Rock On, Really


Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, and the former drummer of Nirvana, was recently in the news – make that “news” – for his declared opinions on the plethora of you-can-be-a-star TV programs. Though his comments date back to an interview he gave earlier this year, they have recently been picked up by a variety of online outlets, and have won much popular approval. Here’s what Grohl had to say:

“It’s destroying the next generation of musicians! Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old fucking drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck, too. And then they’ll fucking start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they’ll become Nirvana. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some shitty old instruments and they got together and started playing some noisy-ass shit, and they became the biggest band in the world. That can happen again! You don’t need a fucking computer or the Internet or The Voice or American Idol .”

While I share Grohl’s scorn for the auditions-as-entertainment musical format, and while I agree that “real” music should be something played by real players with real instruments to a real audience, I don’t think Nirvana is the best example he could have come up with. In fact, I would argue that Grohl’s offhand endorsement of “noisy-ass shit” is itself another problem which has degraded the medium. Truly skilled singers, songwriters, and instrumentalists may not turn up much on American Idol, but they weren’t much in evidence in Nirvana, either.

Of course, the surprising breakthrough of Nirvana and other grunge acts like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden in the early 1990s was a welcome break from the legions of over-produced hair-metal acts (Trixter, Warrant, Cinderella, White Lion) and super-shredding guitar nerds (Yngwie Malmsteen, Ritchie Kotzen, Paul Gilbert) which preceded them. But grunge also represented a distinct downturn in musical craftsmanship, whereby the do-it-yourself punk or grunge aesthetic came to permeate most of the work which followed. Suddenly the vice-tight ensemble chops of AC/DC or Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin or ZZ Top, were outmoded; certainly Nirvana never came up with any arrangements as funky as Lynryd Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special” or Pink Floyd’s “Money,” let alone as sophisticated as the Beatles’ “Here, There, and Everywhere,” or Jimi Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand.” Even the Rolling Stones or Neil Young, never known as virtuoso players, at least adhered to a standard of group orchestration which grunge bands seemed to have discounted. Plenty of great rock ‘n’ roll artists had a raw originality that compensated for their technical failings, but before punk and grunge, few performers tried to be crappy for the sake of sounding crappy. Dave Grohl’s recommendation that young musicians should “get in their garage and just suck” is hardly a recipe for quality music.

I can say all this because I too am a crappy musician. When Nirvana came on the scene, I was practicing away in my apartment on my electric guitar, trying to sound like Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ace Frehley, Randy Rhoads, or maybe even Hendrix and the Beatles if I’d got warmed up. I never came close, of course, yet what struck me about grunge bands was that the members sounded about as amateurish as me but were getting rich and famous. Hey, I thought, these guys are no better than I am – what’s with the platinum records? Nirvana and the groups they influenced – the influence continues to this day – made guitar heroes, and vocal, bass, and drum heroes, obsolete, and in doing so they made genuine musical talent only an optional requirement for success. Contrary to Dave Grohl, that’s what’s destroying the next generation of musicians. You don’t need to hone your abilities with a rudimentary understanding of musical theory, or a long apprenticeship playing in clubs, or a deep personal attachment to the work of earlier artists, to become a pop sensation these days. It happens all the time on American Idol; it even happened to Nirvana.

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