By Albert Samaha
By Darwin BondGraham
By Keegan Hamilton
By Anna Merlan
By Anna Merlan
By Tessa Stuart
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
The "rock star," as we traditionally think of it, is scarce on this year's Pazz & Jop ballots. The mega-famous icon clutching a guitar and singing about heartache or fucking or partying or escape or revolution; the prophet whom we come to for concrete answers instead of riddles and viral videos and cryptic website codes. Maybe there's a dearth this year, given the lack of new offerings from Dylan, Beck, Green Day, System of a Down, U2, or Johnny Cash. Or maybe we're prisoners of our own self-awareness.
The message was clear in 2007: Being a "rock star" is gauche at best, silly and anachronistic at worst. Twenty years ago, Run-DMC wrangled to be the "King of Rock," but now, the Shop Boyz only want to live vicariously. "Party Like a Rock Star" treated rock music like a cartoon (skull belts, wallet chains, dueling guitar leads, Pamela Anderson, afternoon golf), maybe because the rock stars they name-check (the Osbournes, Travis Barker) are essentially reality-TV stars who sometimes play music. Meanwhile, the supposedly "real" rock starsseven-times-platinum schlock-sensitivos Nickelbackreleased "Rock Star," a quasi-ironic depiction of superstardom in the vein of Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good," and probably the most self-aware, self-effacing song ever sung by a guy with a beaded necklace and a perm. After a couple rounds of that on the jukebox, everyone went home to Guitar Hero III, a postmodern video game where all of rock's supposed walls of separation are blurred into meaninglessness: Sex Pistols next to the Foghat songs they were invented to destroy. Sonic Youth's "Kool Thing" upending the patriarchy, and Poison's "Talk Dirty to Me" using it to fuck behind the bushes. Shred along to "Holiday in Cambodia" on your Axe Body Spray guitar.
So while being a rock star isn't dead (hello, Daughtry!), it certainly isn't cool. Anyone old enough to buy their kids the Hannah Montana 2 soundtrack found out that, shit, she's a "Rock Star" too! Major-label pop-rockers like Fall Out Boy (#134 album) and Against Me! (#21) can't act like rock stars: They have to be self-aware "rock" "stars," using irony and derision to cope with fame, making concept albums about being famous, songs about the rigors of being in the public eye, records about making recordsall of which makes them more like hip-hop stars than anything. Against Me! even beefs, since "Piss and Vinegar" is about the success of Panic at the Disco. Fall Out Boywho do occasionally act like Ashlee-dating, nightclub-opening rock stars in real lifereturned from 2005's multi-platinum From Under the Cork Tree with defensive pre-emptive strikes like "Make us poster boys for your scene/But we are not making an acceptance speech." Their video for " "The Take Over, The Break's Over" " (note that the quotation marks are part of the title, as if we couldn't tell) confronted accusations of "sell-out" by filming piss-take skits of their fans turning on themmaybe because punk fans still equate fame with selling out, maybe because the video before it had TAG body-spray product placement. Against Me! frontman Tom Gabel, who's endured charges of "sell-out" since his anarcho-friendly group signed to a tiny hardcore label in 2002, is equally suspicious of rock stardom, confronting his desires and fears on "Stop!": "On behalf of our fans we'd like to accept this award/Smile for the camera, boys/Gold record in hand." These are MTV-level bands whose fans don't want them to be rock stars.
The rock bands that critics loved in 2007 stifle rock-star urges at the root. Excepting the votes for the aforementioned ironopunx, we only championed rock bands that possess a proper set of David Byrnestyle emotional-distancing techniques (he is, after all, where Radiohead got their name): bands that play inward, bands that have cold public personas or inscrutable lyrics, bands that hide behind masks or cryptic imagery, bands full of guys who could never be confused for rock stars. Or, in short, "indie rock." Compare: Rock-star archetype Jim Morrison lived like he was written into existence by Kerouac; current paragon Radiohead (#2) name their company "W.A.S.T.E." so you know they've all read Pynchon. Stop us if you've heard this one before: What did the art-rock band call its chilly, insular, brooding, dread-filled record? In Rainbows. Get it?
Critics love indie-rock bands in spite of their walls, or probably because of them. Battles (#17) treat (unintelligible) lyrics like just another instrument blorping out robot art-crunk; Animal Collective (#29) hide big emotions behind playground eyes and fluttery tales of dinosaur wings and winter wonderlands. White Stripes (#14) stillliterallypaint themselves in a tri-chromatic anti-sheen to give the illusion of lo-fi; Spoon (#7) leave in jokey production cues ("Jim, can you record the talk-back?") that end up being the most memorable part of their record. Okkervil River (#31) wrote a complex metafiction tangle that taught you about poet John Berryman's suicide and played "Sloop John B" for laffs. Arcade Fire (#5) are stars, but don't really rock. Of Montreal (#22) had some pretty exceptional rock-star momentsKevin Barnes Spirographing spectacular heartbreak pop, painting his broken marriage as a Technicolor space-glam opera, transforming into glitter-rock alter ego Georgie Fruit, pulling out his dick onstage. But it's not populist: The whole thing is coated in that Sufjan-reading-McSweeney's vibe, pandering to the English majors, sending you to Wikipedia to learn about George Bataille and parhelia.
