Why Middle Class America Loves The Black Keys

May 18 2014, 12:51am CDT | by

Last week, while brunching at a Brooklyn eatery—the kind of Locavor encampment offering “provisions” rather than “food”—a friend of mine remarked that he was looking forward to the musical selections of the following week.

“Why?” I asked.

He answered, “Because the Black Keys are dropping their new album.”

“Why do you care so much?” I replied.

“Because they’re like the most credible mainstream rock band out there right now.”

I mulled over what he had said and realized that if he wasn’t right—that if Black Keys aren’t the most credible mainstream rock band out there right now—they’ve definitely convinced a lot of people that they, in fact, are.

Indeed, the twin concepts of “credibility” and “authenticity” often come up in the literature surrounding the Black Keys. Such sentiments have permeated behind-the-scenes audio circles as well: when I find myself talking with mixing engineers, mastering engineers, producers, software engineers, or marketers, the subject of the Black Keys invariably comes up to prove coolness—to illustrate dedication to an authentically eclectic taste. It boils down to, “I may have to mix so and so’s insufferable dance record, but in my spare time, I listen to the Black Keys.”

More than credibility, the Black Keys carry the distinction—along with Coldplay (whose latest album you can find reviewed here)—of being one of the last “bands” whose name we bandy about in the same breath as the much more prevalent “artists” of our day, the performers of only one name (and, some would argue, zero personality).

Not only that, but they sell records, and do so in good numbers: their previous outing debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 and moved over two hundred thousand copies in its first week. Not shabby at all, considering the nature of our current marketplace.

Here is where I must come clean about my own tastes: personally, I have always been wary to dive into their catalogue, in the same way an old curmudgeon might look at the trailer of a feel-good movie and guffaw at the prospect of having to sit through the film; I must admit I’ve made the snotty decision to reject their music, sound unheard, because it has come so heavily lauded and loaded with authenticity and credibility.

However, the function of this column dictates that I must reverse that decision, listen to the record, and offer a theory as to why this band—and perhaps, this record, already reviewed favorably in many circles—is popular; I must offer something beyond “because they rock” or “because mainstream tastes are shallow,” (neither of which I believe to be true) and instead, look for some kind of corollary, metaphor, or pattern of events to serve as explanation of the trend.

All of this requires listening to the record as objectively as possible, trying to overcome the kind of snotty predisposition I had previously espoused.

I have attempted to do so, and I bring you the following report:

The record is good, a deliciously warm and overblown confection of drums, guitars, fluttery vocals, and the odd synthetic noise here or there—in short, the sound that I had already associated with this band after hearing so many Black Keys profiles on NPR (But never mind that; preconceived notions must be eschewed).

The beginning of the record evokes the somber tone and chord progression of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe,” a song I happen to love. In quick succession the song moves past the idea of “Breathe” and implements other dynamics, doing something a band like Coldplay has never quite managed: owning someone else’s sound, rather than merely leasing it./>/>

By the time the cooing falsetto melodies came in I was sold—I had my “stank” face on, shaking my nose at the swing and swagger this band puts forth.

Tracks two, three, and four followed, and this white guy continued to dance in his chair.

But by the time I got to track five—“Year In Review”—I started to grow weary of the vibe: so many songs open with these warmly crushed drums; so many of the harmonic progressions—while different from the four chords pop music is currently exhausting—mine the same emotional terrain; so much of the guitar texture is woozy in exactly the same way; so many of the vocals accomplish the same effect again and again and again.

It’s all delicious. It’s all lavishly constructed. But it’s so rich in texture, so buttery in sound, that it led me to wonder: how much of it of it can one actually take in a single sitting?

It was then, in my digestion of the album, that I thought anew of the Brooklyn brunch I had taken part in last week: it too was buttery, delicious, caloric, rich, and ultimately unsustainable; to eat the whole plate would have been to sacrifice the rest of the day to malaise and intestinal misery.

This, I believe, is a fitting metaphor for explaining the popularity of the Black Keys: there is, in the highbrow echelons of our culture—in what remains of the middle class—a yearning for a rarified, farm-to-table, organic, roof-grown, hand-raised, fair-trade, artisanal cuisine. Likewise, there is a similar longing for the by-now platonic ideals of a previous music.

Let’s delve deeper into the comparison:

This food movement, whatever you wish to call it, seeks to comport itself as “healthy” and “eco-friendly”, but the truth is essentially a darker one: a slow-roasted pork belly, candied in its own fat and consumed at frequent intervals, is just as hard on the arteries as a Big Mac every once and a while.

We know the cuisine of which I speak to be prevalent primarily in the richer sections of coastal cities and townships, yet the trend extends into middle America: I’ve had such meals in Iowa, Minnesota, Arizona, and other non-coastal US environs. Indeed, from where I’m sitting, the market for such fare seems to be only growing—be it in Brooklyn or Des Moines, such restaurants often find themselves packed; after ingesting their richly caloric food, so, I suspect, do their customers.

So it is, at least for me, with the Black Keys. They carry a credible air of authenticity, but the truth is likewise a darker one: this kind of music, engorged in its own ear-candy and consumed at regular intervals, is just as hard on the musical stomach as mainlining an entire album of Lana Del Ray—novelty masquerading as genre, the sum total of which is gluttony.

And as this new movement of artisanal cuisine garnered popularity in a spindly fashion—trickling inward from the richer coastal beds of our country—so to did the Black Keys arrive at their own acclaim, chugging along as part of the garage-rock explosion of fifteen years ago, the one spearheaded by that oft-mentioned yin to the Black Keys’ yang, the White Stripes.

