The Evolution of Modern Pop & Rock Stars


I’m technically an 80s baby but I don’t actually remember the 80s (my first memories are probably 1991 or 1992) so calling me a 90s kid is a more apt description. Now that my generation are in our 30s I feel like I see a lot of nostalgia for the 90s. In a way I get it- I think it’s natural to feel nostalgia for the time in your life when you were “young & innocent.” However, if I’m being honest, I can’t say I share in this nostalgia very much. It’s not that I had a horrible childhood or anything like that. But the way my brain works I’ve just been much happier as an adult. In other words, I’ve been “old at heart” for almost as long as I can remember, so being an adult just suits me a lot better. Therefore, I can’t say I share in much of the 90s nostalgia. Furthermore, while there are some societal changes that have occurred over the past two decades that I’d rather hadn’t happened, I think a lot of the changes we’ve seen have actually been good. I won’t get into all of them here because that isn’t the point of today’s post. But one of the changes I’ve noticed is the difference in both pop stars & rock stars from the 80s-90s or even early 2000s vs those today.

I’ve thought about this subject quite a lot over the past few years but the reason it came to mind now is because I recently discovered a Norwegian pop star called Sigrid. I found her because she did a song with a rock band I follow called Bring Me the Horizon (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4552tadeuM). The song is absolutely gorgeous, both musically & lyrically, & I’ve been very pleasantly surprised with Sigrid’s other music that I’ve checked out over the past few days. While pop music will never have the same appeal for me as rock or metal- I NEED my heavy guitars & drums, I really do (they just SPEAK to me- if you know, you know)- I have been very impressed with her gorgeous voice & her unique appearance. While she is far from ugly, Sigrid is definitely not your stereotypical pop star. She wears little if any makeup & usually dresses in jeans & T shirts. Much like Billie Eilish she is NOT the overly sexualized pop stars of my youth. Watching their videos, these girls are so different than Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, the Spice Girls, & that whole coterie that dominated pop music when I was young. And for that I am very grateful. Maybe it’s just proof that everything is cyclical. Or maybe it’s proof that the MeToo movement has indeed had some positive impacts across our greater culture.

While I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with sexuality- it’s obviously just part of our biology- I also ascribe to what I call the Lzzy Hale belief that talent & skills should always come first. In other words, it’s ok to be sexualized at times- it’s probably inevitable, especially for women- but it’s better to be valued & known principally for other things. As she said, “Anything I have done has been purely because I wanted to do it. So I feel lucky being that way, but my rule is it can’t start & end with just the high skirts & the high heels. You have to have something to back it up. Again, my encouragement to anybody is do what you want to do, but if you’re going to be in music, don’t just be the long legs. Make sure that you work very hard at your instrument & your band.” (http://sofa-king-cool-magazine.com/halestorms-lzzy-hale-sex-and-rock-n-roll-go-hand-in-hand/). Ideally I think we should be able to appreciate people much more holistically, even if they do present themselves in an overtly sexual manner, but the truth of the matter is that just doesn’t happen very often. I think you could argue that male “sex symbols” struggle with this sometimes too, though perhaps to a lesser extent or in somewhat different ways. But that’s a post for another day.

In any case, I for one find it much more encouraging to know that some of today’s pop stars aren’t as overly sexualized as the ones from my youth. They’re wearing more clothes, their lyrics are more introspective & far less vapid, & their dancing isn’t half as “sexual.” Granted there were/are pop stars from my younger years that I feel like were less sexualized- or at least did it more in their own way rather than just being the product of a record label. (Pink & Lady Gaga are good examples & I enjoy both of them.) But overall, I feel like pop stars like Britney Spears were largely just victims of a music industry that was using them for as much as they could get, long-term consequences to the women themselves or greater society be damned. I certainly am much more comfortable knowing that my daughter has a greater chance of growing up with female pop stars who are far more empowering than the ones from my generation.

