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Life During Wartime 

Searching for weapons of mass distraction with The Darkness

"This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, This ain't no fooling around/No time for dancing, or lovey dovey, I ain't got time for that now"

-- The Talking Heads, "Life During Wartime"

Neil Postman, the author of Teaching as a Subversive Activity, wrote a book some years back called Amusing Ourselves to Death. The book's focus was on the deleterious effects of television and other such technologies on our psyches. By taking us further and further away from actual "real life" activity, Postman argues, we become something like mirrors, reflecting whatever light (usually sans heat) is being focused our way. Whether by cathode ray or computer screen, we become conduits. We fall into line. We let the electricity flow through us, but become less and less likely to create any of our own.

Postman's book, it should be noted, was originally written 20 years ago.

Fast-forward to today, where a nation rabidly clamors like never before for "reality" fare to keep our minds off -- you guessed it -- reality. When the incendiary hip-hop band Public Enemy famously claimed on their album of the same name that "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back," they might well have been talking about America as a whole.

But so what, right? Constant reminders of war and terrorism aren't really "reality," either, are they? Mr. And Mrs. (or Mr. and Mr., or Mrs. and Mrs.) America Version 2.0 aren't being sniped at as they irrigate their fields in Emporia, Kansas. They're not fondling prisoners in Abu Ghraib, nor are they searching for weapons of mass destruction.

Weapons of mass distraction, on the other hand, are a different story entirely.

This distraction, of course, is everywhere you look, even in the music world. Now, I know what you're thinking, and it probably begins with a negative and ends with an expletive. Really? Britney Spears is a distraction? Thank you, Ted Koppel!

But the search has dug even deeper in the last couple of years or so -- all the way to the fertile earth of the indie rock underground, in fact. Acts like Junior Senior, Andrew W.K. and Electric Six all "rock," in the classic sense of the word, but also bring a theatrical quality to their live shows. Granted, this isn't music you're probably going to pick up in 10 years, or even five, or maybe not even a few weeks after you first bought it. It's escapism, in the purest sense of the word ("The tendency to escape from daily reality or routine by indulging in daydreaming, fantasy, or entertainment," says dictionary.com).

And what better place to escape than to the relative sanctity and security of The Darkness? Rising like a rocket straight out of Lowestoft, UK, Justin Hawkins and co. have been selling out shows both in their native land and across the United States for months now, and with no end in sight.

And why not? A band with a lead singer who got the job after a particularly dead-on karaoke version of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," The Darkness have hit a number of different pressure points on the rock landscape. For the hardcore indie rocker, they're something of a guilty pleasure, a chance to show that ever-elusive sense of humor while still hiding behind a protective blanket of irony. For metal kids weaned on Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, they're a return to the extravagant, dragon-slaying "real" metal they grew up on, as opposed to the sludgy, one-note "NuMetal" being stuffed down their throats at present (Switchfoot, anyone?). The band -- who have a Rumsfeldian habit of wavering madly whenever they're asked if they're "being ironic" -- have actively courted this crowd, too, playing shows with time-worn acts like Alice Cooper, Deep Purple and Def Leppard.

And so, replete with virtuoso guitar solos, Moby Dick-worthy hooks, and loads of catchy, sing-along choruses, the band's Permission to Land was given ground clearance wherever and whenever it desired -- up to and including regular rotation on MTV.

Perhaps too often, people see sex and violence as two polar opposites: black and white, oil and water. However, as any reading of Camille Paglia will attest, the two make for pretty happy bedfellows more often than not.

When faced with a choice between the two animalistic urges, however, most folks will choose -- especially in times of great fear, doubt and anxiety -- the urge to procreate, rather than obliterate.

During the Great Depression, one of the few industries that managed to flourish was the great Hollywood movie-making machine. When times are tough, people get hungry for something to take them away from their troubles, or at least their troubled mind (they also crave real darkness, say researchers -- good old-fashioned sleep).

And what better escape than watching a man in an open-front cat-suit with a big thatch of chest hair do a split while unleashing any number of dog-whistle quality falsetto runs? As Scott Plagenhoef writes in his review of Permission on pitchforkmedia.com, "Big Guitar Rock, after all, used to be silly. It used to be pretty good, too. AC/DC, Queen, Black Sabbath, KISS and Led Zeppelin (have you seen The Song Remains the Same?) were all absurd... Smashing your instruments and lighting your guitar on fire are both pretty stupid-looking, too, when you get right down to it. But that's the whole problem with rock right now: It doesn't do those things anymore."

I'm not so sure about the last part, but he does have a point. The above bands brought the goods, delivered them, and did it all with a leering smile. So what if they were talking about slaying dragons and talking trees and whatever the hell it was they were talking about in "Bohemian Rhapsody"? The music was urgent, and you could lose yourself in it, just like those Depression-era apple-sellers did in the flickering warmth of a movie house so many decades before.

And as long as you're not shirking your responsibilities -- voting, being kind to people, taking out the trash even if you're a metal-loving, cigarette-stealing 15-year-old -- what's the big deal with a little leather-man rock? So what if we'd rather see Paris Hilton these days than Paris, France? It's a crazy world out there, dammit, and we all do what we can to hang on.

At the end of the Darkness song "Friday Night," Justin Hawkins talks about letting "The music smother me/Whole weekend recovery/Dancing on a Friday night... God, the way she moves me/To write bad poetry."

Which is cause for pause, to my way of thinking -- maybe, just maybe, these guys aren't being so ironic after all. For a band that call themselves The Darkness, that's more light than I've seen in a mainstream hard rock song in years.

The Darkness play the Grady Cole Center on Thursday, June 3, at 8pm, along with opening act The Wildhearts. Tickets are $25, available by calling 704-522-6500.

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