gathered to witness their tightly choreographed moves. The civilian population just won't be big enough to support any band, no matter how talented and noteworthy the performers might be.
Obviously this is hyperbole (and sounds like makings of a really bad dystopian novel) but I'm starting to worry about the future of rock and roll. There's just too many talented, well-adjusted, parentally-supported musicians in the marketplace right now. I ask you, where's the next Pete Dougherty, the next Amy Winehouse, the next Kurt Cobain? Everybody's too clean and too talented, everybody's got too many tickets reserved for every show for mom, dad, grandma, Uncle Phil. Where are the mal-adjusted weirdos? The high-schoolification of popular music is at its peak now, and suddenly everybody wants to be Taylor Swift.
Again, hyperbole, but last summer I wandered into a public performance of one of those "School of Rock" shows and I was absolutely horrified by what I saw. It wasn't that the kids were bad — in fact, I wish they were, but they were great — it was the audience that totally creeped me out. It was a Saturday afternoon, outdoor show, and the audience looked like they would have fit right in at a country club or a Presbyterian Church service. Soccer moms, executive dads, grandparents in orthopedic shoes, etc. They cheered and clapped as their kids did letter-perfect solos from "Sweet Child O' Mine" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash." The kids ate it up, all that adulation, and knocked themselves out with perfected imitations of G.E. Smith guitar-face and Keith Moon drum solos and Joan Jett hair-flinging. And when their set ended they did their triumphant rounds with their families, before coyly hitting up dad for a couple bucks for sodas and hot dogs.
I'm all for parents supporting their kids — I guess — but I wanted to tell the assembled parties, Look, if you really want to create an environment that'll turn out a great rock and roll artist, then here's what you do — treat your kid like crap. Humiliate him. Talk down to him. Embarrass him. Make him hate you. Crush his dreams. THAT'S how you make a rock and roll star. The impetus for most of the greatest rock and roll of all time can be summed up tidily as "Screw you, mom and dad" music. I'm sure there are decent, well-adjusted rock stars in rock and roll history, just, well, none in my iTunes library.
I'm not sure exactly what's the best breeding ground to create great rock and roll — the real-life "School of Rock," if you will — but I'm pretty sure it's not in the place where Dad shells out two grand in guitar lessons and every gig looks like Thanksgiving Day dinner. I'm guessing a better scenario would be having a dead-end job, getting the crap kicked out of you on a regular basis, having no friends, no money, being confused and hating yourself, feeling like you don't matter. Ennui and loneliness. Some mental illness would probably help, too.
But if you got the two grand and Dad is also willing to pony up the extra $800 for that killer punk wardrobe from Abercrombie and Fitch, hey, who I am to tell you not to follow your dreams? I know I'm guilty of romanticizing the rougher, nastier rock and roll music of my youth so it's particularly galling for me to admit that a lot of these well-scrubbed, upper-middle-class warriors are terrific songwriters and musicians and a lot of the CDs given to me by their parents (my friends) are amazingly tuneful. I just wish that at night, after their gig, they'd be sleeping in some grungy, crap apartment with three criminal roommates and not in their recently vacuumed, fully-appointed childhood bedroom with the posters of Reggie Miller still on the wall and the stack of Harry Potter hard-covers by the nightstand.
It's a transformative time in music, and in movies, too — the old model of the record companies and the film studios calling all the shots has passed. Technology has revolutionized the process; it used to be that the artist had to prove himself as a writer and a performer before being granted access to the physical tools (recording studios, film cameras) that would enable him to complete his vision. Now, the technology is available to virtually anybody with a computer; consequently, we're in an age where musicians and filmmakers are more proficient at a younger age than ever before. The new generation of artists has a chance, then, to create something really magnificent. If only they could keep mom and dad out of the way.