Such music spread along a more “elite”–for lack of a better word–corridor before it ever hit the mainstream, picking up traction with a subset of hip, predominantly wealthier individuals before it ever hit any kind of chart.

Indeed, Dan Auberbach will tell you as much, when he describes leaving one echelon of fame and arriving at another: “There’s this weird thing that happened with being a successful band,” he told Billboard.com, “and it has to do with rich, private-college kids who rule the indie rock world—kids who never really have to worry about anything because they always have some sort of backup plan that they can safely fall into.”

The corollaries are there. Unfortunately, the intrinsic nature of these corollaries are problematic: that which is supposed to be globally sustainable—in the case of the Black Keys, rock music in a somewhat recognizable guise, in the case of food, the artisanal farm-to-table movement—quickly becomes personally unsustainable if ingested in large quantities; it’s just too rich. Halfway into the savoring, it sinks to the pit of your stomach where it should linger on the palette. So it is with the food, so it is with the record. In other words, it’s all overly stylized.

Yet the trends continue, both in cuisine and music: the consumption of victuals in multi-hyphenated organic restaurants, the consumption of the “credible” and “authentic” music of the Black Keys.

To my mind, they continue for the same reason: a seemingly righteous impulse to preserve a faraway manner of life, one that becomes more and more ridiculous—and indeed, harder to keep down—the deeper it moves into the distant past of our cumulative digestive tract.

 
 

Don't miss ...

 

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/30" rel="author">Forbes</a>
Forbes is among the most trusted resources for the world's business and investment leaders, providing them the uncompromising commentary, concise analysis, relevant tools and real-time reporting they need to succeed at work, profit from investing and have fun with the rewards of winning.

 

blog comments powered by Disqus

Latest stories

Soyuz rocket carrying two Galileo satellites lifts off
Brussels, Aug 22 (IANS) A Soyuz rocket carrying two Galileo satellites, the fifth and sixth of Europe's Galileo global satellite navigation system, lifted off from the spaceport in French Guiana Friday, the European Space Agency (ESA) has announced.
 
 
Fresh cases of Ebola recorded in Nigeria: Official
Abuja, Aug 22 (IANS) Fresh cases of the Ebola virus disease have been recorded in Nigeria, where the highly contagious disease has already claimed five lives, Minister of Health Onyebuchi Chukwu said Friday.
 
 
Fuel cell technology gets a boost
Washington, Aug 22 (IANS) In an impetus for fuel cell technology to build "smart" cars, scientists at Stanford University have developed a low-cost, emissions-free device that uses an ordinary AAA battery to produce hydrogen by water electrolysis.
 
 
3D-printed technology to make drug delivery better
Washington, Aug 22 (IANS) The US researchers have developed an innovative method for using affordable, consumer-grade 3D printers and materials to fabricate custom medical implants that can contain antibacterial and chemotherapeutic compounds for targeted drug delivery.
 
 
 

Latest from the Network

Looking forward to working with Modi government: Singapore PM
Singapore, Aug 22 (IANS) Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong Friday said his country hopes to work with India in areas of infrastructure and education, and expressed his desire to meet his Indian counterpart...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
India beat Middlesex by 95 runs
London, Aug 22 (IANS) India returned to winning ways albeit in a warm-up cricket match, registering a comfortable 95-run win over Middlesex at Lord's here Friday. India were dismantled 3-1 in the Test series,...
Read more on Sport Balla
 
Pakistan: Tensions ease as PTI agrees to resume talks (Roundup)
Islamabad, Aug 22 (IANS) Tensions in the Pakistani political landscape eased Friday with the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party agreeing to return to the negotiating table as the Senate or the upper...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
Ukrainian rebels kill four soldiers
Kiev, Aug 22 (IANS) At least four security personnel have been killed and 23 wounded in clashes with rebels in eastern Ukraine, authorities said Friday. Four Ukrainian servicemen were killed Thursday overnight in...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
Miley Cyrus concert banned in Dominican Republic
Santo Domingo, Aug 22 (IANS/EFE) The Dominican Republic government has banned a concert where US pop star Miley Cyrus was scheduled to perform in the nation's capital Sep 13. In a notice sent to the SD Concerts and...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
George Clooney's ex Elisabetta Canalis engaged
George Clooney's ex Elisabetta Canalis has got engaged. The 35-year-old beauty is set to tie the knot with Brian Perri in Italy next month, as is George and his new fiancée Amal Alamuddin, after the orthopedic surgeon...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Mariah Carey's jealously to blame for split?
Mariah Carey's jealousy is reportedly partly to blame for her and Nick Cannon's split. The 44-year-old singer is said to have trust issues with her spouse - with whom she has four-year-old twins Moroccan and Monroe -...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Jessica Alba is 'fearless' after motherhood
Jessica Alba has become ''fearless'' since motherhood. The 33-year-old actress admits her whole perspective of her career has changed since welcoming her daughter Honor, six, and Haven, three, into the world with her...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Daniel Radcliffe wants fans to forget Harry Potter
Daniel Radcliffe wants his fans to forget about 'Harry Potter'. The 25-year-old actor is currently starring in romantic comedy 'What If', and despite its success, the actor is resigned to the fact the comparisons to his...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Hamas executes 18 alleged collaborators with Israel
Gaza, Aug 22 (IANS/EFE) Palestinian militias Friday executed 18 people accused of collaborating with Israel, 48 hours after three top military leaders of the Islamic Palestinian movement Hamas were killed in an Israeli...
Read more on Politics Balla