(A Conveniently Bullet-pointed Argument Against Musical Malaise in 2012)
I. First, some things about the wildly successful late-90s alternative rock band Creed that we all like to mock:
1. The members’ stubborn – and now, in 2012, archaic – affinity for leather pants.
2. Scott Stapp in general.
3. The uncomplicated structure and sort of dentist’s office-y sonic aesthetic of many of their songs. Since the band formed in 1995, rock critics have basically created a buzzing little micro-economy out of panning their every effort. Rhetorical highlights are wide-ranging (and sometimes very funny and eloquent) and include the following:
a)“God-fearing grunge babies“ (Wind-Up, 1999)
b) Purveyors of “head-over-heels spiritless sanctimony” and “testosterone rock.” (Slant, 2001)
c) “A cancer on the most beautiful thing God ever gave us in the 20th century: rock ‘n’ roll.” (Philadelphia Weekly, 2002).
d)“Proselytizers” who deliver “blandly messianic lyrics” (Spin, 2009).
II. Some things about the ludicrously successful late-90s alternative rock band Creed that we don’t like to admit to ourselves:
1. Creed beat out Metallica, Jay-Z and Johnny Cash for total album sales between the years 2000 and 2010. They did this despite having been broken up for half of the decade, and despite only having released albums in 2001 and 2009. They are the ninth best-selling band of this time period, and the third best-selling rock band (behind The Beatles and, shockingly, obscenely, Linkin Park).
2. Their 1999 album, Human Clay, sold so many copies that it went Platinum 10 times, then on to something called “Diamond,” which apparently happens when an artist’s album’s sales exceed 10 million. I’m willing to bet my own (digital) copy of Human Clay that most people don’t know that an album can “go Diamond” (I sure as shit didn’t; in fact, I maintain that “going Diamond” sounds more like an erection euphemism than any sort of official certification).
3. Also, despite being broken up between 2004 and 2009, Creed managed to appear on Billboard’s top 200 list for two of the five years they weren’t even technically a band. These years were 2005 and 2006.
4. When Creed released “Full Circle,” in 2009, the album shot straight to no. 2 on the Billboard charts. The only album that did better was Michael Jackson’s “This Is It,” which, given Jackson’s death just a few months beforehand, became an instant cultural artifact pretty much on par with a homerun ball that Babe Ruth got Aristotle, Napoleon and President Obama to sign, then dinged out of Yankee Stadium on a leap year while a solar eclipse was happening.
5. Creed has all the makings of a legendary, badass rock band, right down to the insane antics and subsequent lawsuits. To wit:
a) On April 21, 2003, four fans filed a $15 million class action lawsuit against them for “fail[ing] to substantially perform” at a concert in Chicago. According to court documents, Creed’s lead singer, Scott Stapp, “was so intoxicated and/or medicated that he was unable to sing the lyrics of a single Creed song. Instead, during the Creed Concert, Stapp left the stage on several occasions during songs for long periods of time, rolled around on the floor of the stage in apparent pain or distress, and appeared to pass out while on stage during the performance.”
The venue’s proprietors, Ticketmaster and Creed’s other members were so fearful of an audience insurrection that they called in Rosemont, Ill. riot police to provide security. Stapp, later on, called his performance “a symbolic, personal gesture.”
b) In 2005, Stapp was sued for allegedly leaking a sex tape in which he, Kid Rock and four groupies performed “various sexual acts in the privacy of a chartered tour bus.” Though Stapp claimed the video he was making would never be released, the adult film company World Wide Red Light District quickly created two web sites – kidrocksextape.com and scottstappsextape.com – in an attempt to market the video. According to the court documents for this one, retail prices were $70 and $80 for the two videos, respectively. Presumably, this price difference was due to Kid Rock sex tape market saturation concerns, but who knows.
III. Some things we don’t like to admit to ourselves about ourselves, in relation to the insanely, monstrously successful late-90s alternative rock band Creed:
1. In either a gesture of ironic mock-machismo or in earnest, we have all at one time or another jutted out our chins and pumped our fists and sung along to part of (if not all of) “With Arms Wide Open” when it came on the radio. It’s just a fact. It’s also a fact that sometimes the line between these two interpretations gets a little blurrier than any of us want to talk about.