Now when it comes to rock stars, I think it’s very interesting to observe that the whole “sex, drugs, & rock & roll” thing has really changed course drastically. In the 80s, bands like Motley Crue (whom I love) truly embodied that phrase- to their own detriment of course. Then came the early 90s & grunge, which I’m too young to remember of course, but I do love a lot of that music. Sadly, between cocaine & heroin far too many of those musicians never made it out of their 20s. Obviously drug use is still a problem in the rock scene, as evidenced by the recent tragic death of drummer Taylor Hawkins from the Foo Fighters. But in general I think drug use, even heavy drinking, has radically decreased over the past 10-15 years among most rock stars. When I think about most of my favorite rock stars, many of them have either been sober for many years now after recovering from previous addictions or they have managed to avoid those addictions altogether. I’ve even got a list to prove it:

Chris Motionless from Motionless in White has endorsed a “straight edge” type lifestyle his entire musical career. He has spoken openly about never using drugs or alcohol & having no interest in trying them. He has even spoken out against “hook up” culture.

Andy Biersack from Black Veil Brides had a brief course of alcoholism & minor drug use early in his career (during which time he was largely underage anyway) but has since been completely sober for many years now. Furthermore he is married to the same woman he’s been with since he was about 20 (he’s now 31).

Brent Smith from Shinedown is another recovered addict. So is Sully Erna from Godsmack. And Dorothy from the band of the same name. And Randy Blythe from Lamb of God. And Corey Taylor of Slipknot. So are Ivan Moody & Chris Kael from Five Finger Death Punch (as well as their former drummer Jeremy Spencer). And the list goes on…

To be honest the only truly modern band (as in whose members are 20-30s) I can think of that really embodied the whole “sex, drugs, & rock & roll” philosophy is Asking Alexandria (& I guess some members of Five Finger Death Punch years ago- but they’re also a bit older). And you know what? They quickly learned it wasn’t going to work for them. Now all five guys are married or in long term relationships & all but one have at least one child. They all quit drugs & either cut out or minimized alcohol years ago. And that’s probably why, unlike so many other bands before them, they’re still around.

Nowadays a lot of rock (& pop) stars are anything but the proverbial “bad boy.” Sure, they might have long hair, loads of tattoos, a couple facial piercings, & some may even wear more makeup than most women, but many of them are genuinely good people whose “fearsome” appearance belies their true nature. Granted this was probably true for a lot of older rock stars too. But many of them really DID use a lot of drugs & generally lived up to the sex, drugs, & rock & roll lifestyle. Nowadays, in the age of social media, the MeToo movement, environmental consciousness, etc, I think society demands a lot more from our rock stars. We don’t want to see them trashing hotel rooms or read about them screwing hookers backstage while snorting cocaine off their bodies. No- that’s not cool anymore. And for that I am very grateful.

So yeah, I don’t really miss the 90s. If that makes me an uncool millennial, well, so be it. After all, I’ve never been very cool, so why start now?

What do y’all think? Has our society made positive steps in what we demand from or appreciate about our pop/rock stars? I certainly think so.

Why Eric Church Might Be the Musical Genius of the 21st Century


If I had to choose one (modern-day) artist whose music never ceases to amaze me, whose talent seems only to grow with each new endeavor, I’d have to choose Eric Church.  Ok, it’s a tie between Eric Church & Corey Taylor, but today I’m going to focus on Church since his recent album The Outsiders is still on frequent replay in my car & on my computer (yes, it is playing as I write this).

