In Defense Of Dave Grohl
Dave Grohl had a good time at the Grammys on Sunday. The Foo Fighters won pretty much every rock-oriented award possible, he reminded everyone that he's got the power-ballad game on lock, and he even got to show off his sweet Slayer T-shirt. Once again, everything came up Grohl. The most likable man in rock wins again, right?
And then he started talking. After winning the Grammy for Best Rock Performance, Grohl and company took the stage, where the head Foo Fighter gave a version of the stump speech he's gave in every interview and three-hour concert appearance in support of last year's Wasting Light.
"To me this award means a lot because it shows that the human element of music is what's important. Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument and learning to do your craft, that's the most important thing for people to do... It's not about being perfect, it's not about sounding absolutely correct, it's not about what goes on in a computer. It's about what goes on in here [points to heart] and what goes on in here [points to head]."
Cue backlash. Maura talked about Grohl's remarks in the context of how the Grammys seemed to be presenting a vision for how music sounds now (Skrillex, Nicki Minaj) only to retreat to a Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Walsh and Grohl four man electric jam to close out the ceremony, as if to underline what real music looks like (which is to say, old.) Spin editor Charles Aaron wrote "his recent awards show complaints about how real music speaks from the heart and not from a computer (or some such coded bullshit) are starting to sound unnervingly like a nascent 'Disco Sucks' campaign. And if we didn't know any better, we'd think the old-fogey Grammy committee had kidnapped Grohl and brainwashed him into serving as their anti-hip hop/EDM Manchurian Candidate." LA Weekly writer Dennis Romero called Grohl's speech "bullshit. it took 20 years for EDM to really break out at the Grammy Awards is testament to the foot-dragging of a rock-obsessed industry and to the cro magnon sentiments of rockists like Grohl."
The discussion broiled throughout the internet for the rest of the week. "Dave Grohl Grammy Speech" was the first term that came up if you typed his name into Google, even beating "Dave Grohl Nirvana," which probably doesn't happen very much, and the comment section and Twitter discussion raged on. Was Dave Grohl a rockist? Is he really one of those fogeys who thinks that music made with guitars is inherently more "real" than music with computers, keyboards and samplers...which is to say the vast majority of current popular music?
It was a disconcerting notion. Grohl has long been called one of the most likable guys in rock music, always quick with a joke or praise for whatever band he's digging. The fact that he's been relatively humble about being in Nirvana (and relatively demure about cashing in on that legacy) has earned him a near unlimited amount of goodwill. Plenty of people think the Foo Fighters are generic or just kind of..."there" as far as music goes, but Grohl rarely raises anyone's blood temperature as a person. But in music critic wonkery circles, being a rockist is all but tantamount to being a racist that also hates all forms of fun. Say it ain't so, Grohl?
Personally, I thought the whole thing was misdirected. What some critics missed is that in addition to jamming with superstar DJ Deadmau5 (during an admittedly car-wreck of a salute to dance music that the Grammy producers clearly felt the need to fortify with a rock band and Chris Fucking Brown), Grohl also recruited him to remix "Rope" for a a deluxe edition of Wasting Light last year, and has raved about the DJ's live performances. Throughout his career, Grohl has collaborated with electronic types like Trent Reznor and Alec Empire, and even played on the "rock remix" of the then Puff Daddy hit "It's All About The Benjamins." Grohl has generally stuck to the guitar-bass-drums lane in his own work; adding a violin player to the Foo Fighters line-up for a while is about as experimental as he gets. But there's ample evidence to show that charges that he thinks sample/computer based music is inherently inferior are simply unfair.
My guess is that two different long-standing critical ideas collided on Sunday night. The first is the idea that the guitar-carrying old guard think that electronic dance music (and hip-hop and most pop) isn't as real as something made with instruments. Now, we all know that this idea is silly (right?), and if something makes you happy it doesn't matter how it was made. Dance music has broken down a lot of barriers and misconceptions over the past few years, and is arguably as popular stateside as it's ever been, but there's still a real value in keeping a look out for outdated biases. So you can't blame people for being protective.
The second idea, and the one I think Grohl was really trying to put forward, is almost as widely accepted as the anti-rockist argument, but already peaked in terms of relevancy around the time of fourth White Stripes record. Pro-Tools, pitch-correcting programs and other computer-assisted music production techniques make it extremely easy to fix any flaws and cover up weak musicianship. You've probably read this a million times and don't need me to belabor the point. Now, clearly, not all rock music has to be recorded to a four-track, Jack White style, and a mix of dialed-in performances and studio do-hickery can lead to amazing results. (See last year's Fucked Up album or next week's Sleigh Bells album, to name just two.)