2. A more select few of us have even shed our t-shirts, locked the door to our bedrooms, and spent an evening or 30 listening to Creed (or some form of distortion-heavy 90s rock indistinguishable from Creed) while hoisting 8-lb. barbells and debating whether or not to shave that charcoal dusting of a mustache that’s just begun to sprout on each corner of our 13-year-old upper lips.
3. We, as a generation of jaded twentysomething 90s music fans, yearn for the sort of earnest, simple and anthemic music that was so prevalent 15 or 20 years ago – a genre for which Creed is, for better or worse, among the most successful representatives.
a) This hunger for nostalgia manifests in many different ways today, but some of the most visible examples include a $54 Nirvana “vintage” sweatshirt currently available at Urban Outfitters; Pavement’s recent reunion (and its subsequent headlining slot at the 2010 Pitchfork Festival, and the rabidly favorable critical reception of its tellingly-titled “Quarantine the Past” best-of compilation, also released in 2010); and the Gin Blossoms’ recent announcement that they will be playing a major city near you with Everclear and Sugar Ray this summer. Oh, and let’s not forget about Weezer’s 2011 “Memories” tour, in which the band played through “Pinkerton” and “The Blue Album” in several back-to-back shows; or Garbage’s recent release of its first album in seven years. And did you know The Cranberries are on tour right now with a band called (not kidding) Vintage Trouble? The list is endless.
Who’s this revival for? One imagines an even demographic split at concerts: 50 percent people around 40 who are relieved that they can finally drag their adolescents to a cool rock show, 50 percent jaded twentysomethings spelunking through their own caverns of ironic defensiveness, trying desperately to excavate whatever fragments of heartfelt enjoyment they can remember once having.
I say this last part with as little malice as possible – especially since I consider myself part of that massive, scoffing crowd of twentysomethings. We are famished for something to pry us away from our iPhones and barista jobs – something to inspire us. We need to believe we are not a lost generation, and we need that reassurance set to power chords in drop D.
It is, of course, naïve to think that the ultimate remedy for mid-twenties disillusionment is to swaddle oneself in a blanket of nostalgia. But if you’re a little bit desperate and game to try this route anyway, the absolute best place to start is at a Creed concert. The band has been touring since April, alternating between full performances of Human Clay and its 1997 debut, My Own Prison. Last month, at The Warfield Theatre in San Francisco (estimated capacity: 2,500; estimated Creed fans in attendance: 850), it was a Human Clay kind of evening.
IV. Some things you notice right off the bat at a Creed concert, in San Francisco, in 2012:
1. Everyone seems incredibly kind, patient and slightly swollen by the comforts of an upper-middle class California lifestyle. Facial hair has the sort of fastidious, buzz-cut angularity of a well-maintained lawn. A faint aroma of hairspray trails almost every woman who passes by. Wristwatches look large and expensive, and jeans are overwhelmingly boot-cut.
2. A quick verbal survey reveals that very few Creed fans here tonight are actually from San Francisco proper.
3. The first two people I’ve ever seen wearing Creed t-shirts stand next to the merchandise table, where a man is selling those very same Creed t-shirts. He himself wears a 311 t-shirt.
4. Finally, those who came to see Creed are psyched about it. David Martinez, a 46 year-old construction worker, tells me he has waited 10 years to see the band perform live.
“Once you hear ‘em and see ‘em, you gotta go out and buy their stuff,” he says. “Who hasn’t heard about them? They’re worldwide!”
Martinez isn’t at all bothered by the show’s dismal attendance; he simply chalks it up to poor advertising. “To me, [hearing about the show] was pure happenchance,” he says. “I’m pretty sure if they had advertised the place would have been sold out.”
Nearby, Marisol Richardson and her 14-year-old son, Ryan Richardson (a.k.a. “Rockin’ Ryan,” a.k.a. “The Laminator”), wait eagerly for Stapp et al to take the stage. Ryan’s favorite hobby, he explains, is creating laminated concert passes and figuring out various ways to get bands to sign them. In his decade and a half on this planet, he has amassed approximately 300 of these autographed passes (highlights include Motley Crue, Shinedown and Five Finger Death Punch) and around 90 autographed drumheads. I learn that it’s not uncommon for him and his mother to drive for thirteen hours straight in order to attend a rock show.
“I thought the opening band was really good,” Ryan says, breathless with excitement. “It was like a win/win with Creed playing.”
