The 30: Lucky or Good?

Canadien Clubbed

Whither Blog Rock?

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Cold War Kids. Tapes 'n Tapes. Black Kids. Nearly 10 years ago, a new crop of bands appeared and a new genre was born before quickly dying. Did it mean anything at all?

Next week, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah will release its fourth album, Only Run. Out of all the possible reactions to this sentence, I imagine these two are most common:

1. “Why is he writing about a band with a dumb name that I’ve never heard of?”

2. “Why is he writing about a band with a dumb name that I only vaguely remember from the mid-’00s?”

If you fall into the latter group, then you are probably also vaguely familiar with the term “blog rock.” If you fall into the former group, you might need to be enlightened on what exactly blog rock means. Actually, people in the latter group might not totally understand what blog rock is, either. Both “blog” and “rock” happen to be words that are used only sparingly in mainstream discourse these days. So let’s take a moment to figure this out, because ’90s nostalgia is almost exhausted, which means ’00s nostalgia is on deck, which also means that blog rock is going to be discussed as “seminal” music in endless retrospectives roughly 27 months from now. Distant acquaintances on Facebook are going to ask, “Which blog-rock band are you?” You’ll want to be ready.

Blog rock was a semi-useful, semi-pejorative descriptor once applied to young, mostly urban, predominantly white, ostensibly underground rock bands that were closely associated with Internet culture. The Guardian offered a decent summation in 2011: “The term … referred to music that had gained popularity through MP3 blogs — specifically those giving coverage to the more leftfield, less image-obsessed artists ignored by the mainstream press.” But as the author of that story admits in the very next sentence, blog rock as a genre tag was rendered “virtually meaningless” by the end of the decade. I could offer up my own list of distinguishing blog-rock characteristics: terrible band names; a sound reminiscent of punk and post-punk that originated between 1978 and 1987; terrrrible band names; a “danceable” sound; being “uplifting”; coming across as a little precious, a little infantile, a little nerdy, a little skinny, a little choir-y; Jesus Christ what terrible goddamn band names. But even this seems too vague to work as a suitable definition.

I decided to take my question to social media, because social media is the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems. I asked, “If I say mid-’00s blog rock, what bands come immediately to mind?” Within a few hours, I had more than 50 responses. Clearly, blog rock still meant something to at least a few somebodies out there, even if those somebodies couldn’t quite agree on what that something is.

A common answer was Animal Collective, the “definitive” blog rock band, according to The Guardian, which also listed Fleet Foxes, TV on the Radio, and Grizzly Bear as examples. Arcade Fire could also be called a blog rock band; it both conforms to the conventions associated with the term (at least it did initially) and owes its early success to the tireless cheerleading of bloggers. I understand how you could classify these groups — as well as the Decemberists, the Shins, LCD Soundsystem, Band of Horses, and Broken Social Scene — as blog rock, but I personally don’t feel like they should fall under this umbrella. Including these groups dilutes blog rock as a stand-alone term with sovereign territory separate from indie rock or (if you’re less inclined to give this music the time of day) “the bland bullshit that once played in the background of car and computer commercials before EDM came along.”

These bands ultimately transcended blog rock, forging lasting careers and reaching listeners outside of the indie bubble. Describing them strictly as blog-rock acts would be like calling Jennifer Lawrence “that gal from The Bill Engvall Show.”

For a group to truly qualify as blog rock, it must radiate ’00s-ness. A blog-rock band is specific to its time and place, and only its time and place. Like, when somebody in the year 2025 makes a barely watchable sitcom that’s set in the year 2005, what music will the writers pick for the older-brother character to be into to establish his bona fides as a broadly sketched, totally aughties hipster stereotype? That’s blog rock.

Click here for Steven Hyden’s Best of Blog Rock Spotify playlist.

Some bands will inevitably work as easy punch lines when people want to laugh about the era’s dated signifiers. The Boy Least Likely To is blog rock’s Men Without Hats, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin its Crash Test Dummies.1 But if we’re going to narrow it down, there are five bands — a penta-blog, if you will — that I believe form the boundaries of a workable meaning for blog rock.

Voxtrot

Several people mentioned this Austin outfit as a defining blog-rock act, and I nodded along vigorously as I recognized the name and yet could not recall ever listening to a Voxtrot song. Now that I have heard several Voxtrot songs, I can confirm that this band is pretty OK and very blog-rocky. Imagine if the Smiths sounded exactly like a Smiths-like band from 20 years earlier, but never made a record as great as The Queen Is Dead that would influence Smiths-like bands 20 years in the future, and you have Voxtrot.

Photo of Audio, Brighton

Tapes ‘n Tapes

Tapes ‘n Tapes 

This is a band I had definitely heard of, then heard, and then maybe sort of liked for a while. I know I bought the band’s highly touted first record, The Loon, after reading a review that likened it to Pavement and the Feelies. (Those references were Pavlovian triggers for me to spend money in 2006.) I remember quite liking The Loon’s opening track, “Just Drums.”2 The rhythm guitar part was excellent, the bass was rubbery, and the drum solo in the middle was triumphantly competent. I liked “Just Drums” so much that I don’t think I ever played the rest of the record. No, sir, I was fine with just “Just Drums,” thanks. How is the rest of The Loon? Is it the next Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain? Is it a bison farting into a four-track for 11 consecutive four-minute intervals? I have no idea.

Cold War Kids

I was tempted to mount an argument that posited blog rock as the 2000s counterpart to ’90s bubble-grunge. Not to double up on nonsensical made-up genres, but bubble-grunge refers to the corporate alterna-bands that followed in the wake of Nirvana and were expert at crafting (often highly enjoyable) radio bait. The defining bubble-grunge single is The Flys’ “Got You Where I Want You”; the defining bubble-grunge album is Sponge’s Rotting Piñata.3 But bubble-grunge was commercially successful, and part of what makes blog rock blog rock is that most of the bands came and went with little fanfare after a quick flash of hype. This is actually not technically true of Cold War Kids, which released an album, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts, just last year. But if blog rock had mattered to more people, the band’s 2006 debut, Robbers & Cowards, could’ve been as big as Sixteen Stone.

