MISFITS: For Art Brut, getting through to “the kids” isn’t just a matter of selling more units.
Three years ago, London’s Art Brut debuted with a punk-rock song called “Formed a Band.” They harangued Britain over beefy overdriven downstrokes, showing designs on Top of the Pops, deflecting your snipes and mine with a caveat: “It’s not irony/It’s not rock and roll/We’re just talking/To the kids.” Like boomer parents in 1977 when God saved the Queen, or Bill Cosby when the teenage Cos blared bebop from his bedroom: if you didn’t get Art Brut, Art Brut said, maybe you weren’t meant to.
That attitude defined the band’s debut Bang Bang Rock and Roll LP in 2005 — so what to make of “St. Pauli,” the third song on their follow-up, It’s a Bit Complicated (Mute)? After insisting that “punk rock is nicht tot” (“not dead” auf Deutsch), frontman Eddie Argos suddenly recants, as if seeing that the show’s not going over well; he turns around to his bandmates and pleads with them, “The kids don’t like it/The kids don’t like it/What else can we do when the kids don’t like it?” The question is familiar to anybody who got tricked into reading one of those ridiculous “Rock is dead!” screeds, but here it leaves a welt, if only because the bandmates refuse to answer. “We’re Just Talking to the Kids” worked for BBRAR, but Art Brut let “The Kids Don’t Like It” cast a pall over Complicated. They use it as a header for a new batch of even more conflicted break-up songs, for songs about being not so young anymore but still poor and exhausted, for songs about rock music and how we used to interact with it.
Before I get into that: turn on JAM’N 94.5, where you’re likely to hear Atlanta’s hip-hop Shop Boyz doing “Party like a Rockstar.” “I’m on a yacht with Marilyn Manson getting a tan, man,” brag the Boyz, a lightly distorted guitar climbing up and down the minor scale alone behind them, something like a more polite version of crunk. In the video, the Boyz lead a crowd through a litany of rock clichés, smashing guitars, moshing, trading devil horns, crowdsurfing, dancing with busty women, making things explode. “Rockstar” is silly, its reference points dated, but it’s not really satire, or farce, even. Rappers have been partying like rock stars for more than a decade now, probably even more than rock stars do, with so few of them left anymore. Just because rock stars don’t party like rock stars doesn’t mean partying like a rock star is any less unimpeachably awesome. But “Rockstar” feels detached, like an ’80s-themed costume party at the Pi Kappa Alpha frathouse, college kids dancing in the awkward manner they learned off VH1, to dated pop music they recognize and maybe even like but don’t necessarily relate to. So rock in “Rockstar” is a mesh of karaoke and playacting and dress-up. The genre’s a sturdy set of signifiers but, post-hip-hop, no longer the default music of the young masses, no longer their trustworthy communicant.