Several of my friends make it a habit to call me a music snob, but at least one fact from my past generally brings me down a notch: I was once a pretty big—not quite obsessive, but close—O.A.R. fan.
I hid my dirty little secret from my girlfriend for years, like petty theft, stashing away the evidence—autographed posters, a gaggle of set lists, a half-dozen tour shirts—in my childhood bedroom, hoping the right people wouldn't find the wrong backstory.
After I discovered the Rockville, Md., quintet through poorly attributed Napster downloads during my freshman year of high school, the band's catchy reggae/ pop/ rock party anthems quickly, completely hooked me. The music even made me feel like some sort of underground musical seer, especially compared with the more mainstream students at my rural high school. At home, I posted on the band's official message board and traded CD-Rs of far-off live shows with strangers, tapping into some network too vast to comprehend. Finally, in November 2001 at Cat's Cradle, I saw one of their jam-heavy performances. Indeed, my best friend was grounded the next day for telling his parents we'd be back by midnight, only to arrive closer to 2:30 a.m. Live, the tunes were much longer than on record, so O.A.R. kept us up late. The quintet's sax-infused, island-inflected grooves were unlike anything we'd heard; the punishment, we said, was worth it.
I wasn't the only one. Thanks to a fan base built largely from the grassroots avenues of tape trading, constant touring and early file sharing, O.A.R. steadily ascended the venue ranks after recording their debut album—home of their signature tune, "That Was a Crazy Game of Poker"—in 1997. After playing frat houses and small clubs around the turn of the millenium—including The Brewery in 2000 and 2001—the band was headlining spaces the size of Koka Booth Amphitheatre by 2004. They played the 7,000-capacity Cary lawn four more times in the last five years, but this week they step down to the 5,500-seat Raleigh Amphitheater. So, of course, 15-year-old me has to ask: Is O.A.R.'s backward venue move a sign of the band's waning popularity or simply a symptom of the shifting face of frat rock?
Years ago, Internet message boards raged over whether or not O.A.R. was the next Dave Matthews Band. Besides sharing a jammy, acoustic approach, O.A.R. also followed DMB's blueprint for success, spreading through the same dorm rooms and tape-trading circles, converting word-of-mouth recommendations into gigs at larger and larger halls. Though they never reached the megalithic status of Dave Matthews Band, O.A.R. was, in retrospect, clearly that heir. That was due as much to the lack of strong competition as to the band's own talents. Given the changing taste of frat rock, though, the intriguing question becomes who—if anyone—will be the next O.A.R.?
O.A.R.'s brand of sing-along-friendly jams about drinking, road-tripping, hooking up and otherwise carrying on in a carefree manner once ruled campus stereos. But now, the busy beats of Vampire Weekend singles and Passion Pit remixes are as likely to command megabytes on coed iPods. Even the classrooms and hallways of the Raleigh high school where I teach tend to be soundtracked by MGMT and M.I.A. when not abuzz with the latest Lil Wayne feature or Wiz Khalifa mixtape.
As they move in an increasingly indie-centric direction, shifting festival lineups suggest the same trend. Take Bonnaroo, the flagship of all American festivals, where frat boys voyage to temporarily adopt a hippie ethos and take drugs of questionable origin. Once stacked with jam heavyweights like Widespread Panic, The Dead and Trey Anastasio, this year's bill was populated with acts like LCD Soundsystem, The xx and Phoenix. The latter—a decade-old French dance-pop quartet that was largely unknown in the States just a year and a half ago—headlined Cary's Koka Booth in June.
Traditional media outlets have followed that path, too. Long the domain of hippie descendents and hard-rock risers, Rolling Stone has skewed toward hipster lately, reviewing the latest by Best Coast, Blitzen Trapper and Deer Tick in recent issues. Big companies hoping to appeal to younger audiences have enlisted a slew of indie names—from The National and The Arcade Fire to Grizzly Bear and Of Montreal—to soundtrack their commercials.
You could still call this a grassroots movement of sorts; Phoenix, like many big indies, has achieved success largely without much commercial radio support. Tastemaking blogs and review sites like Pitchfork Media provide shortcuts to artists who haven't necessarily spent much time touring or even recording—a hot single among blogs can soon rocket a band out of obscurity. The Internet, then, has opened up channels on both sides—for bands to distribute their music and for listeners, even in rural North Carolina high schools, to hear it.
The focus of listeners and the press seems to have shifted more and more to what sounds "good" and current. As with Rolling Stone, the focus of online press is typically on what's new and interesting—whether it be chillwave, electropop or lo-fi punk—rather than the output of a particular genre. It's more about the trend, less about the tradition. And judging by the goods delivered—or, rather, the lack thereof—the stream of jam-centric frat rock seems to have dried up.
That's not to say you won't hear "Poker" and O.A.R.'s other frat-party classics blasted around the student tailgating lots at Carter-Finley Stadium this fall. Old favorites die hard—just ask Jimmy Buffett, whose empire reportedly has an annual net income of more than $40 million, according to the Chicago Tribune. Just don't be shocked if a new hip-hop mashup or much-blogged indie anthem, and not another trite acoustic rock ditty, is the chaser for that "Crazy Game of Poker."