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno - Black Kids

Black Kids

Black Kids

If people remember this Florida group at all, it’s likely for Pitchfork apologizing in its review of Black Kids’ full-length debut, 2008’s Partie Traumatic, for initially raving about the band’s early demo. This is unfortunate.4 I just listened to Black Kids’ best-known song, “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You,” and it doesn’t sound all that removed from the chirpy radio gruel currently being served up on the pop charts by groups like Bastille and American Authors. If that’s too subtle a point, let me underline it: I am daring Black Kids to reunite and “Pompeii” it up. Do it, Black Kids! The world has finally caught up to you!

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

This was the band that was mentioned most often when I asked about blog rock on Twitter. When I asked myself to name blog-rock bands, the first band I thought about was Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. So, congratulations, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: According to my unscientific data, you have been deemed the blog-rockiest. Please accept your commemorative statue of Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch for peak mid-’00s archetypal status.

For those who are unfamiliar, here is CYHSY performing on Letterman in 2006:

This is an actual band, and not a comedic sketch written by a person who hated indie rock and wanted to exaggerate the genre’s most familiar mannerisms. Yes, the singer is annoyingly whiny. Sure, the band looks undercommitted to the demands of live performance. (Except for the keyboardist, because the keyboardist is always peppy in blog-rock bands.) But the song, “Is This Love?,” is better than it has been presented here. Actually, I found that the entirety of CYHSY’s 2005 debut aged pretty well when I revisited it last week. It’s not spectacular. It’s not a paradigm-shifter. But as MOR indie that’s reliably melodic and upbeat, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is a fine representative of the genre for its time.

The problem is that when CYHSY were media darlings, this record was sold as a spectacular paradigm-shifter. Overexcited writers promised “a nearly perfect album” that “reveal[ed] the true power of music as a means of artistic expression.” With that much hot air, a burst bubble was inevitable.

For a while, the only sense that people had of CYHSY’s music derived primarily from what they read on the Internet. Since the record was initially self-released, hearing it outside of a few songs posted online could be a challenge. (This was back when YouTube was used primarily to watch low-resolution facsimiles of Lonely Island videos.) For instance, I remember being really excited when I came across the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah album while perusing a CD jukebox at a bar in Madison, Wisconsin. And if you can come up with a blog-rockier sentence than that, I will send you the entire Annuals discography.

After that … Clap Your Hands Say Yeah fell off abruptly. I reviewed the band’s second record, 2007’s Some Loud Thunder, for a music magazine that no longer exists. The publicist emailed me the shittiest stream that I’ve ever been required to play a dozen times. It seemed like there were loud glitches every 30 seconds, and it got so bad that I wasn’t sure if I should ask for a new stream or if CYHSY had intentionally made its own Metal Machine Music. They didn’t. Thunder was more like CYHSY’s Mistrial, a merely OK and ultimately forgettable offering.5 And that’s the last time (until now) that I thought at all about Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

In 2009, NPR’s All Songs Considered ranked the first Clap Your Hands Say Yeah LP among the 50 most important recordings of the 2000s. This seems outrageous — especially since the blurb qualifies it merely as a “damn good record,” which seems to fall short of the usual criteria for “importance” — but it’s actually an accurate designation. “Most important” is not the same as “best” — importance implies a larger cultural significance, while “best” is rooted in subjective taste. One is quantifiable, the other isn’t. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah might seem like a curio now, but its datedness is historically valuable for understanding a blogging culture vital to the period that has all but disappeared.

For a while, MP3 blogs seemed like a revolution in how bands were exposed to new audiences. The implication was that because blogs were freed from the usual constraints of conventional music publications — the need to reach the widest number of people while also placating record labels, publicists, and advertisers — the artists those blogs promoted were similarly unfettered by the corruptive influence of the record industry. In reality, MP3 blogs were just another extension of that industry, frequently promoting bands as “real” that in retrospect would be more aptly described as “corny.” 

A variety of factors — the ubiquity of streaming services, the potential legal pitfalls of posting downloadable music, the ease and accessibility of sharing music on social media, the encroachment of popular sites like iTunes, NPR, and Pitchfork offering early previews for anticipated records — contributed to the marginalization of MP3 blogs by the end of the ’00s. In 2004, it was commonly believed that amateur music writers running their own blogs would put professional music writers working for magazines out of business. In a way, that’s exactly what happened, but bloggers themselves were made irrelevant once music writing was devalued, which paved the way for our algorithmic overlords to step in and guide listeners on new journeys of musical discovery.

It should be noted that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah endured, if not quite transcended, the rise and fall of blog rock. After the departure of two founding members in 2012, CYHSY entered the studio to make Only Run as a duo composed of lead singer and songwriter Alec Ounsworth and drummer Sean Greenhalgh. Despite the hardships, CYHSY has matured into an eminently solid indie-pop act — again, not spectacular, but solid. The National’s Matt Berninger appears on one of Run’s better songs, “Coming Down,” acknowledging his band’s connection to CYHSY as a less-heralded tour mate back when CYHSY briefly seemed like the safer bet to be the one playing arenas 10 years later. As it turned out, the National became the National, while Clap Your Hands Say Yeah still sounds like a decent opening act from 2005. 

Filed Under: Music, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Black Kids, Voxtrot, Tapes N Tapes, Blog Rock, Cold War Kids

photo

Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland. He is currently writing a book on pop-music rivalries.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden

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