eric church the outsiders

As someone who loves both rock & country, Eric Church is for me the perfect combination of these two vastly different genres.  When I had the great pleasure of attending one of his concerts in the fall of 2012 I couldn’t help but feel like I was at a redneck rock concert more than a traditional country concert.  It was nothing short of scintillating.  Church’s music has often been snubbed as “too rock to be country” & “too country to be rock.”  Therefore it’s not surprising that he has made a name for himself less by hit radio singles & more by inspiring live performances in venues from bars & rock clubs to stadiums & arenas.  In an era when few country artists actually write their own music, Church has penned nearly every song he’s ever recorded.  He’s also never rushed his work & when you read/watch his interviews, it’s so apparent that his greatest commitment is always to his MUSIC.  If you need more proof that Church is a horse of a different color so to speak, consider that his albums are produced by Jay Joyce, a man who normally produces rock albums.  Additionally, in an era where most musicians are relying on social media to build their popularity, Church shuns such methods.  He lets the music speak for itself.  This has sometimes gotten him in trouble such as when he got kicked off of a 2006 Rascal Flatts tour for playing too long (he was replaced by none other than Taylor Swift).  Indeed Church has made a name for himself as a bit of an “outlaw,” a country music star who isn’t afraid to sing about smoking weed & teen pregnancy & whose interviews are often studded with curse words not normally spoken by his peers (at least not in public).  Indeed, here’s just a quick sample of some of the words/phrases found on his most recent album that are not normally found on country music albums: cocaine, sex, needle in a vein, bitch, joint, damn rock & roll, tramp, slut, pimp.  Yet it’s well-known that Church tours with his wife & young son so that he doesn’t miss important time with his family.  When speaking of his work, he often uses the term “we” instead of “I.”  It’s obvious he values his band & realizes the success of his music isn’t all about him.  It seems that underneath the tough persona he’s built Church is actually a pretty decent guy.

Above all else, it’s Church’s music that sets him far above his peers.  Today’s popular country music is often more like pop music with a little twang, & the endless “country party” songs are as vapid as any Miley Cyrus or Britney Spears song (consider Luke Bryan’s That’s My Kinda Night or Florida Georgia Line’s Cruise).  Not so with Church.  This is not to say he doesn’t have songs about drinking.  After all his first number-one hit was Drink in My Hand off of his 2011 Grammy-nominated album Chief.  But with Church there is so much more to even his drinking songs.  If a country artist ever knew how to craft clever lyrics with double entendres & unusual rhyme schemes, it’s Church.  (Consider I’m Getting’ Stoned, also off of Chief.)  I’m not trying to trash other country stars.  Indeed I’ve been to Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, & Blake Shelton concerts & enjoyed every minute of them.  But I didn’t go home & buy their albums like I did after Church’s concert . . . There’s just something about his music that is so powerful & that I believe will stand the test of time while many of his contemporaries will fade into oblivion after a few more decades.  Consider some of these gems from his most recent album, The Outsiders, released just a few weeks ago.

eric church

The first song, for which the album was named, starts off on a real rock & roll beat & never gives up.  As Church has explained, this is a song for anyone who’s ever felt left out, like an “outsider.”  The idea isn’t super original but the execution of it sure is.  Wow.

Just when you think Church has morphed into a rock star, he slows it down with the second track, A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young, a song about a man who is amazed that, at 36, he has out-lived Hank (Williams, Sr) & Jesus.  As you listen to the lyrics you can’t help but feel this piece is probably autobiographical for Church (he is 36 after all).  While not my favorite song on the album, it’s certainly a powerful one.

Time to switch gears again.  Next up is Cold One which contains the memorable line “If she had to leave did she have to leave me one beer short of a twelve-pack?”  This one isn’t exactly full of deep philosophy but the MUSIC is superb.  The beat is funky & there’s a very bluesy sound that somehow reminds me of the bayou or some of the really old-school jazz.

The fifth song on the album, Talladega, chronicles a trip to a Nascar race with friends during the summer after high school graduation.  While I have never had any interest in Nascar, that’s beside the point.  The song isn’t so much about racing cars as it is about being young & making memories & how fast life goes by.  The mark of a good song is that listeners can relate to the emotions & ideas conveyed by the song, even if the actual content isn’t 100% relatable.  This is just one example of how Church continually succeeds with this.

