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Listening to My Life: Michael Azerrad on Punk Rock and Michael McDonald

Illustration by Jacob Thomas

November 30, 2009  |  11:00am
Listening to My Life: Michael Azerrad on Punk Rock and Michael McDonald

I never thought I’d quote former Doobie Brother and MCI pitchman Michael McDonald, but he recently said something interesting to Paste about recording with Grizzly Bear: “The punk movement swung towards being as primitive as possible, but now it’s back to where these guys are good musicians. I never thought that would come back around, but it has.” Of course, punk was about tearing down what people like McDonald had built, and putting up something better. It’s just that punk’s legacy has finally gotten to the point where Mr. Yah Mo Be There himself gets it.

I was 16 in 1977, when my friend Andy came back from a summer in London with a box full of singles by bands who played the “punk rock” I’d only heard about. It was raw, furious—a refreshing slap in the face to the vapid, edgeless corporate rock that hemmed us in on all sides in the U.S. It wasn’t all loud and fast, though; Elvis Costello recalled Van Morrison and had smart lyrics and lots of chords. New York punks like Television and Talking Heads made visionary music that wasn’t fuzzed out or pissed off. Punk didn’t have rules—that was the point. Because I had the immense and infallible wisdom of a teenager, I could see where it was going: The music was inevitably going to get more and more sophisticated. But this time it wasn’t going to sound like Styx or the Doobies. This time, it wasn’t going to suck.

From U.K. post-punk to the great ’90s alt-rock explosion to lo-fi, post-rock and beyond, there was great stuff to be found—even the disappointing post-9/11 retreat into recycled ’80s music produced Interpol’s zeitgeisty first album. Then cheap digital recording technology and the explosion of file sharing released a glut of fascinating music to anyone willing to do a little sleuthing.

So now, more than 30 years since punk erupted, I’m part of an entire generation of people who grew up right along with underground rock. But we don’t always need noisy, angsty music anymore—our lives are frazzled enough, thank you, and anyway, we’ve been there, done that.

Enter a whole new school of indie musicians who make pretty, melodic sounds, sometimes lushly orchestrated or adorned with rich vocal harmonies. The musicianship is accomplished but never flashy. There’s Sufjan Stevens’ incandescent musicality, Joanna Newsom’s encrypted heartbreak, Andrew Bird’s literate whimsy, the crafty passion and guitar heroics of St. Vincent, Department of Eagles’ exquisite neo-Nilsson pop, plus Fleet Foxes, Rogue Wave, Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors and many of the bands on the flagship Dark Was the Night compilation.

In a long, strange trip kind of way, McDonald is right: This music is descended from punk, and not just because it’s uncompromised and made by and for a specific community. This movement owes a huge debt to the infrastructure punk rock built, but just as significantly, the musicians take punk’s DIY spirit and “no rules” attitude and instead of making three-chord Warped Tour rock, produce imaginative, idiosyncratic music that makes you think. It doesn’t need to be fast and fuzzy to signify punk values anymore—today it could be a woman playing harp and singing about the distinction between meteors and meteorites.

Back in the booming Clinton ’90s, we could afford loud, anguished music. Today, times are tough and grunge’s cataclysmic angst would seem redundant. But this new music isn’t just a balm for the soul. The regressive precincts of our society stoke a culture of crass ignorance, and this music is a progressive response: Unabashedly intelligent, well-wrought, beautiful and sincere, it’s a metaphor for a productive way of approaching the world. (And, frankly, it sounds really good on an iPod.)

Now, I hate it when rock critics try to be outrageous and proclaim that “rock is dead.” But recall that Western classical music began as a dance genre and eventually became highfalutin’ art music you couldn’t dance to anymore. The widely held historical take is that’s when the music began to die. Same thing with jazz. Although this decade has seen plenty of danceable indie rock, it feels less like a leading edge than a dying gasp. On the other hand, this new undanceable music feels like the forefront of something, even if it end really does herald rock’s terminal stage. There will surely be another primitivist backlash, but it’s going to sound a lot like orthodox punk rock. And that’s when the inbred musical tail-chasing will really begin.

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