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Columns > Mike Greenhaus - The Greenhaus Effect

Published: 2008/01/26
by Mike Greenhaus

Them Changes

Sometime around my junior year of college, someone told me about the “rock theory of twelve.” This theory hypothesized that, like the U.S.’s political climate, music trends swing on a pendulum, mostly between rock and pop, and that approximately every 12 years rock music hits its stride in the mainstream. Even in 2002 the theory made sense: the first wave of rock-and-roll music hit mainstream radio in 1955 thanks to Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bill Halley, the second wave of true “rock music” arguably peaked in 1967 during the psychedelic moment with Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Cream, Sgt. Pepper and the Summer of Love, and the third wave of raw rock music—-punk—-hit its artistic stride in 1979 thanks to The Clash’s London Calling and the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music. More recently, in 1991 alternative nation truly materialized when Nirvana cracked into the mainstream, Pearl Jam released Ten and Perry Farrell organized a number of alt-nation’s biggest names under the traveling Lollapalooza banner.

And while one can argue that the “theory of twelve” should actually be “the theory of ten or eleven” (with Pet Sounds and Revolver hitting stores in 1966 or the Ramones truly ushering in the punk-era in 1976/77), there is no denying that rock-and-roll trends are inheritably cyclical and that, as I’ve said before, what was once cool will one day be cool again—-or at least ironic.

Oddly enough, when I first heard about “the theory of twelve” and wrote about it for Greenhaus Effect’s Skidmore News precursor in 2002, I joked that the next big rock trend was probably being created “right now, down the hall in some smoke filled dorm room” (perhaps inspired by that age-old avant-garde desire to bang a coat hanger against a desk and call it art). Six years later that hypothesis has proven itself somewhat true. If you add 12 to 1991 you get 2003, the year indie-rock began to crack the mainstream, with Radiohead headlining its first U.S. arena tour, Spin dedicating 5 collectors covers to the Strokes, Interpol reestablishing postpunk as a current (one word) trend and, perhaps most importantly, Friendster popularizing online social networks as a viable way to spread music (which one can claim, along with the blog, is responsible for the rapid rise of indie-rock).

I also find it interesting that each and every one of those rock trends has unraveled because of the same three primary factors: the tragic/unexpected death of a major artist (Buddy Holly, Hendrix, Sid Vicious and Cobain, et all.), the deactivation of a major band or performer, and the assumption that a number of the scene’s major figures have “sold out” in some capacity. Slowly, each style losses momentum in the mainstream, the scene’s smaller bands begin to fade away and, inevitably, the super fans get older and begin to shed their youthful skin and focus on, say, investment banking or childbearing. Certain bands soldier-on and become institutions (let us here tip our hats to Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, David Byrne and Pearl Jam, who have all matured into cultural institutions, branded together on classic-rock radio stations across the country) and others aren’t truly appreciated until after the gold rush (we also tip our hats to you Richie Valens, Velvet Underground, Mission of Burma and Mudhoney).

Like the U.S. political pendulum that swings from liberal to conservative in decade-long intervals, each-and-every era of raw rock music has been followed by a period of bubblegum pop: Elvis gave way to the original 1960s Teen Idols, the psychedelic movement faded into a mash of polished soft-rock and disco, the punk movement laid the groundwork for 80s dance pop and the rise of stars like Madonna and Michael Jackson, and Cobain’s suicide opened the door for the boy band invasion and a wave of sensitive singer/songwriters (Where Art Thou? Sarah McLachlan)—along with a horde of rap-metal bands, which I am sure my friends on the other side of the office at Metal Edge will tell you are the Backstreet Boys of the metal scene.

I firmly believe that each era of rock-and-roll is inherently tied into a number of other political, cultural and communicational trends (from 1950s Baby Boomers to the 1970s gas crisis to the 1990s rise of file sharing networks) and those factors have all contributed to both the rise and demise rock-music. With all due respect to the Brooklyn Vegan, the editors of Pitchfork and the east side of my brain that likes to see hipster shows on the weekends, one day indie-rock will eventually crack and open the door to another teen pop revival, leaving the White Strikes, Arcade Fire and a few select other bands to wonder the arena-circuit for classic-rock eternity. And while the end is still many Coachellas away, you can already see the red flags: Meg White and Amy Winehouse’s nervous breakdowns, the Strokes extended hiatus and the blog backlash against Modest Mouse and the Shins’ new brand of mall-ster indie-rock (as well as the fact that, like fallen pop king Michael Jackson, the only country that still seems to appreciate Friendster is Indonesia.).

Indie-rock will always be around in some form, whether it is called garage-rock, punk, postpunk, New Wave, grunge, post-grunge, pop-punk, third wave ska revival or alt-rock, just like jambands, will always be aroundsimply because every year some kid turns 14, learns to skateboard and wears a Ramones t-shirt, just like every year another kid turns 18, smokes spot for the first time and hears Dark Side of the Moon.

Speaking of the jam scene or the psychedelic-rock scene or the baby Dead scene or the neo-retro scene or, hey, the post-jam scene, I’ve consciously avoided bringing it up in this argument, because, like my investment banker father (whose distressed debt management company does better in times of recession than national prosperity), jambands generally thrive when mainstream America shifts its focus away from rock-and-roll. By and large, jambands have reached their largest audiences when pop-music rules the radio, most notably in the 1970s during the Keith-era, 1987 with the Dead and Gregg Allman’s MTV hits, 1994 with the success of Dave Matthews and 2002 when Bonnaroo cemented the world “jamband” as a Wikipedia-worthy entry. It is during these broad “rock-radio droughts” that young kids looking for new music begin to both look below the surface and figure-out new ways to spread their own grassroots music (whether it is through tape trading, file sharing or MySpace). In 2008, a 16 year old student in a small rural town doesn’t have to go to a Phish or Widespread Panic show to experience guitar-rock for the first time. He can turn on the radio and hear Feist or Death Cab for Cutie or read about Radiohead in the New York Times. All great bands, rooted in equally great music.

2006 and 2007 were not healthy years for jam-nation by any means: Michael Houser, Mark Vann, Bobby Sheehan and Allen Woody have all passed on, Phish, The Dead and String Cheese are inactive, and Dave Matthews, Jack Johnson and Matisyahu are branded mainstream institutions. But, at the same time, STS9, Yonder Mountain String Band, the Disco Biscuits and Umphrey’s McGee are bigger (or just as big) as ever, pulling in new fans, some of whom needed a night off from Wilco and Radiohead tour “to remember,” but many of whom just turned 18. Oddly enough, moe., the original jam-band underdog, has cemented its role as torch barrier and will begin 2008 by releasing their finest studio album to date, Sticks and Stones. And of the 9,000 fans who went to see STS9 or Yonder at Red Rocks last summer, one will most likely start a band and, one day, that band might be the next Grateful Dead or Phish or maybe, in 2015, the next Nirvana or Radiohead.

Until then, I’m still discovering great new music every day. And, for the first time since the 1990s, I’m also hearing it on the radio.

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