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Trend of the Year: The Little Band Revolution

By: Jon DolanRock transformed itself in 2002. Muscle-bound mooks were out. Bandswith little budgets and big ambitions were in. The Strokes,the Hives, and the White Stripes took their DIYspirit to the masses. And music was more fun than it had been inyears.

The bathroom at a Korn show is never a feel-good environment. But last June at New York City’s Madison Square Garden,the weekend gladiator in line for the urinal was really bumming everyone out. According to this dude, the concertgoers lined up besidehim would be forever designated “fuckin’ faggots” unless they swore undying allegiance to “fuckin’ Korn,” sharing his assessment that”fuckin’ Korn fuckin’ rules.”

His argument proceeded thusly: “Koooooooooorn!”

It was right out of the Woodstock ’99 party platform. Trouble is, Korn weren’t doing all that much ruling in 2002. The night of theMSG show, the group had recently released its two-years-in-the-making Untouchables. The album performed adequately (it moved a healthy434,000 copies in its first week and has since sold more than a million). But at a reported cost of four million dollars (not countingthe pricey Hughes brothers video and a massive promotional campaign that included simulcasting a June 10 performance at New York’sHammerstein Ballroom to more than 40 movie theaters in more than 30 cities), Untouchables was on its way to becoming The Phantom Menace ofn metal, a blockbuster that failed to revive the franchise.

Throughout the late-’90s boom, the music industry existed almost solely on multimillion-selling releases of the Britney/Bizkit variety.But in 2002, there were only so many blockbusters to go around; soggy sales and soft concert attendance caused major industry anxiety.Thanks to high prices, downloading, and CD burners, album sales were down 10 percent from last year, and there were about half as manyplatinum albums as in 2001, suggesting that the biz wasn’t creating enough shiny new names to pick up the slack.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” says Andy Gershon, president of V2 Records. In 2002, the action wasn’t happening onspreadsheets or in hockey barns. You had to dig a little, and plenty of people were happy to get their hands dirty. A few months after theKorn event, the White Stripes played a free show in New York City’s Union Square, and the setting couldn’t have been more perfect. Formore than 150 years, Union Square has been a place where average people could hop on soapboxes and reinvent themselves, maybe evenreinvent their worlds. The White Stripes–a divorced couple from blighted Detroit who pretend to be brother and sister, dress inmatching red-and-white outfits, and play a sexed-up version of punk-rock blues–definitely follow in that tradition. Their third album,White Blood Cells, which cost about $4,000 to make, has sold almost half a million copies, spawning the surprise radio single “Fell inLove With a Girl.” MTV even gave the band three Video Music Awards.

That afternoon in Union Square, they ruled like little gods, triumphing over a battalion of nearby construction workers to blowaway the assembled crowd of hooky-playing fans, unemployed dot-commers, curious office assistants, and befuddled lunch-breakers. Afterabout an hour of Jack White’s smart-ass banter and Meg White’s cymbal-punishing and pigtail-swinging, the powers that be pulled theplug. So Jack led the crowd in a sing-along of Leadbelly’s “Boll Weevil,” climaxing with the chorus, “I’m a-lookin’ for a home!” No bigbudget. No electricity. Just a guy up on his soapbox trying to change his world.

