by Michael Goldberg
Monday, March 11, 2002
What Makes Great Rock 'N' Roll Great?
A question about Sleater-Kinney opens a Pandora's Box of confusion.
The question came over the wires, contained in an email from a journalist who was writing "a preview article" about Sleater-Kinney. He said he just needed a short quote. Then he laid the question on me, and he might as well have been asking me to explain the meaning of life.
"I'm curious," he said, "why you personally have called them [Sleater-Kinney] the greatest rock 'n' roll band."
Good question, I thought. Now how do I answer that one?
I have, of course, written thousands of words about Sleater-Kinney. I have listened to their amazing albums seemingly zillions of times, seen them perform live on a half-dozen or so occasions, interviewed them, photographed them.... This column is named after one of their songs. In case you don't quite understand, I think Sleater-Kinney are really important! But why?
A few years ago, the critic Greil Marcus told me: "If something feels as if it came out of nowhere, you have to ask, 'Why did it feel that way?'" I used that quote in a column as prelude to this (which I wrote in 1998): "Sleater-Kinney, both on record and live, can make you feel like you've been reborn. Again, I know I've seen and heard bands similar to them, and yet, standing in the audience at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco a few months back, it felt like I was witnessing the birth of rock 'n' roll. It felt like it must have felt at the Cavern Club when The Beatles were starting out, how it must have felt watching Dylan and The Hawks perform to a crowd of naysayers in Manchester in the mid-'60s. How it felt seeing The Ramones in '75 and The Clash on a good night in '77."
In response to that hard question, the other night I emailed back: "Because the music of no other contemporary artist moves me the way their music does. When I listen to their records, I really feel inspired, I feel that art can make a difference."
I continued: "I could talk about Janet [Weiss]'s amazing drumming and the killer guitar sounds and the way they structure their songs to take advantage of Corin [Tucker] and Carrie [Brownstein]'s voices, and I could quote lyrics. But to take what they do apart is to miss what is so amazing about a great rock band at the peak of their powers. Ultimately you can't explain it. It's a force that you either feel, or you don't. And I feel sorry for those who don't feel it.
"The last time I saw them perform live, which was a show at the Fillmore in S.F., I thought (as I dug the set) that it was like a 'greatest hits' show, only Sleater-Kinney were simply playing most of the songs off their most recent album, All Hands on the Bad One, as well as numerous songs drawn from their previous albums. They have no hits. Yet every song sounds like it oughta be a hit.
"It's like asking why Nirvana were genius, or why The Beatles were a great band. Well, you can talk about songwriting, and John and Paul's voices, and George Martin's production but the bottom line was that when you listened to their best songs, you felt (feel) chills. Same with Nirvana. It's the same with Sleater-Kinney. Somehow, they've tapped into the very heart and soul of rock 'n' roll."
The day after I sent that off, I woke up thinking it was a cop-out. I mean, I'm a writer, how can I write a line like "Ultimately you can't explain it"? That's my job. To explain it. To find the words that can make you, the reader, "get it."
'Cause if you can't explain what makes a truly great band great (and I'm using "you" to mean not just me, but all rock critics), then it kind of takes the wind out of rock criticism.
Which brings us to something that no one seems to talk about, which is that there are, really, no criteria by which one can "measure" rock. We don't attend "Rock Criticism 1A" and learn what to listen for before unleashing our words on the world.
We (critics) talk about good songwriting, but what, exactly, is good songwriting? I mean, if you examine Dylan's lyrics closely, you'll find plenty of lines that are less than stellar, and yet I would argue to the death that he's one of the best. Sometimes it's how it's sung as much as what's being sung. We talk about singing, and yet how do you talk about Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten, Elvis, Corin Tucker, Captain Beefheart, Chan Marshall and Iggy in the same sentence? Is there a common thread there, some measure by which all rate an A-plus? Sometimes one fuzzy guitar note is like a vision of God, and at other times it's just one lousy fuzzy guitar note.
There is no objectivity when it comes to art. To me, The Ramones made some of the greatest rock the world has ever heard; to Dave Marsh, they don't cut it. To me, Tim Buckley and his son Jeff were both artists; to Greil Marcus, they're nothing but irritants. Millions have voted for Britney by laying down some cash on the record-store counter. So we know that the popular vote means nothing, when you're talking art (or about the greatest rock 'n' roll band).
Sometimes I wonder if what I hear when I listen to, say, Sleater-Kinney's "One More Hour" is the same thing that you hear. Yet when I'm standing in a sold-out club filled with other Sleater-Kinney fans, who are all smiling and thrilling to the music our favorite band is playing, I know that I'm not alone. There is a community of people who hear at least some things the way I hear 'em. So are they the greatest simply 'cause I say they are (and then I point to a theater full of folks who agree with me as some kind of proof of something)?
And what about the answer to that question? Why do I think Sleater-Kinney are the greatest rock 'n' roll band?
Today I would answer it like this. Great rock 'n' roll makes you feel brand new. Hearing it changes you. It makes you feel like you're different. And you feel that the world is different. And your world is different. Great rock 'n' roll makes you feel something you haven't felt before, makes you think about the world and your life in a new way. Great rock 'n' roll asks the questions that aren't often asked. It challenges you, confronts you. It's not comfortable.