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.

 
 

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