Saturday, January 06, 2007

Stone Temple Pilots: Keepers of the Alt

Today Daffy Duck was watching his roommate play a simulation video game called "Guitar Hero II," which, as you can guess, is a lot like Dance Dance Revolution. Here, you play along with some songs the video game designers have deemed "rockin'" enough to want to play along to; the notes, color-coded, appear on a scrolling fretboard on the TV screen and you must press the corresponding buttons on a small plastic guitar as you "strum" along on a toggle switch. It's kind of awesome, despite the overall lameness or "WTF?"-itude of some of the song choices. Did you ever have a hankering to air-jam along to "Jessica" by the Allman Brothers? Neither did I.

One of the songs, "Trippin' on a Hole in a Paper Heart," by Stone Temple Pilots, is a standout headscratcher. My roommate and I didn't even recognize the title at first. "What the hell is that about?" I thought. The strangest thing about it though was how quickly we picked up on the tune once we had chosen it, and how comfortably it fit into our memory, like a piece of furniture that you forgot had been there the whole time. If you don't recall the tune, don't worry, it's not important. Just imagine that you have probably heard it, you can't make out any of the lyrics, and that it's catchy if only because it's playing right in front of you. You would tag it as "Hard Rock" even though it doesn't rock all that hard. It's perfect for this video game.

Just then Daffy's roommate reminded him that STP had a long string of hits, which is fishy in light of the fact that STP generally isn't considered a seminal band. They were never anyone's favorite, but their songs are eminently recognizable on the radio. Why, then, were they so popular in their heyday, winning all sorts of music awards and sometimes even breaking projected sales expectations?

Stone Temple Pilots. . . the name is as weird now as it was then. But do you remember that there was a split-second in the 90's when it made absolute sense? It seemed so modern, so right. You could imagine what it might mean, but that wasn't the point, nor could it add any note of consequence. It was nonsense, but it had a certain cadence that made it palatable, even fun to say. It was fun to say nonsense in the 90s. It was, however, a very distinct kind of nonsense that could only have come from that decade.

The question "What does 'Stone Temple Pilots' mean?" is partially answered in this helpful article. We know it doesn't mean anything in the end. But it did mean something in the world of "Alternative" music, that creature from the black lagoon that many of us fell in love with as kids in the 90's. Little did we know that it was of any cultural significance, but it pointed to the desperate need to reinvent the rock wheel and everything involved in its roll, from how it was made, to how it was sold, to how it was heard.

Many people credit a handful of "college rock" bands (extra-special thanks to the Pixies) with surreptitiously slackening the taut fabric of hair metal (the "Hair Net" if you will) at the close of the 80's, allowing the upstart grunge parade to kick a hole through it like a football team through a pep rally banner. Suddenly the airwaves of the 90's became an olla podrida of rock quirks and oddities, sardonic curveballs and angsty anti-anthems, revealing the squalid and strange, but always pop, underbelly of American rock music. It was like an open wound oozing some unidentifiable discharge.

In the 90's bands were free to work out their psychological kinks publicly, from their songwriting and arranging down to their names, often adopting--quite liberally in some cases--all manner of contrived quirks as aesthetic ends in themselves. The more baffling the better. It was the generation's way of providing itself with an antidote to the excesses of the 80's, a way for it to approach its future and confront its skeletons creatively, just as all generations must do. Protracted weirdness was OK as long as you were loud about it. Young people's fascination and alignment with "freaks" and "creeps" (think of all the songs you know called "Creep") became their security blanket. The cryptic, intentionally vague, and sometimes vapid lyrics of the time now seem to reflect a desperate confusion, apt for the first scene of the last act of a millennium, but nonetheless delivered with force and aplomb. It soon, very soon, became the dominant aesthetic of rock music, and that decade's bid for musical freedom.

The watershed was so overwhelming, and the trickle-down so quick, that the music industry scrambled to lump it all into a new genre and christen it with that most unfortunate, but brilliantly marketable moniker, "Alternative." At first it sounded like a concession, but as buyers warmed up to it, it began to seem revelatory. This is the point at which STP made its bid for our ears, and as such, by critical accounts at least, its legacy is mired in speculation about its commercial intentions. Were they simply copping grunge poses for the bandwagon buck? Did they have anything to say to the bored, weird American youths? In some way, it honestly didn't matter, because the style, in its superficiality, was the bearer of meaning, and despite that generation's self-sustained and celebrated confusion it was peripherally aware of how culturally telling its musical forms were. As such, it could celebrate confusion because it was reflected in its music with such surety.

It was through the Alternative window, through its progressive but confused mien, that the name Stone Temple Pilots made total sense. The helpful article tells us that the members simply liked the letters "STP". Most bands arrive at their names this way, and the names are as nonsensical. Manhattan Transfer? What the hell is that? Asia? Huh? You might as well name your band Zack Attack. But, like the best of 'em, band names with little to no personal mythology in their back story are the ones that best reflect their zeitgeist by inadvertently sounding the most dated--they wear their time like a badge. Take, for instance, Scott Weiland's most recent appellative masterstroke VELVET REVOLVER. It has the pomp and the soft material/weapon dynamic of Guns 'N' Roses (it even has some of its members), but is somehow dopey, a dud that seemed fresh at the time. It belongs to this here decade, a little easier to fathom than Stone Temple Pilots, if only because it affects a touching romanticism, but no wiser.

STP had sixteen (!) top ten hits on the the Billboard Rock chart. If you heard them on the radio you could certainly pick them out. Some are better than others, and some are actual gems. The album Purple even deserved most of its accolades. Though they were popular, they were never lauded with the laurels of celebrity (If celebrity ever found them it was through Scott Weiland's drug fiascoes and run-ins with the law), and their exit from the music scene hardly registered on anyone's radar. But because of bands like them, self-avowed Creeps and Weirdos who worked out the kinks in rock music and struggled through one of its more strenuous growth spurts, even if they didn't know they had a hand in the decade's experimental spirit, our present music scene is in a confident, stable, and inventive place. Luckily, one can't take music for granted because one can only consume it by appreciating it. So let's try to appreciate some STP, for even if they did not rock all that hard, they rocked the best way they knew how, and the world is better for it.

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