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Dave Grohl’s Sound City and the Moment Our Heroes Became Our Dads

By Conrad Amenta | 12 December 2012

David Eric Grohl has enjoyed a sustained belief in his inherent likeability ever since he appeared, shy-looking, in the background of Nirvana interviews. It’s difficult for any of us children-of-the-nineties to see him as anything but that goofy, affable punk from Virginia turned unassuming rock star—as, frankly, near-egoless, as anyone considered one of the best rock drummers of all time could possibly be. For that reason, he’s the ideal candidate to speak lovingly about rock music. All of this remains true despite the degradation of the Foo Fighters’ aesthetic into stadium puffery (what indie band Gang Gang Dance has called “rape rock”) and his increased tendency towards pontification on the topic of music’s lost authenticity.

Submitted as evidence of Grohl’s emerging fuddy-duddiness, the trailer for the documentary Sound City, for which he acts as director and occasional interviewee:

For the video-impaired: Sound City is about the decline of the titular Los Angeles recording studio in this world of digitized doodads, and, more importantly, what its decline says about the impact of said dongles on song-writing. Grohl uses his considerable leverage as a music legend to collect musicians from across the rock spectrum to, I guess, complain about how music sucks now. These include Tom Petty, Trent Reznor, the drummer from Rage Against the Machine, and someone who I thought might be Maynard from Tool but upon closer inspection is too pock-marked with years of rough living to be anyone other than the former front man of some hair metal band or another. Let’s say Ratt.

My first, petty reaction: “the human element,” as in “we don’t have that human element anymore,” is a less than encapsulating way to discuss how the production of art has changed, unless this documentary also plans to go back about a hundred years to Duchamp’s Fountain or Bertolt Brecht plays. (Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age makes a valiant effort of his own, saying, “it all went fwooosh!” Which may or may not also be a description of a couch being lit on fire.)

Secondly: there are important questions that arise as a result of this trailer that I can only hope the full film has the fortitude and sense of humor to tackle headlong. These include, but are certainly not limited to: if we are losing some sound to which we pay homage, is it possible that we get some new sound in return? How do we react to that exchange, and why? Are we willing to think of that change as positive in light of what it is that we, as rock musicians, are supposed to be trying to achieve? Would doing anything other than keep an open mind be only so much nostalgia for yesterday’s partying?

I don’t deny that it’s difficult, perhaps even impossible, to use a laptop to duplicate Sound City’s direct-to-tape aesthetic. I’ve recorded with bands, and my ears, like Shakira’s hips, don’t lie; there’s a difference. But I also accept that perhaps there’s something about that quality that must remain of yesteryear, the dirty latter half of the last century, when a genuine countercultural movement was gradually buried under a mountain of cocaine. What the interviewed in this trailer seem to lament as the impact of digital recording on songwriting quality may actually be the face of democratization and populism in art—a populism which is supposed to lie at the spiritual center of the genre and which rock celebrity, like all celebrity, excludes.

All of which is pretty obvious, when you think about it. The previous generation will always highlight its own contributions to art as true and authentic and relevant, and the new generation’s as illegitimate and watered down and lost. Douglas Adams loveably codifies this cycle as follows: “1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal; 2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it; 3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.” (I might add: “When you start quoting Douglas Adams, you’re officially old.”)

One of the reasons why I feel the need to go there at all is that the figures in this documentary—Grohl, Homme, Ulrich, and Reznor—put out records that were an important part of me getting into rock n’ roll as a teenager. So today, with me in my early thirties, these guys represent that temporal line in one’s life when you either retreat into protectionist anachronism, or you take the opportunity to challenge your assumptions about why music has value at all. The Smashing Pumpkins just re-released Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995); I have every opportunity to retreat into nostalgia if I want to, and this documentary affords me an opportunity to do the same. But if I want that comfort I should also think about Tin Pan Alley, or that one time Dylan was called Judas for plugging his guitar in, or that somewhere there’s an Eagles fan saying that the Queens of the Stone Age and Nine Inch Nails suck because they don’t play 11-minute guitar solos. Change happens, and it’s our response to that change that’s often most telling of where we sit in the hierarchy of fame and consumption, i.e. what we stand to lose in the whole arrangement. Perhaps most illustrative is Lars Ulrich’s involvement here; Metallica has never been a great vehicle for change, technological or artistic.

