Where have all the rock stars gone? That's a question asked with increasing urgency in the past few years. Pop and hip-hop icons have overshadowed the efforts of new and veteran rock acts, and if one takes a look at the Billboard Top 200, a majority of the scattered rock albums residing there are classic albums or greatest hits titles from the likes of Guns N' Roses, Queen, Creedence Clearwater Revival and AC/DC.
Perhaps there’s no one to blame for this state of affairs more than the rockers themselves. It was the edgy, dangerous elements that originally made rock 'n’ roll so appealing, from inappropriate public behavior to verbally bashing politicians to actual activism. But when it comes to social issues, nonrockers are taking the reins, such as Lizzo confronting body image assumptions, country rapper Little Nas X challenging racist and homophobic attitudes, and Eminem drawing Secret Service scrutiny for anti-Trump lyrics. Mainstream rockers? Not so much.
The genre, and the historical moment, is all but screaming for the creative and political destruction of their landmark album, “American Idiot.”
As Green Day pondered on the song “Somewhere Now” from 2016’s “Revolution Radio”: “How did a life on the wild side ever get so dull?” But that bout of self-reflection didn’t lead the punk-revivalist rockers to return to their rowdy past on their new album, out Friday. The genre, and the historical moment, is all but screaming for the creative and political destruction of their landmark album, “American Idiot.” Instead, the most provocative part of the new offering is its profane title, “Father of All Motherf------.”
But how shocking are obscenities in an era when the president is known to use them. Musically, the album’s approach of 10 songs spread out over 26 minutes is reminiscent of hardcore punk bands that roared through one- to two-minute anthems. Of course, Green Day’s music isn’t hardcore punk, and these shorter tracks, ironically, play well in our Spotify era of short attention spans.
“Father …” is essentially retro rock given an energetic Green Day facelift. The '70s glam stomp of “Oh Yeah!” samples Joan Jett's cover of Gary Glitter's “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah).” (The band, aware of Glitter's numerous sex offender convictions, are wisely donating proceeds from that tune to sexual assault organizations.) The best cut, “Stab You In the Heart,” rocks like a '60s Merseybeat tune on steroids. Soul and Motown influences crop up. The hyperactive title track, which arguably cribs from Jimi Hendrix, even has lead singer Billie Joe Armstong performing a Jack White-like falsetto.
Despite producer Butch Walker's overproduction threatening to crush the band's energy, “Father …” is the band’s most amped-up release in years, even if it is ruffling some fan feathers for being different and slicker. Change and rock make strange bedfellows. Many rock fans tolerate incremental change from their icons, yet complain if they stay on auto-pilot or change too much. And many aging rock fans are also more conservative than some thought, leading bands to tread cautiously today in politics.
So let’s be honest: “Father …” is a fun album. But is this the Green Day album we need? Their 2004 opus “American Idiot,” put out at the height of the Iraq War and President George W. Bush’s power, possessed an insurgent spirit that acted as a middle finger to an irrational red state America. Yet 15 years later, with racism, political corruption and authoritarianism on the rise under the Trump administration, that critique is arguably needed more than ever — and their new record avoids taking a similar approach.
In a recent interview, Armstrong remarked that the band is just not in that mode, even though many people probably expected an anti-Trump tirade on at least one of the tracks. “There’s so much toxic s--- in the ether right now,” Armstrong told Spin. “I didn’t want to write songs that would contribute to that.”
Instead, Green Day wants us to get up and dance. The video for the title track intercuts band performance footage in front of a “Jailhouse Rock”-type backdrop with images of people of all ethnicities and genders from different time periods doing everything from twisting to moshing. It’s a message of unity through music, which is admirable, but there’s none of the heavy social commentary in “American Idiot” or its follow-up,“21st Century Breakdown,” both of them ambitious rock operas.
One can't necessarily fault Green Day; they’ve arguably done their part. They even led a crowd chant of “No Trump! No KKK! No Fascist USA!” live on the 2016 American Music Awards. But if their time for questioning norms and the powers that be has passed, where are their mainstream rock heirs to pick up the mantle? Leftist agitators Rage Against the Machine are reuniting for a tour this year, but where are their successors?
In the late 1960s, American rock 'n’ roll found its mojo in pissing off conservatives by espousing sexual and chemical experimentation, challenging authority and protesting the Vietnam War. The Clash, Sex Pistols, Ramones and numerous '70s punk bands added gasoline to the fire with anarchistic intensity, though some of them later flamed out.
During the Reagan and Bush era of the 1980s through early ‘90s, a resurgent time of conservatism and uber patriotism, many artists continued to challenge the status quo. Even heavy metal got in on the act with bands like Anthrax, Queensryche and Megadeth, plus various underground thrash acts, making statements about the Cold War, social issues and political corruption.
But in the late 1980s came the buffoonery of hair bands, and with it, the ugly side of the rock paradigm emerged. Truth be told, many of those rockers had more in common with Wall Street brokers in their pursuit of hedonistic pleasures and big money. That type of hard rock ultimately ended up pissing off liberals who did not like its self-absorbed nonrebellion, while many of the elements that made rock 'n roll “dangerous” were things that became clichés — and also politically incorrect.
Grunge and alt-rock in the early to mid-1990s did its part to reinvent the genre while espousing more inclusive messages. Green Day’s breakthrough album “Dookie”emerged in 1994. But in the latter half of the ’90s, techno, teen pop and nu-metal took over. With the 2000s came the karaoke posturing of “American Idol” and a deluge of safer pop and rock artists.
We need rock stars with purpose again — this time those willing to piss off or unsettle both sides of the aisle in their quest to express their truth. Partly, that should come through the message, and partly from the musical approach.
Solo artist and System of a Down singer Serj Tankian has been a lifelong musician and activist, so the combination is natural for him. “A good love song can help change the world as much as a powerful political one," Tankian told me. "That said, when something is very obviously unjust and artists bypass it so as not to lose fans, I don’t have any respect for that."
Many of the elements that made rock 'n roll “dangerous” were things that became clichés — and also politically incorrect.
Gary Clark Jr., at 35, might be the best current model for the type of reinvention rock needs. An artist who straddles the blues and rock worlds, Clark's Grammy-winning single “This Land” thrives on the spirit of classic protest songs and was inspired by racist incidents he experienced in Texas. The song's chorus, an angry exchange between a racist and a black man defying him, should make any white person uncomfortable, even empathetic ones, especially if they attempt to sing along to the chorus in public.
Rock needs this type of renewed energy, and the younger, more diverse generation Clark represents. We need a new cohort of rock artists who are keenly aware of the huge stakes in what promises to be the most bitter and divisive presidential election cycle in modern American history. So we can respect the middle-age and elder statesmen like Green Day that are passing the torch to a new generation — if that new generation is willing to set things ablaze.