I have to say right here at the top of this piece that I am a black man. Otherwise, I'd be left delving into some racial subject matter in this essay, which would leave my fair readers potentially asking, "Where the hell does he get off ..." as I purposefully stammered ahead. Now, I have an admission: What entertains white people musically fascinates the hell out of me.
These days, I find myself investigating more and more what gets white folks' toes a-tappin'. During house parties and bar stays, I dip into the iTunes playlists of my alabaster friends, intrigued and amused by the overwhelming (musically so, not chromatically) number of white artists who they usually have in their shuffle. Much like when white kids listen to rap music to get a better understanding of black culture, I feel that listening to Belle & Sebastian, Sleigh Bells, Fugazi and even Superchunk gives me a better sense of what makes my light-skinned brothas and sistas tick. Also, I can blow my white friends' minds when I talk about their own music with great knowledge. It is a pretty fantastic party trick.
I'm also not averse to seeing these artists entertain their white-faced fanbase in concert. Last Friday, I attended Cat's Cradle, where reunited Chapel Hill band Archers of Loaf was doing the first of two consecutive shows at the venue. A friend gave me a spare ticket, so I attended less as an audience spectator and more as an observer of white people in their natural habitat. I have to say, Archers of Loaf put on a pretty decent rock show, coming with one hard-driving tune after the next and not wasting the time of the die-hard fans who packed the venue and sang and "danced" to their favorite tunes. That might have actually been the most remarkable aspect—watching screw-faced white dudes bounce around and lip-sync like they were 12-year-old girls at a Taylor Swift concert.
There's a good chance many of the same audience members will see The Hold Steady—an indie rock group via Minneapolis and Brooklyn that also speaks primarily and squarely to white crowds—at the Cradle next week. A friend of mine from that hard-drinking, fist-fighting nucleus Boston turned me on to The Hold Steady. I think he went to college or jail with one of the band members or something, but I can't be sure. A devoted fan of the quartet, he told me he loved them because their music reminded him of Springsteen-style barroom rock. I can get behind that.
When I saw a copy of their fourth album, 2008's Stay Positive, at a used music store, I took a chance and bought it. As I listened to it, I felt like I was being hipped to things in white culture I shouldn't know about, that I didn't know happened. On "One for the Cutters," for instance, vocalist and guitarist Craig Finn half-sang and half-slurred about "sniffing at crystal in cute little cars/ Getting nailed against dumpsters behind townie bars." Oh, wow.
While it almost certainly wasn't the intention of The Hold Steady, Stay Positive, at least for me, seems like an album where the habits and burdens of white folk are in full view. I get a strong sense that the Steady's music speaks to the white working class, with its cacophonous rock melodies reminiscent of the Boss in his Born to Run prime and lyrics that are more like stories of the underdog than precocious tales of elite hipster heartbreak. It's also quite likely that the band's appeal doesn't cause a generational divide: The Steady can be enjoyed by both tired nine-to-fivers and their delinquent teen offspring. Maybe the only thing more addictive than drugs is reminiscing about the days when you actually did them.
Indeed, what's most striking about Stay Positive is how it examines the middle-age malaise that hits former hell-raising white kids in their adult years. When they're not about women, the songs primarily concern how folks like Finn once didn't have a worry in the world; they were ignorant to the hardships and disappointments that would surely come. These are people who grew up white and at least a little bit privileged, who chose to go down roads of booze and belligerence. On the regret-heavy "Joke About Jamaica," Finn sings the lines that say it all: "We were kids in the crowd/ Now we're dogs in this war."
I recently talked to my friend Daniel Johnson, a Raleigh-based film blogger who is also a fan of the Steady, about what the band means to him. Johnson (who, yes, happens to be white) first caught wind of the band when they did a cover of a Bob Dylan tune for the I'm Not There soundtrack. "They did 'Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?' and I was struck by the approach to it," he remembered. "They did to it what Springsteen did to Dylan's 'I Want You' live in '75. They slowed it down, made it more dramatic."
As I expected, he doesn't see the boys as a band letting out any trade secrets about white folk: "They put their own stamp on a bunch of classic rock clichés: The Boss meets the Replacements. Loser rock in search of the next anthem," he explained.
Johnson assured me that, for the most part, "a lot of their songs are about kids on drugs." If that's the case, then Stay Positive is about what happens to those kids when they grow up and fail at life. Finn said in an interview with Uncut that, in coming up for material for the album, he decided to "maybe look at the characters I'd been writing about on the previous three albums as they got a bit older, more adult with more adult problems." Even the sound of the band resembles a bunch of middle-aged guys who used to be in a band, getting together for one last drunken jam.
Ultimately, The Hold Steady may not consider themselves to be a band whose music should be required listening for those who'd like to understand white people better. (It has been reported than Finn is making a solo Americana record, if you would like to investigate further.) But they do provide a window of sorts for non-white listeners to peer into and observe a separate world of different expectations and outlooks. Their music resonates with white people; therefore, they're necessarily saying something that must be true and accurate about that culture.
It's more than likely the majority of black people will never listen to The Hold Steady or The Decemberists or a lot of bands just like this, unless they, like me, do it partly for sociocultural purposes. At least in my experience, these words don't resonate with the black listener they same way they do for a white listener, thanks to different pasts and presents. But hell, at least it gives the white boys a reason to dance.