I can’t say I ever thought Eric Church would record a sex song, but he did.  Like a Wrecking Ball is another bluesy-sounding song with an organ, of all the damn things, propelling the piece.  And unlike some of the popular country songs that reference one-night stands after nights of drinking too much beer or moonshine (consider this line from Jason Aldean’s My Kinda Party: “Baby if you’re in the mood you can settle for a one night rodeo/You can be my tan-legged Juliet, I’ll be your Redneck Romeo”), this one is full of heart & soul & longing to which anyone who’s ever spent too much time away from their partner can relate.

Next up is what might be my favorite piece on the whole album (though it’s very hard to choose), That’s Damn Rock & Roll.  In this piece Church argues that rock & roll isn’t about the drugs, sex, & partying that so often get so much attention or even about the money to be made from selling records.  Instead he says it’s about the love of music & that rebellious, fighting spirit that never gives up.  Consider the lyrics:

“It ain’t about the money you make, when a record gets sold

It’s about doing it for nothing, ’cause it lives in your soul . . .

It’s doing what you want instead of doing what you’re told.”

The song references the many great musicians who have died at age 27 & how often such incidents are pointed to as reasons why rock & roll is inherently sinful:

“Drowning demons feel no pain

Found Nirvana wasted shame

Gone too soon just like a song

Hendrix, Joplin, what went wrong?

Need some answers, right or wrong

Need something to blame it on

That’s damn rock and roll”

I don’t know about y’all but I can just hear the old-fashioned Southerners saying “That damn rock & roll!”  It’s almost like Church takes the words out of their mouth & uses them to prove his point.  For those of us who know that rock & roll is so much more than “ sex, drugs, & rock & roll”, this is an anthem we’ll be clinging to for a long time.

Next up, Dark Side explores the eternal conflict between good & evil that we all face every day.  It’s not an original theme, but Church explores it with a brutal honesty that is unmatched by his peers.

The tenth song on this album, Devil, Devil, is by far the most bizarre song Church has ever recorded.  At eight minutes in length, the first half of the song is a poem written by Church that criticizes the entire Nashville music industry.  While it will almost certainly never be a hit single, it’s a superbly incisive look at the dark side of the music industry that I’m quite certain no other country artist today would ever tackle.  You’ve got to admire Church’s bravery here.  (If you’re wondering which song contained “bitch, slut, & pimp,” it’s this one, in reference to the music industry.)

The next to last song on the album, Give Me Back My Hometown, is full of nostalgia & longing for a hometown that has been “ruined” by the memories of love-gone-wrong.  While this one is far more radio-friendly than many of the other pieces on this album, it’s no less interesting or full of the genuine, raw emotion for which Church is so famous.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m a bit puzzled as to why Church chose to end the album with the story-telling song The Joint.   While I love this song, I can’t help but feel it’s a little anti-climactic after some of the harder-hitting songs on the album.  But maybe that’s the point.  It fades off into the distance & makes you want to replay the whole album immediately.  In any case, The Joint is actually not about smoking weed even though that’s a valid assumption considering Church has recorded more than one song with obvious references to smoking weed (Smoke a Little Smoke & I’m Getting’ Stoned).  Instead it’s an old-fashioned story-telling song about a woman who burns down the bar her husband frequents a bit too often.  With repeated trombone licks, this one is definitely full of jazzy influences that bring to mind the bayou or some sleazy pool hall deep in the South.  It’s full of understated magnificence & I love it.