Call it the “little band” revolution. This year, seemingly from nowhere–but really from Detroit, New York, Sweden, and Australia–theWhite Stripes, the Strokes, the Hives, and even the Vines made rock sound more fun, danceable, sexy, and human than it had in a long time.At the forefront were the Strokes, five New Yorkers with skinny ties and Velveteen riffs whose Is This It has sold more than 750,000copies, inspiring a Beatles-like adoration that reached farther into the heartland than anyone expected. Hot on their heels were theHives, punk-rock Swedes in Love Boat casual wear who sneaked onto modern-rock radio with a banger called “Hate to Say I Told You So” andhave sold more than 320,000 copies of their album, Veni Vidi Vicious, in the U.S. Australia’s audacious if gloriously derivative Vineswere led by gear-smashing, decadence-flaunting, 24-year-old singer Craig Nicholls. The band had a radio/MTV hit with “Get Free,” whichmight be the best Nirvana rip-off since “Rape Me.” Bubbling underground was a wellspring of “garage-rock” and “postpunk” bands–Swedishtough girls Sahara Hotnights; Motor City scumlords the Dirtbombs, the Detroit Cobras, and the Von Bondies; plus the New York crew, includingdream-pop mope popes Interpol, angst-candy droners the Liars, and heart-boiling, riot-boogie kids the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. By year’s end,the trickle-up economics were in full swing. Calvin Klein commissioned a garage-rock tune for a Crave cologne ad, and Sum 41 concocted aStrokes- and Stripes-spoofing video, although a publicist insisted that “it’s not mean; they totally love those bands.” And how couldn’tthey? The Hives’ hyperactive singer Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist makes the guys in Sum 41 look as sad as Staind.

With notably few exceptions (Radiohead, Weezer), the very idea of a fringe band navigating the mainstream has seemed unthinkable foryears. But as the bicep-rock and kiddie-pop onslaught ground to a slog, industry folks started to look elsewhere. “There’s a starvationfor something new, something different than the harder rock and rap rock,” says Lisa Worden, music director for Los Angeles colossus ofradio cool KROQ. The little-band mix of raw sound and media-ready star power was ideal. The bands seemed to have appeared out of thinair–oddly organic and perfectly prepped.

“Detroit is so far away from the music industry and the press industry that bands are allowed to become really great songwriters orgreat performers,” says Jack White. “They’re not Creed.”

But it wasn’t as if Creed had been vaporized. Hard rock persisted, both as a sound and as a unifying force for millions. Groups likeCreed, System of a Down, and P.O.D. satisfied fans with their titanic riffs and sweeping gestures (of course, Eminem dwarfedeverything, moving into an Oprah/Russell Crowe world of superstardom). But anthemic, hair-slinging, gut-tugging sincerity showed itslimitations. You can only sit through so many Fabio-grunge Nickelback ballads before you want your nickel back. The Strokes, the WhiteStripes, and the Hives create their own superstar mythologies on their own terms, no matter how spare their sound or lo-fi their stageshow. They don’t believe that the Korns of the world should have a monopoly on larger-than-life mythsploitation or that sincerity hasto be solemn. They wear cool getups. They talk shit onstage. “We are the Hives. We love you, and you love us, and there’s nothing youcan do about it,” Pelle Almqvist reminds fans before the color-coordinated lads tear into one of their sugar-punk anthems. They singabout love, hate, heartache, etc., because that’s what rock bands sing about, but their playful naivete makes it feel fresh.

They play at playing rock’n’roll. The Strokes, for instance, bop around Manhattan like they’re portraying themselves in an HBO seriesabout a twentysomething, rich-kid punk band whose members drink too much and like to kiss one another. Alan McGee, head of the Hives’British label Poptones (and the man who discovered Oasis), described Pelle Almqvist as “the perfect bridge between Iggy Pop and MickJagger when they were both young and sexy,” as if Almqvist were walking right out of 1967. And yet the music itself never seemsfashion-damaged or detached. It’s all about peeling away the layers of banal reality to get to the deeper fantasy, which inrock’n’roll is the best reality going.

These bands flip the whole idea of “authenticity,” a leftover from the alternative-rock era that even the biggest rock bands todayseem compelled to indulge. What’s more real: Puddle of Mudd spending lavishly on a record and taking the stage dressed like factoryworkers or the White Stripes spending $4,000 and showing up looking like they just walked out of a comic book? Neither one, of course.It’s just that the latter is so much more immediate and fun. “For a long time it was always that you played in what you had on thatday–no props, no nothing,” says Beck, recalling the alt-rock era. “It was like law. Now it’s exciting that these bands are willing tomake it a show.”

