Making the Bland
Rock & roll isn't dead — it's just very sleepy; how Foster the People, Imagine Dragons, and other oddly faceless bands have taken over
Who wears the leather pants in music these days? Men still turn out smash songs by singing over guitars. But not since Mumford & Sons strapped on their suspenders have any rock hitmakers broken out as true stars, famous for anything other than scaling the charts. What do you know about the guys in Bastille or OneRepublic, the two bands currently sitting pretty in the Hot 100 top 10? Maybe you can name their singles (“Pompeii” and “Counting Stars,” respectively). But they don’t give off even a glimmer of the cherished emblems of the classic Rock Star: turbulent souls, incendiary lyrics, boa-draped fashion statements, dangerous good looks.
Instead, we’re saddled with mock stars: guys with paltry backstories, little apparent fire under their asses, and indifferent bedhead. And dudes these recent chart-cloggers be: In addition to Bastille and OneRepublic, there’s Imagine Dragons, Capital Cities, AWOLNATION, and Foster the People — all entirely male. They are not entirely terrible. Their modern rock does sound approachably modern, folding in synths and drum machines, with hooks that resonate rather than kick you directly in the acorns. These songs live in the rock fan’s friend zone: ever present, not unpleasant, but deeply unsexy.
L.A. trio Foster the People were responsible for one of the biggest and most compelling mock-star smashes to date: “Pumped Up Kicks,” from their debut Torches, has sold more than 5 million copies since the song’s release in 2010. The deceptively sunny track, which frontman Mark Foster made as a demo and never rerecorded, takes the perspective of an unhinged, gun-toting kid; it’s like “Jeremy,” Pearl Jam’s schoolboy-psycho song, minus the anguish and that poor recess lady.
Now the group has returned with its follow-up, an appealing album that boasts a “rock star” title: Supermodel. But it still feels like the smartly crafted work of a jingle writer, which Mark Foster actually was. (And which counts as a neato backstory only if you’re taken with young professionals diligently furthering their talents.) If Torches absorbed much of its brash, synthy sound from the reluctant rock stars MGMT — and it certainly did — Supermodel dials back all the right knobs: It’s unforced, pretty, and gently psychedelic. The reedy-voiced Foster sounds well-adjusted too. On the record’s first single, “Coming of Age,” he looks back at his own selfishness and admits, “Well, I’m bored of the game/And too tired to rage.”
You can’t begrudge Foster the Person his journey, but when it comes to epiphanies, that one even falls short of “Despite all my rage/I am still just a rat in a cage.” His compadres aren’t coming up with anything better. “Radioactive” and “Demons,” the two massive hits by Imagine Dragons, seem inspired by dystopian YA novels (see: “I’m waking up to ash and dust/I wipe my brow and I sweat my rust…. This is it, the apocalypse”), and “Pompeii” by Bastille literally describes the ancient eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Of all these bands, Imagine Dragons may have the best instincts as performers, banging those giant drums on stage — and, in a tacit admission of their own blandness, having had the fiery rapper Kendrick Lamar step in as frontman when they played this year’s Grammys.
So what’s with the charisma deficit? Rock-star cool — and its irritating cousin, indie cred — is more antiquated than ever, especially as more dynamic pop, rap, and country stars gladly indulge their audiences on social media. Mock stars seem caught between cultivating mystery and making the necessary concessions to kids today. They turn over their Twitter feeds to “teams” announcing tour dates and promotions, and dress like every day is casual Friday for fear of going too glam and betraying the ghost of Kurt Cobain. Who needs these half measures when you’ve got the likes of Kanye, Miley, and even Macklemore churning up national debates daily? Sadly, the only real mystery in rock right now is who exactly we’re listening to.