I sincerely challenge anyone who’s reading this who doesn’t normally like country music to take a long hard listen to Eric Church.  His music might not be “love at first listen” but I bet it will grow on you until eventually you can’t deny his incredible talent.  I’ll be the first to admit that when I first began hearing his songs on the radio years ago, I thought he was too rough & too naughty & just not my type.  Of course that was also before I really got into rock music.  In any case, my initial disdain slowly melted away as I realized what a fantastic musician Church really is & how his music continually evolves as he refuses to “color in the lines.”  To me the mark of a good musician is often that their work isn’t always super catchy.  Music that has depth & real personality often takes more than one listen to really comprehend.  I’ll end my treatise to Church with an excerpt from a recent article about him which I think sums him up perfectly:

The most rock’n’roll (or rockist) thing about Eric Church may be his devotion to “The Album” as a hallowed, sanctified ideal to which all the other nonsense — certainly press-cycle considerations, but even tours, even said album’s individual songs, even if they’re alleged runaway smashes — must genuflect . . . “I hate the fame part. I hate getting recognized. I hate press. I hate all that stuff that is just so — I want to make music.”

(See http://www.spin.com/featured/eric-church-marks-his-territory-february-cover-story/)

Would that all musicians were so focused on their craft.

Things I Learned From Rock & Roll


A few weeks ago I wrote a post about things I’ve learned from country music & stated that I would be writing a similar post for each major genre of music.  Naturally my next post for this theme is about rock & roll since that is my favorite type of music.  I tried very hard to narrow this list down to five songs like I did for the last post but I just couldn’t do it, so I decided that since rock is my favorite genre it wouldn’t be too superfluous to choose a few more songs.  Besides unlike writing for school assignments, this is my blog so I can make the rules.  Ha!  😉

unity

Please do be advised that some of these songs are not totally G-rated as far as some of the words are concerned (but, hey, that’s rock & roll, right?).

These are in no particular order.

1. Unity by Shinedown: To anyone who thinks that rock & roll is all about drugs & “darkness,” please listen to this song.  In my opinion this is one of the most inspiring, hopeful songs I’ve ever heard.  I’ve seen Shinedown in concert twice & both times their live performance of this song has been incredibly powerful.  The message of this song to me is that no matter how scared or lonely you feel, you’re never alone & there is always hope.  And “your moment of truth is the day that you say ‘I’m not scared,'” which to me means not so much that you’re no longer afraid of the darkness but that you’re facing it anyway.  After all true courage is not the absence of fear but rather the willingness to proceed despite fear.  Perhaps the best way to sum up this song are the lines Brent Smith, the lead singer, says at the beginning of the music video: “We will not fall because we have each other.  We will not fall because we are brothers.  We will not fall because we have love.  We will not fall because we will rise above.”  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_gVdi6sizeY

2.  Here’s To Us by Halestorm: If you aren’t familiar with the female-fronted rock band Halestorm please do yourself a favor & head to Youtube right this minute to check out their fantastic music.  This song is a great place to start, though it’s a bit softer than their average piece.  This is a song that celebrates the transience of life & the fact that mistakes don’t have to be our downfall.  Despite being somewhat softer in style, to me this song is the ultimate “I can do this” song.  It’s what I listen to when I feel like I’m just barely getting by in life, when I need a pick-me-up & a reminder that no matter what life throws my way I’m capable of not just surviving but thriving regardless of the situation.  The music video is also an awesome tribute to the past couple of decades of rock music (note the changes in clothes, makeup, & stage performance throughout the video).  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KC0DNLDXJW8

3.  Justice  by Rev Theory: I still remember the first time I heard this song; I was driving to Blacksburg to visit Jared.  As soon as I got to Jared’s apt I pulled out my laptop to Google the song & figure out who sang it.  This song was one of those “love at first listen” songs for me.  To me this song is just pure adrenaline & righteous anger.  It’s the perfect song to listen to when you feel you’ve been wronged by someone or when life just feels unfair, which is of course inevitable from time to time.  However, if you watch the video you get the feeling that this song was written about more than just the every-day injustices of life & more about the war crimes & crimes against humanity that occur throughout the world.  In any case, it’s a fabulous piece of rock & roll that you should seriously check out.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q5N80tNDCGg