Photo by Tony Nelson

Onstage, Jack White talks in the voice of a dandy British blues singer. He plays a loverboy, ramblin’-man character, “Jackie White,”in his own songs, as well as in the 50-year-old songs he covers (as if the myth of “Jackie” was as old as the myth of Stagger Lee). Heand Meg’s ongoing brother/sister charade has stirred up some media curiosity; plus, it has thrown a kink in the band’s obsession withbluesy simplicity–“the dirt,” which Jack likes to differentiate from “the plastic” of contemporary American life. But as he sings onthe White Stripes’ amazing 2000 album, De Stijl: “Truth doesn’t make a noise.”

After the parade of digitally enhanced corporate spectacle that was pop music in the late ’90s, it’s almost shocking to seeunderdog, indie-punk bands attract mainstream notice without revamping their sound or look. “It seems like we’re starting to breakaway from the Britney Spears/’N Sync oblivion we’ve been fucking bombarded with for years,” says Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips,whose live shows marry art-rock theater with cheap geek-rock gestures. “You can either spend $10 million on a laser-light show or godown to Target and buy a $2 hand puppet.”

“Art has to have an ambiguity between sincerity and spectacle,” says Beck, who released his most stripped-down, personal album,Sea Change, this year. For quite a while that balance was lost. The business model of the late ’90s was bigger at all costs, particularlyin the music industry. In radio, Texas’ Clear Channel Communications swallowed up more than 1,200 stations, many in major markets.Publicly owned conglomerates like the German publishing giant Bertlesmann and the French bottled-water manufacturer Vivendi gobbled uprecord companies. Anyone who couldn’t come up with Backstreet- or Eminem-size sales numbers risked getting booted out of the empire.

“If your first record didn’t sell a million copies, there was a good chance you wouldn’t get a second one,” says Andy Gershon, whosigned the White Stripes to an anachronistically artist-friendly record deal. “Record companies got scared. Radio got too bland. Westopped producing quality artists.”

After this year’s plummeting stock market and corporate scandals, the music industry’s pop bombast seemed badly out of place. Andas with the recession of the early 1990s, bands that prized “dirt” over “plastic” were more appealing. The most clear-cut example ofanticorporate sentiment in rock was the tale of the Chicago-based band Wilco. In late 2001, Reprise Records (which is owned by AOLTime Warner) rejected the band’s fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a pastiche of experimental sonics and midlife rumination. It wasnot ka-ching rock, but it was the kind of Kid A-style breakthrough rock cults dream about. When Wilco refused to revise the record attheir bosses’ behest, they were released from their contract. The band responded by throwing Yankee Hotel up on their website.

“People were hearing it, and we thought it was a satisfying way to do what we’d always done,” says singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy.The battle over the album inspired a mini-anticorporate backlash. “It just looked bad,” says Coyne, whose band records for Warner Bros.”Here’s AOL Time Warner, the biggest [media] company in the world, and it looks like they’re only about money.”

Wilco received approximately 30 offers from record labels hungry for Reprise’s sloppy seconds. The band eventually signed toNonesuch, the home of avant-garde composers like Steve Reich and John Adams, which is also a subsidiary of AOL Time Warner. It’s ahilarious example of the byzantine weirdness of corporate America that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has sold more than 300,000 copies, morethan any other Wilco release. And though the record is soul-splittingly beautiful, there was something else at work as well.

“When our record first came out, I think there was some sense that people were voting for us,” Tweedy says. “Voting for the right tohear music, to be treated like patrons of the arts instead of just consumers.”

“My favorite album [of the year] is Wilco,” says Sleater-Kinney singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein. “I love it. And the story of it,the sort of David-versus-Goliath story where they triumphed and made the album they wanted to make, is incredible.” And it wasa pretty incredible year for anyone–musicians and fans–who wanted their music world to look a little more like a democracy and not a dictatorship.