Big With the Kids

Corporate Rock-Hack Bands Nobody Over 20 Ever Heard of Rule America

Is it just me, or has the median age for post-postmodern rock stars been getting younger? How else to justify all those fawning profiles of suburban scofflaws Sum 41making out like they invented disorderly conduct? Sure, it all comes down to what the marketing execs call "positioning," like how the Sums' video for the hooliganistic "Still Waiting" carves into the Strokes/Hives/Vines, while their concurrent spoofs of mid-'80s metallic bombast seem lost on the band members themselves, let alone their desired audience. If "rock" is indeed "back," who can tell the difference between the mooks and the mockers? Part of the confusion might be music journalism's tilt toward pretending like all the writers are under age 25, too. So, while Puddle of Mudd's "Blurry," which topped both Billboard's year-end Mainstream and Modern Rock Tracks charts for 2002, might be a great song to have a midlife—or any other decidedly grown-up—crisis to, you'd sure never know it from reading Rolling Stone of late.

The recent Kurt Cobain necrophilia is a reminder that the flannel brigade of a decade ago pricked up ears significantly older than the artists themselves. Sum 41's unyielding yelps, however, help ensure that the bar remains low, all-ages style. They're effectively the Offspring without pesky potbellies getting in the way. Which means their Canadian football fight songs can be embedded with anti-technology tracts even as their PlayStation-induced ADD seizure spins into hyperdrive—and the target demo doesn't notice the contradiction. When not lathering with the corporate punk spittle, they tilt at windmills in shrill homage to Iron Maiden. But their grinding guitars pose no threat to the bona fide bombast of, say, Disturbed. Sum 41's bark and bite become diminished by their inability to growl.

At the turn of the century (three long years ago), back before Korn's Jonathan Davis pursued singing lessons to get his primal trauma taken more seriously, the likes of Sum 41 could always compensate for emotive lack by biting off Licensed to Ill. The biggest pop hit from that era was, in fact, Crazy Town's "Butterfly," which prompted my own pushing-30 epiphany that music by men festooned with tattoos was no longer for me to understand. Paul Oakenfold must have felt that generation gap closing, too, because he tapped the band's Shifty Shellshock for the flighty confection "Starry Eyed Surprise." In turn, the churlish angst of Crazy Town's own recent "Drowning" sounds outmoded, particularly after Linkin Park successfully grafted visceral Pink Floyd-style pomp on the same formula. Still, it's more appealing than the recent thudding efforts of Papa Roach, whose second album failed to ignite in spite of a pricey tie-in with Pepsi Blue—a drink whose name implies an anti-antidepressant. But the berry-flavored fizz did help the career of Sev, whose "Same Old Song" pits a sub-Limp Bizkit cheer against the chanting of Benedictine monks—who haven't charted this high since, oh, 1994. On their heels comes Trapt's "Headstrong," nu-metal for boppers not quite prepared to surrender the pinup affability of boy bands. You know Trapt aren't vying for the affections of neo-prog Mudvayne fanatics when their singer, Chris Brown, feels Genesis got good only after Phil Collins took the mic.

So while the office-casual clothes and sullen stares might look the same, don't confuse Trapt for Taproot, given how the latter are all about channeling Layne Staley. The ghost of Alice in Chains may well be warbling along on "Poem." (And, just in case you find their tortured shtick too subtle, they have another tune called "Art.") Yet another similar act, Cinder, resort to luring the actual Scott Weiland into the studio to collaborate on a number called "Lush," which is stylistically indiscernible from Stone Temple Pilots' "Plush." The only difference is, these seventh-generation grunge acts exploit the tragic flaws of their forebears to elicit the listener's sympathy. Not even Creed are that callous.

In sharp contradiction come Sparta—again, not to be confused with either Trapt or TapRoot—splinter group from retired rock saviors At the Drive-In. (It's unclear where the Afros went.) Their "Cut Your Ribbon" is a ruthless chastisement that leaves shards of shame in its wake. Saliva's Josey Scott—a burly reformed rap-rocker—attempts an indictment of domestic abuse on "Always," yet (probably on purpose) the ditty risks getting embraced as a moon-eyed make-out anthem in the misinterpreted tradition of "Every Breath You Take." Better that respectability-seeking schlockmeisters squint inward for the sake of flagellation. Slipknot leatherface Corey Taylor lays down his blood-spattered battle-ax for his alter ego Stone Sour's power ballad "Bother," setting his unrepentant misanthropy to strings, knowing that kids seeking bleak contemplation don't need a silver lining.

That message, unfortunately, failed to get telegraphed across continents, given how South African trio Seether's "Fine Again" is a cockamamy recovery anthem that makes you wish Nickelback and all their windbagging associates had been around to pledge that they ain't gonna play Sun City. It's probably better that other continents run off with the bombast baton, in order for trend speculators to get dividends on all that Dashboard Confessional and Unwritten Law stock they bought last summer. In the opposite corner await new wavey popsters such as the All-American Rejects and OK Go, swaddled in synths, gambling that the Next Big Thing will be more Eno than emo.

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