4. Weathered by Creed: This is one of those songs that speaks to the difficulties & sorrows of life & how sometimes we just feel like we’re barely holding together, barely making it from day to day.  We’ve all had times in life when we feel like that for whatever reason.  What makes this song so special to me is that it addresses those feelings without holding back, without trying to conceal how ugly & despairing we can feel at times, while also giving hope that there is more to life than this darkness.  My favorite lines are these:

Take all this pride/And leave it behind/Because one day it ends/One day we die/Believe what you will/That is your right/But I choose to win/So I choose to fight.”  These lines remind us that life is too short to stay miserable forever & that in order to succeed in life we must never give up the fight.   Sometimes that means laying down our pride, asking for forgiveness (from ourselves as well as from others), & pushing onward. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wu0VRsVCQ48

5. Wrong Side of Heaven by Five Finger Death Punch: If you’re not familiar with Five Finger Death Punch (FFDP) please do yourself yet another favor & look them up on Youtube immediately.  Ivan Moody’s brooding voice combined with the fantastic musicianship of the other band members makes for some seriously epic music.  I don’t think they’ve ever made a song that I didn’t like.  Though it’s difficult to choose, Wrong Side of Heaven is certainly one of their best pieces.  This song describes the eternal battle between good & evil that exists inside all of us.  The lyrics refer to God as a “she” so if that offends you, I’m sorry that you will miss out on such an amazing song.  Wrong Side of Heaven describes how as adults we are faced with the startling realization that right & wrong are often not as easily recognized as we would like them to be & that at some points in life we are all going to be disappointed with the choices we make (“What have I done, who have I become?”).  In spite of this though we cannot take the easy way out & blame the devil or anyone else for our bad choices (“I spoke to the devil today, and he swears he’s not to blame/And I understood, ’cause I feel the same”).  This song resonates so much with me because I feel like the battle between right & wrong is something each of us faces every single day & we are all at times “on the wrong side of heaven & the righteous side of hell.”  Perhaps another reason this song speaks to me so much is that I often feel like I am caught in the middle with my friends because I am more conservative than my liberal friends & more liberal than my conservative friends. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsCp3l815G8

6. All I’m Dreaming Of by Black Stone Cherry: Black Stone Cherry is an awesome rock band with a lot of Southern rock influences that are sadly not as well known as they should be.  Their entire album from which this song comes is fabulous.  All I’m Dreaming Of is a gorgeous song that speaks to the need for more love in the world.  I think the best way to show the power of this song is simply to share some of the lyrics, so here are some of my favorite lines from the piece: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I60g8Vfr0xs

Something about our world today
That makes me wanna cry
There’s too much anger and too much pain
Too much money and too many lies
If I could have one wish tonight
I would beg of us to forget our pride
If we could do just one thing right,
We could help each other to love our lives

All I’m dreamin of is good times, good friends, and somebody to love
All I’m dreamin of is no fears, no tears, and blue skies up above

7. It’s My Life by Bon Jovi: To me this song encapsulates so much of the traditional spirit of rock & roll.  This song celebrates the idea that life is short so we better make the most of it while we can.  Sometimes that means doing things our way & disregarding the opinions of others, even those who mean well but don’t agree with us for whatever reason.  I certainly don’t think that we should seek to have fun at the expense of others or disregard our work/school/family obligations in search of fun, but I do think we should seek to enjoy our lives as much as possible.  For after all if we don’t enjoy life, why are we here?  To me this song embodies the idea that instead of asking why we should do something we ought to be asking “why not?” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SKFwtgUJHs

I could write about so many more songs but then this post would be long & probably boring.  To me rock & roll encompasses the whole spectrum of human emotion & that’s what makes it so powerful.  Please check out some of these pieces if you’re not familiar with them; I promise they won’t disappoint.  As someone who once thought rock & roll was of the devil & generally grating to the ears, I can now say I’ve learned there is so much more to it than initially meets the eye (or should I say the ear?) & it’s well-worth your time to invest in some good rock music.  You never know, it might even become your new favorite genre, as it has for me!