Band Aid

Ronald Reagan was president, Michael Jackson and Phil Collins ruled the charts and a bunch of little rock bands were changing lives

"The country has become much more homogenized, culturally, because of things like national radio playlists, Clear Channel, MTV and, yes, the Internet, so everyone is keying in on the same cultural trends really quickly," Azerrad observes. "Also, the media are even more expert in picking up emerging trends, so when something breaks or even becomes born in the underground, there's someone who's paid to detect it and incorporate it into the next Volvo ad. On the other hand, the culture's also becoming very balkanized as well, becoming finally gradated into demographics and subgenres, so you have people who are only into 'intelligent' techno or certain subspecies of death metal."

Regionalism, a dominant theme of Our Band Could Be Your Life, still exists, but it's no longer rooted in geography: "Like-minded people band together virtually instead of physically these days," Azerrad remarks. "The conservative in me wants to say it's a bad thing, and the progressive in me wants to say it's apples and oranges, just the same thing in a different way. There's something incredibly exciting about exchanging e-mails about your favorite band with someone in Düsseldorf, yet there's also something really great about rubbing shoulders with your mailman at the punk-rock gig down the street."

Although Azerrad's not convinced that rock is dead, he does agree that it has lost a lot of its cultural cachet. "Music was simply more important to people back then," he says. "The importance of it in general has been diluted because it's become so commercialized. At the same time, there's also a great deal of irony in these bands, and it's not something you want to hang your heart on. That's why they say rock & roll is dead. I don't know if it was ever dangerous -- hydrochloric acid is dangerous -- but it's not like it's stirring up the sociopolitical waters anymore. It's just a product. And there's only so much connection you can have to a product. The old ideas of selling out go entirely out the window if someone as cool as Iggy Pop figures, 'I want to buy this really cool vintage Cadillac, so I'll sell my great song to a cruise company.' All you have to hear is a good, bouncy beat and the words 'lust for life' -- I guarantee you, 99.9999 percent of the American public has no idea what that song is about."

It's always been that way, of course, and indie-rock audiences proved themselves no more discerning than their mainstream counterparts in many instances; Black Flag and Minor Threat found punk-rock orthodoxy every bit as stifling as the status quo. The reason Azerrad's chronicle is so engrossing is that instead of forcing its subjects into easy formulae (e.g., underground = good, mainstream = bad), it lovingly catalogs all the ways these disparate artists chose to wave their freak flags high.

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