Although critics didn't exactly stump for rock stars, the craving is still there. There was quite a bit of hubbub around Magic, but we weren't excited about what was on the new Bruce Springsteen record (#9), just that a new Bruce Springsteen record existed. And all those times we compared glock-rocking geeks Arcade Fire to the Boss? We were more or less just projecting our secret dreams onto their black mirror. No, our best hope for a Real-Life Rock Star in 2008 is Pazz and Jop's big winner, LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy. Yes, the guy who told the Voice last year, "I'm 37 years old. I'm 220 pounds. I'm a producer. I've got about as much likelihood of being a fucking frontman as Christopher Cross, for fuck's sake. I should have my ass wiped off the stage every night."
When he surfaced in 2002, Murphy was a doughy, stubbly, marble-mouthed, record-shopping anti-star. Lyrics that would've been joyous dance-rock slogans spiraling towards the heavens in the mouths of Sly Stone or the Rapture were given a sarcastic poker face, assassinated with an exhausted drawl ("Yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah!") or trickled out with a sad mumble ("There's too much love") or strangled to death with jagged-little-PiL contempt ("Your favorite band helps you sa-leep"). But Murphy has deaded the deadpan on Sound of Silver, especially the epochal "All My Friends," road-mapping the existential crises everyone experiences as they lumber from young-adult to adult-adult. While his debut single, "Losing My Edge," played the same subject for sardonic yuks (is a man not judged by the number of This Heat records in his DJ bag?), now Murphy's dead-serious and sincere and contemplative. Andsurprise!he's really connecting with people who didn't recognize half the bands he was busy name-checking. He's become the hyper-aware voice of a hyper-aware generation who'd never get within a 100-mile radius of the phrase "Voice of a Generation."
Here's how it starts: Although "Losing My Edge" was a caricature, it was still essentially a boast, a press release with a beat that let everyone know Murphy was hipper than your average, a dude into the Fire Engines and Section 25 when all the "dance-punk!" articles of the time were still hung up on Gang of Four. Older and wiser, he's long past trying to get scene points by whipping out his big 12-inchers. On Silver, seasoned DJ Murphy just opens his heart (and maybe his id), spinning the big records that everyone knows and loves (though in this case, "everyone" still means "modern-rock fans age 18 to 45"). It's that moment at the party where people stop fighting over the stereo and realize that everyone will dance to "Billie Jean." The vocals on "Get Innocuous!" lurch just like Bowie's on "Sound and Vision," "Someone Great" chugs forward like New Order's "Temptation," and "North American Scum" directly lifts Pete Shelley's "Homosapien," a song in heavy rotation on VH1 Classic as we speak. Indie-rock fans favor Berlin-era Bowie, New Order, and Shelley because their introverted poses personify the non-rock attitude. But this is really just a rock-star move on Murphy's part: Know your audience, play the hits.
In a symbolic two-minute crescendo, Silver opens with a Casio-cute pulse that dryly mimics the original boom-bip-bip-bip of "Losing My Edge," but then slowly grows lusher, smarter, fuller: Murphy's grown up, and we're expected to follow. He's an adult who's pretty much done thinking about petty shit like scene politics (except on the ecstatic/vicious "Watch the Tapes"). There's a new party crew in New York called DJs Are Not RockStars, and you can be damn sure Murphy doesn't care whether or not that statement is true, or even who the hell these people are. Murphy's thinking about bigger thingshis place as a New Yorker, his place as an American, his place as someone who experiences loss, his place as an adult who knows it's silly to pine for the "feelings of a real live emotional teenager." His third album will probably get downright metaphysical.
Distancing himself from his quotey-fingered past, Murphy has thrown out all his vocal defense mechanisms: his intentional tunelessness, his Mark E. Smith howls, his droll monotone. A grown-ass man had better act like one, and while his newly assured voice doesn't exactly hit all the right notes on the heartbreaking "Someone Great," it's not for lack of trying. "Someone Great" is a six-minute song about getting a phone callprobably about the end of a relationship, vivid enough to be about the death of a loved one. Murphy's delicate but confident warble has to balance a crushing emotional blow with the mature, responsible man who still has deadlines to meet and coffee to drink. By album closer "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down," he's literally crooning.
And, of course, there's "All My Friends." Taken at surface level, it's wistful, melancholy, slow-churningessentially a power ballad, Nickelback's "Photograph" for people who can't remember the last time they looked at a photo that wasn't on Flickr. But dig deeper and "Friends" is a widescreen, decade-long epic about post-postcollegiate uncertainty, working your way into adulthood by tripping balls or tripping over your shoes: "Bob Dylan's Dream" for people who may have once paid money for grunge clothes or rave drugs. It's sincere, grown-up rock music for sincere, grown-up folk, people who no longer "set controls for the heart of the sun." Luckily for the people still worried about their edge, "All My Friends" had the cold heartbleep of indie-rock (Philip Glass piano lines, post-punk icepick grooves), but enough juice to also win the hearts of kids who treat frosty detachment and expressionlessness as their anti-emotional core: the folks who loved Darjeeling Limited, who bought the British version of The Office on DVD, who laughed along to the non-jokes on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, who got goosebumps over Daft Punk's light show and glowing robot suits. But everything about Murphy's voice on Sound of Silvereverything sung, spoke, or shoutedwas just human, after all. Or only rock 'n' roll. But we liked it.