Monday, March 21, 2022

In the Defense of "Butt Rock:" A Manifesto

Having been consumed with a full time career and parenthood in recent years, I may have encountered the cringe-worthy term, "Butt Rock," later than most other Internet denizens.  Honestly, I was flabbergasted when I first heard some 16 year old on Tik-Tok present the slang in a smug and disparaging tone all too common amongst Gen-Z.  After all, this was the very same music I came of age to.  How dare they?

I immediately pondered:  What is Butt Rock, and why is it so bad?  

On the  issue of definition, the term apparently refers to guitar-driven rock which was released in the late-90s and much of the aughts.  It isn't just nu-metal.  And it isn't just neo-grunge.  Instead, it is a blanket term used to describe the playlist staples of so many modern rock radio stations.  You know, the kinds with the bumpers that state:  "we play nothing but rock."  ("But rock..."  Get it now?).

On the issue of desirability, I infer that the phantom genre is seen as "bad" because it is largely music made by privileged white guys, who sing about privileged white guy stuff, and are therefore listened to primarily by privileged white guys.  After all, going after the privileged is trendy stuff these days (even though the definition of "privilege" is often a squishy one).   

But such an armchair assessment is probably too reductionist. On a purely objective musical basis the songs created by "butt rockers" often lack depth, are comprised of the simplelest of simple three-chord structures, and tend to be high octane and loud without any underlying artistic justification. Under that lens, I can appreciate the criticism.

Yet, why do I feel the need to come to the defense of Butt Rock bands?  Why do I still like listening to them so much?  If they are so bad for you, why do they make me feel so good?  

To answer that question requires honest self- reflection. When I first co-founded this blog seventeen years ago, I was very much like the smug 16 year old Tik-Toker mentioned above.  I was significant parts arrogant and hubristic.  My creator had endowed me with the gift of intelligent thought, so I thought, and therefore I must be right, while the other had to be plain dead wrong.  I was dismissive of those who didn't think or approach the world the same as me:

"Oh, you like KISS and Motley Crue, you say?  Well, then, you heathen; you must be one of those toxic masculine types I learned in the virtuous circles I dabble in to avoid at all costs.  Be gone Sinner!"  

Although this is a bit of exaggeration for illustrative purposes, one only need to search the early archives of this site to learn of my former sanctimony.  

Today, however, I have learned to appreciate KISS.  Now, my soul is stimulated when I hear the Crue on the radio or at a brew pub.  The freedom this pleasure-driven rock provides me can often be a breath of fresh air from the soul crushing minutiae I may have been dealing with earlier in the day.  

But I don't necessarily think KISS and Motley Crue are truly Butt Rock in the conventional sense, although the two bands may be "Butt Rock Adjacent."  (An even cringier term, I know).  Instead, the bands which are brought up in conversation often include Staind, Creed, Limp Bizkit, Puddle of Mudd, Hinder, Trapt, and the always scapegoated Nickelback.  

On the one hand, several of these bands are led by problematic frontmen who have taken polarizing political positions recently (Aaron Lewis of Staind, or Chris Taylor Brown of Trapt).  And several more have struggled with the demons of alcohol and substance abuse (Scott Stapp of Creed, or Wes Scantlin of Puddle of Mudd).  

But on the other hand, these bands recorded songs about addiction, depression, rejection, shame, divorce, loneliness, spirituality and the male response to those tragedies at a time when it wasn't all that acceptable.  And just like any other fallible human being, sometimes the genuine male human response to heartache and devastation is ugly.  All the while, that ugliness is nevertheless authentic.  Life is suffering, and the human condition is equal parts beautiful and ugly.  We have to accept the good with the bad if we are to get along with each other.

So why do I get so pressed  when someone chooses to dismiss the bands that I grew up with, and which I came of age to, as merely being Butt Rock?  Well, at some level, the answer is largely contained within the rhetorical question I just posed:  I assuredly have an emotional connection with much of the music because it provided me with more male guidance on a virtual level than the male role models I had in my real life at the time. And I am grateful for that.  

On another level, I have a respect for the pseudo-genre because of its flaws and its ugliness--the very things that make the critics hate on it so bad.  These bands said what they said without worry of backlash or offending somebody.  And perhaps, in these modern times where it often feels we must self-censor ourselves for fear of the offended party organizing a career-ending backlash, it is refreshing to spin some tunes that are genuine and recorded without apology. 

In recent years I have often lamented to myself the oft-quoted cliche that "rock is dead."  Much of the modern musicscape is dominated by electronic instruments.  Even in bands where a guitar exists, its role is often meant to supplement--as opposed to lead--the musical composition.  To me, the last era in which guitar heavy rock dominated the airwaves was the Butt Rock era.  Possibly, then, my passionate defense is rooted in nostalgia more than anything else.  Perhaps I simply long for a time when a regular Joe Schmoe of a guy could relax after a long day's work with some angsty guitar-driven licks without being condemned by some finger wagging 16 year old on Tik-Tok.

However, if I am being honest, I am triggered by more than just nostalgia.  I am triggered by more than just a teenage hooligan on social media spouting a poor hot take.  Candidly, what grinds my gears is the sanctimonious judgment applied to nearly everything on the internet and in public life in general.  Butt Rock may be the convenient target now, but what happens when the self righteous come after your music genre of choice?  All because the people who created the music which makes you happy weren't perfect?  Or because the song structure that you love so much wasn't sophisticated enough for the chosen few?  

I may be screaming into the void with this manifesto, but the never ending inquisition against culture and art that makes one feel uncomfortable has to stop.  Enough with the derogatory slogans.  Enough with the keyboard warriors who have a superiority complex.  So what, a band member once self-medicated her pain with drugs and alcohol?  So what, a singer happens to espouse a worldview different from you? 

Whatever became of redemption?   Whatever became of the once heralded liberal ideology of free speech (meaning speech you sometimes don't agree with)?    Is it fair to chastise an entire group of bands and their listeners because they don't neatly fit into the fashionable virtues of the current moment?

Butt Rock, as much as I despise the term, occupies an important place in music , and it continues to provide solace and enjoyment to millions of listeners, including myself.  If you hate Butt Rock, I get it, I used to be like you.  But then I grew up and learned that sometimes the most comforting art is that which is flawed, and which is in turn created by flawed artists.  It is a reminder that when we are weak and experience an ugly moment as humans are apt to do, we are not alone.  

So, stop trying so hard to be perfect and flawless.  Instead, assuredly embrace the facile hook of Nickelback when Chad Kroger exclaims, "It's not like you to say sorry, I was waitin' on a different story," and maybe, just maybe, you might like it a little bit if you give it a chance.  

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