V. Some things you notice about a Creed concert in San Francisco, in 2012, once Creed starts playing:
1. The band is indisputably adept at rocking. Stapp’s voice booms like a foghorn, and his enunciations (“help”=“hay-ulp”; “left”=“lay-uft”) recall a very specific, very 90s-sounding rock dialect – one popularized by the likes of Eddie Vedder, Collective Soul’s Ed Roland, and even Kurt Cobain (for proof of the latter, watch Nirvana’s performance of “Plateau,” from their 1994 “Unplugged in New York” performance. Cobain’s voice is a bit higher, but the accent is unmistakable). At each song’s climax, Stapp regards the audience with an expression that’s equal parts deranged and grateful; it’s clear he’s giving us every ounce of energy he can summon. Throughout the course of the show, he sweats through three t-shirts.
Meanwhile, Mark Tremonti, Creed’s lead guitarist, performs his duties effortlessly. His instrument roars one moment, then chugs along like a steam engine the next, then squeals like an abused horse. It’s as if Tremonti spent every day of his Creed-free years locked in a bedroom somewhere, practicing scales and mentally preparing for this very moment. His playing brings to mind that of Slash from Guns ‘n Roses, if Slash hit the gym more and had never in his life touched a bottle of Jack Daniels. Tremonti does not appear to sweat at all, and he does not change his shirt even once.
2. Songs like “Higher” and “My Own Prison” ooze emotional power. Stapp runs from one side of the stage to the other, squatting and posturing and whipping his shoulder-length hair in various directions. Tremonti nods his head menacingly, the same way a mean older brother nods when he’s got you pinned down and is dangling something foul above your eye.
Many in the audience seem to know every single lyric to every single song, and at one point security personnel forcibly remove a man who’s rushed down the aisle and started to do a sort of fast-motion dancing/bowing routine. At this moment, it is hard not to think of the people who crumble onto the floor and speak in tongues at Evangelical Christian services. Such is the power of Creed.
3. Scott Stapp loves his wife and is not afraid to say so – even as a small cluster of shrieking groupies forms near his feet. Before the song “Beautiful,” he takes a moment to acknowledge her by pointing at a spot in the crowd directly in front of where I’m sitting. It takes me a couple minutes to realize I am just five feet behind none other than Mrs. Jaclyn Stapp. As one might expect, she is breathtakingly beautiful, and fit, and cradles a toddler on her knee. This toddler, who wears enormous sound isolation headphones, remains dead asleep throughout the most of the show.
VI. Finally, some things you notice about yourself during a Creed concert in San Francisco, in 2012:
1. It is difficult, as a nostalgia-hungry millennial, to dispute Creed’s power to transport you. When the band launches into “My Own Prison,” I am immediately 10 years old again, in the car outside the gas station near my parents’ house in Rhode Island, waiting for my father to pay the cashier and fill up the tank. I can smell the Trident spearmint gum and the stale coffee caked around the cup holder’s rim. It’s January, and the heater has created two wet, clear circles on the bottom of the windshield. My father will drop me off at school on his way to work, as he does every morning. We’ll listen to the radio together, in silence.
2. It is also difficult to not feel uncomfortable – even ashamed. Part of this is the setting: Imagine 850 well-fed, Creed-loving Californians all sitting in black folding chairs. Some cradle beers; some, like Jaclyn Stapp, cradle children. Very few stand up, even as Creed hurtles through the heaviest songs in its repertoire. The atmosphere is, in a word, respectful. Almost museum-like.
A larger part, though, is seeing the genuine and unabashed joy that illuminates so many faces whenever the stage lights pulse and Tremonti shreds like an Enron clerk and Stapp throws his head back and howls, and, for a moment – just a moment – there exists in the world only this one note of this one song, and it vibrates your gut and rocks you guilelessly and shamelessly. When the stage lights flash again, I try to count how many people are in tears or seem to be close. Without even standing up, I can see seven.
It’s at these moments that you brush up against the charged boundaries of your own nostalgia. You see the gears and screws inside this ridiculous, ad hoc time machine you tried to piece together to salvage some forgotten feeling, some reservoir of earnest happiness. You think about how ridiculous you must look here with this notebook and this cell phone and this hulking camera. You realize that maybe someone somewhere in this auditorium is pitying you.
Then, if you’re lucky, you let it wash away and allow Creed to lead you back, just for an instant, to salvation.