(Aside: if this documentary is really about the encroachment of the digital on that classic studio sound, then what the hell is Trent Reznor doing here? At one point in this trailer a Nine Inch Nails song is actually played while someone sputters with disbelief about how you can “plug anything into a computer and it comes out perfect” and on screen some faceless “musician” [possibly Skrillex] clicks-and-drags color-coded charts around. I was under the impression that Reznor was a pioneer of digital recording. I hope this is indication that the documentary intends to be even-handed and include minority opinions, even proponents of the digital process. Personally, I predict that Reznor says “down on your knees” at least once, fulfilling a contractual obligation to Nothing Records.)

The rock tradition these artists are so dourly protective of is supposed to be based on the kind of direct-democracy, power-to-the-people, anti-elitism, non-skilled artisanship which bedroom recording actually makes possible. Grohl in particular finds himself at an intersection of several untenable contradictions, because in addition to being in a big stadium rock band, he got his start in the D.C. hardcore scene as the drummer for Scream. He, more than most, should know how punk found itself on the outside of rock and prog’s “Sultans of Swing” technicality; how rock and prog found themselves on the outside of the traditional genres of folk and classical; how bootleg tapes and indie labels brought communities of musicians and fans together in the face of a staunchly structured industry. (Meanwhile, the entire jazz canon just shakes its head at this self-congratulating “rebellion.”) Instead of seeing some essential populism at the center of the digital revolution, each of these musicians, who used to, at various times, occupy space in the firmament of my adolescent worship, become an echo of my father, a man who used to play guitar in a rock band called The Godfathers and insists that there hasn’t been a real song since Santana’s “Oye Como Va.”

There’s something about this documentary that seems like it might be depressing, and not because the drummer from Nirvana is getting old. It’s the realization that the rock bands from the last 30-odd years—the grunge and alternative artists who comprise Generation X’s spokespeople—may have had no real appreciation for the political role of countercultural music, or really the capacity of music to catalyze change. They, like every dominant culture in the history of forever, are mostly interested in preserving what they understand best. And so when they look at the stunning diversity of music available today—the literally millions upon millions involved in making it, consuming it, writing about it, spraying the post-modern latticework of art and its interpolations across the internet—they don’t see rock’s populist dream made corporeal, but instead feel threatened.

The rock canon inherited folk’s populist agitation. But grunge inherited rock music: dominated by white men and espousing endlessly hetero-normative hedonism. Those too sensitive for the genre’s brash, misogynistic posing either got out or ended themselves. Those who remained…well, not to put too fine a point on it, but they regressed into romanticism of classic rock, and the notion that there’s something real and yet conveniently indescribable about rock music that can’t be reproduced by anyone but themselves. Like every dying class, when their privileged little niche of celebrity and idol worship is endangered by natural change, these wilting icons lash out, questioning the ability of the next generation to create anything worthwhile. This is an attack on an existential plane; today’s music isn’t just sub-par, it’s fake. Today’s bands “don’t even have to practice anymore,” we learn. The implication is that today’s musician hasn’t even earned the right to exist.

…or at least, this is what I’m afraid Sound City is going to be about. It is only the trailer, and I hope for the best. I hope that my heroes don’t turn out to be piñatas. I hope that Dave Grohl is as self-aware as he is earnest. And above all, I hope this documentary’s makers are cognizant enough of the principles at the center of this messy exercise we call rock n’ roll that no single music studio—or its destruction—can render it disposable.