[Editor's Note: Fuck Guilty Pleasures celebrates the over-produced, commercial, artless, lowbrow music that we believe is genuinely worthwhile. Like, among the best music ever.]
I have several friends who should ostensibly like everything about Kings of Leon, but they strongly dislike the Nashville-formed outfit. If you searched for most of their favorite bands on Spotify or iTunes, Kings of Leon would surely come up as a recommended artist, but it doesn't make a bit of difference. It's something that's perplexed me over the past couple years, as I've discussed it with fans of My Morning Jacket and the Alabama Shakes, two similarly inspired southern rock bands who've risen to fame without a hint of a backlash.
When I ask them what they think of Kings of Leon, the response tends be a variation of either “They just seem like douchebags” or “That “Sex On Fire” song is terrible.” But there isn't really much substance behind either of those arguments. Purists tend to hate most Top 40 at any given moment, and as much as we heard “Sex On Fire” on the radio in the grocery, laundromat, department store and porn shop, we were all bound to hate it eventually, just as much as “Firework” or “Call Me, Maybe.”
I can't argue with the point that they're douchebags, both because it's subjective and because they haven't exactly maintained a spotlessly grounded image, what with the supermodel-marrying and $100 designer t-shirt hawking. But this has little to do with their musical credibility and why they deserve just as much respect as both of the aforementioned bands.
Kings of Leon have never been adored by the indie crowd. Pitchfork has flogged every one of their albums, while Spin and Rolling Stone have consistently dished out praise. British publications NME and Uncut have reviewed most of their albums favorably as well, so there's a clear disconnect between the top of the hipster hierarchy and the general public.
Read through the comments on Pitchfork and Stereogum and you'll find people fuming with disgust for the band, one person going as far as to compare them to Nickelback. And while both bands typically play stadiums and arenas, Nickelback has never headlined Bonnaroo, Coachella or Glastonbury.
Glastonbury and Bonnaroo are particularly important to mention because Kings of Leon were hugely popular in the south and in Europe long before “Sex On Fire.” While high-minded journalists in New York and L.A. were fumbling over their keyboards trying to decide whether to classify them as indie rock, alternative rock or southern rock, fans in London and Nashville were just enjoying the music, unfazed by whatever genre classification was coming down from the top.
It's puzzling as to why they aren't more widely appreciated in the U.S., especially after opening for huge acts like U2 and Radiohead; my theory is that aligning a band that's been on the radio with one's personal brand is just too risky for the cooler-than-thou generation. It doesn't have anything to do with taste. People are just worried that their manufactured identities will crumble once their friends see they've liked the band on Facebook.
In reality, the group's influences aren't all that different from the current crop of indie bands ruling the roost. The Pixies are the most oft-referenced band in their interviews, and they frequently list the Velvet Underground, Thin Lizzy and The Band as well. So why does everyone go apeshit when My Morning Jacket covers “It Makes No Difference,” while Kings of Leon are somehow seen as not genuine?
Journalists criticize Kings of Leon as being out for only fame and fortune, but it's an accusation rarely ever hurled at musicians from other genres. These guys grew up dirt poor, shuffling around to their father's pentecostal sermons throughout the south. Can you really blame them for wanting to escape that? Also, growing up in the south, as I can attest, you're lucky to even come across music that doesn't fit the standard god and guns model, and you're immediately appreciative if you do. So who are we to question whether or not their influences are genuine?
There's a striking comment from lead singer Caleb Followill near the end of the band's 2011 documentary Tahilina Sky. After two reps from RCA come to Nashville to pick the singles for the band's platinum-selling album Only By The Night, Followill says, “We're not gonna get on the radio but maybe we'll inspire enough kids to turn that shit off.” Kings of Leon, like most groups on major labels, had virtually no say in whether or not “Sex On Fire” would make it to radio. And after already releasing three of their albums, you can't really blame RCA for trying to make it a hit. That's what major labels do.
Also: Note how much good music they've released over the years. Though I still find their debut quite spotty, each album since has seen exponential improvement. 2004's Aha Shake Heartbreak is arguably the best southern rock album of the 2000's, finding upbeat boot-stomping jams like “Taper Jean Girl” blending with more melodic folk-inspired fare like “Day Old Blues.”
The two albums that followed, Because Of The Times and Only By The Night, saw the band veering further in to guttural guitar rock, but on their most recent and most overlooked, Come Around Sundown, emerged a near-perfect balance with their more understated influences. Listen to the beautifully frail piano melody that closes out “The End” for reference. Though not as successful as “Sex On Fire,” “Pyro” also managed to get the attention of radio and rightfully so. The chorus contains one of the most moving melodies I've heard in contemporary rock.
This is all to say that if you've written off Kings of Leon because “Sex On Fire” made you nauseous or because someone from a moderately successful indie band slagged them off in an interview, you should give them another shot. After all, it was only four years ago when Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien called them “the greatest band in the world at the moment” and most of Europe seems to agree. They've already booked a headliner slot alongside Blur at one of Europe's biggest festivals for 2013, and with their sixth album on the way, there's a decent chance you might have to deal with them Outside Lands or Lollapalooza. Might as well try and enjoy it.