We like Foo Fighters. They're the Samuel Adams beer of pop — solid, familiar, a good call in a one-jukebox town.
But innovators they're not. Quite the opposite: If one could feed off a dying aesthetic — long-haired white guys with guitars — for the better part of two decades, Foo Fighters can show you how.
And so it is with some irony that the band's leader, Dave Grohl, had disparaging words for electronic dance music last night during a Grammy Awards acceptance speech for Best Rock Album:
This is a great honor, because this record was a special record for our band. Rather than go to the best studio in the world down the street in Hollywood and rather than use all of the fanciest computers that money can buy, we made this one in my garage with some microphones and a tape machine…
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].
Grohl is wrong on so many levels.
A little history. When electronic dance music first started to break through in America in the early 1990s (Moby, Prodigy, Robin S.), it was Grohl's band at the time, Nirvana, that received all the attention. It was the group's decidedly retro style (it was “the year punk broke,” critics gushed) that endeared it to pop writers and music executives.
Nirvana and the grunge movement slowed down punk and added basic rock structures to its music, making the anti-establishment noise of a '70s sound palatable and mainstream. But true punk it was not. And even if it was, it had been done 15-plus years prior. So what?
Since then Grohl has had plenty of time to advance his sound, but instead the Foo Fighters have relied on clean, crisp, familiar rock, based on all that has come before it — mainly black music and the post-blues interpretation of Led Zeppelin and other stadium bands.
And while he might criticize the so-called push-button ease of EDM, it's not like strumming a guitar is some foreign, far-out pursuit undertaken only by the most talented among us.
Part of the irony here is that rock was dance music in the 1950s and remained so until white guys took over.
People have been complaining about technology in pop at least since then. Bob Dylan plugging in his guitar was blasphemy. Disco sucked. Samples are illegal (unless you pay up and get permission).
And yet pop has evolved with the help of technology, from Kraftwerk to Giorgio Moroder, Herbie Hancock to Radiohead. It's childish to blame the tools of the artist.
It's not as if Foo Fighters haven't benefited from the “fanciest computers that money can buy.” Is Grohl saying his album wasn't mastered digitally? We'd find that hard to believe. Is he saying he's never used Pro Tools in the recording process? Yeah right. [Editor's note: Grohl demanded digital effects not be used on the album, but they were anyway.]
The majority of artists — rappers, especially — who use computers as part of their arsenals should be offended: There's nothing wrong with a dope beat. (Even Whitney Houston went EDM — way back in 1998 — with “It's Not Right But It's Okay”.)
It would be one thing if this came from a musician who truly innovated. But Grohl has been living off the ghost of rock 'n' roll his entire career. People like Rick Rubin (who started a techno label in the mid-1990s), Tommy Lee and Diddy have long understood what the future holds.
That 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.
(Thanks to folks at the Recording Academy, including KCRW music director Jason Bentley, dance music has been getting air time at the Grammy Awards with the likes of Moby, Daft Punk and now Deadmau5.)
Artists like Deadmau5 (who's a brilliant computer musician and programmer) should be applauded for showing the way forward in music. As last night's Grammy Awards demonstrated, a lot of pop artists are headed that way whether Grohl likes it or not.
Lets not turn this into another racist, homophobic, “disco sucks” moment. Not this time, Dave.