But if you turn on your local rock station (well, there's no more rock stations in New York. Maybe next time you're out of town) or catch a modern rock video block on Fuse or something, you will hear plenty of examples of bands using Pro-Tools to sound inhumanely perfect, and often to hide a lack of proficiency. Anybody who's ever been to, say, a Warped Tour or radio station festival has surely experienced the whiplash of seeing a band that sounds hooky on disc barely seeming to be able to play together as a unit onstage. One could argue, and I bet Grohl would, that this reliance on technology has made young bands lazier, and thus less creative, and has helped contribute to the declining popularity of the genre amongst buyers. (That many mass-audience seeking bands can't move on past the template Grohl and his '90s peers helped establish is another big reason for the decline in the genre's popularity, but that's an argument for another time.) I am as loath as anyone to make any sort of statement about what real music is, and I love over-produced pop rock as much as anyone. (I've been having a strange bout of Sugar Ray nostalgia lately.) But an over-reliance on these production techniques is resulting in a generation of guitar based bands that all sound pretty much the same. Plus, perfectly recorded, perfectly performed music rarely kicks ass, which is kind of the point of rock music.
It's not really a surprise that the anti-dance music idea is the one everyone picked up on. The anti-pro tools argument is really only popular in rock fan circles, and there's nothing like a perceived attack on a still often-maligned genre people to get critical guardian's dander up. But I just don't think this is what Grohl was getting at. He's a man with Led Zeppelin and Black Flag artwork tattooed on his body. Rock and roll is a big deal to him, and based on some of the things he's said in concert recently (lots of talk about how rock isn't dead and how he recorded his new album in his garage without Pro-Tools, yada yada yada), he's worried about the health of his genre. But based on Sunday night's evidence, it might be better for him to show what he thinks is the way forward for his beloved artform (this might sound like faint praise, but Wasting Light is the best radio rock album in years) rather than hector about it.
Update: Right before I hit publish on this piece, Grohl's press representatives sent the following statement.
DAVE GROHL CLARIFIES HIS GRAMMY ACCEPTANCE SPEECH
Oh, what a night we had last Sunday at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards. The glitz! The Glamour! SEACREST! Where do I begin?? Chillin' with Lil' Wayne...meeting Cyndi Lauper's adorable mother...the complimentary blinking Coldplay bracelet.....much too much to recap. It's really is still a bit of a blur. But, if there's one thing that I remember VERY clearly, it was accepting the Grammy for Best Rock Performance...and then saying this:
"To me this award means a lot because it shows that the human element of music is what's important. Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument and learning to do your craft, that's the most important thing for people to do... It's not about being perfect, it's not about sounding absolutely correct, it's not about what goes on in a computer. It's about what goes on in here [your heart] and what goes on in here [your head]."
Not the Gettysburg Address, but hey......I'm a drummer, remember?
Well, me and my big mouth. Never has a 33 second acceptance rant evoked such caps-lock postboard rage as my lil' ode to analog recording has. OK....maybe Kanye has me on this one, but....Imma let you finish....just wanted to clarify something...
I love music. I love ALL kinds of music. From Kyuss to Kraftwerk, Pinetop Perkins to Prodigy, Dead Kennedys to Deadmau5.....I love music. Electronic or acoustic, it doesn't matter to me. The simple act of creating music is a beautiful gift that ALL human beings are blessed with. And the diversity of one musician's personality to the next is what makes music so exciting and.....human.
That's exactly what I was referring to. The "human element". That thing that happens when a song speeds up slightly, or a vocal goes a little sharp. That thing that makes people sound like PEOPLE. Somewhere along the line those things became "bad" things, and with the great advances in digital recording technology over the years they became easily "fixed". The end result? I my humble opinion.....a lot of music that sounds perfect, but lacks personality. The one thing that makes music so exciting in the first place.
And, unfortunately, some of these great advances have taken the focus off of the actual craft of performance. Look, I am not Yngwie Malmsteen. I am not John Bonham. Hell...I'm not even Josh Groban, for that matter. But I try really fucking hard so that I don't have to rely on anything but my hands and my heart to play a song. I do the best that I possibly can within my limitations, and accept that it sounds like me. Because that's what I think is most important. It should be real, right? Everybody wants something real.
I don't know how to do what Skrillex does (though I fucking love it) but I do know that the reason he is so loved is because he sounds like Skrillex, and that's badass. We have a different process and a different set of tools, but the "craft" is equally as important, I'm sure. I mean.....if it were that easy, anyone could do it, right? (See what I did there?)
So, don't give me two Crown Royals and then ask me to make a speech at your wedding, because I might just bust into the advantages of recording to 2 inch tape.
Now, I think I have to go scream at some kids to get off my lawn.