Watching the World Burn With Greta Van Fleet

“I’m Gen X — I just sit on the sidelines and watch the world burn.” — Kenan Thompson (SNL skit)

With some bands, music reviewers’ consensus becomes so confused that it reads less as a critique, more as an ode to the asshole you hate yourself for loving.

We’re not talking mere mixed reviews. We’re talking about the useless gray truce you eventually get after yin and yang have violently disagreed— “useless” being the optimal word. Because at this point, the critical contingent’s no longer shedding light on the band, not even if confusion seems to be a congenital part of the band’s whole thing, as a person might argue it does with those over-the-topridiculouscocksurewretched, vampiricundeniably talented new gods known as Greta Van Fleet.

But then, critics’ say has historically meant little where it’s concerned those bands that struck the public like lightning: because with those bands — who cause the brightest flash and rumblin’est thunder — you can’t talk about them without talking about us.

Who we were when they made it big. How we paved the way for such a phenomenon. What whisper in our undercurrent the band caught sound of and then amplified until it was loud enough to rattle ribs.

In the ’60s and ’70s, the undercurrent was whispering messages of dramatic naturalism and lust, Led Zeppelin heard it, Led Zeppelin thrust a megaphone in front of it (ever the world-class thrusters, them), and through their megaphone the whisper that had always been there started to sound like a shout. An existential scream. A rebel’s bellow. Aaaaaaaaaaah-ah, ah!

The number-one criticism about Greta Van Fleet seems to boil down to this: they’re perceived as seeking to follow in the footsteps of those who rocked instead of seeking what they sought. And because the band has mostly been dismissed as Zeppelin’s counterfeit or praised as their heir apparent from the beginning, it’s been easy to overlook what their notoriety says about us.

After all, a band that triggers unhinged favor and loathing is one that struck societal-whisper gold and had the right sort of megaphone. And that’s true whether or not we like how the one-time whisper sounds once it’s shouted. Oooooooooooooh, mama!

What GVF, and the critical reception we’ve given them, says about us is not just that we’re individuals with variable audio palates.

What it says about us is that nostalgia has gotten so big it’s no longer just a recurring trend — it’s a tone; it’s an age. It also says that Greta Van Fleet has nostalgia like Zeppelin had big-cocked flower power: it’s their connection to the pulse of an era.

And we do not feel just one way about that.

The Age of Big-Cocked Nostalgia

If radio itself offers few clues about why GVF is resonating hard — or what sort of social undertow even exists for them to resonate with — retail is more forthcoming. Anthem of the Peaceful Army, their first full album, was released into a rewound 2018 in which Target was selling tube tops, Teddy Ruxpins, and Taylor Swift on vinyl.

Though, it’s not like it’s unusual for us to come down with a case of the ’members? Even in society’s resting state, nostalgia doesn’t seem expelled so much as latent, following a tidal pattern like any mood or function that answers to the moon. What’s worth discussing regarding the current iteration is its staying power — how it’s outlasting normal expiration windows for fashion trends or collective middle-age crises — and the depths it has managed to reach. The fissures it coincides with, unveils, or causes. The catchall it’s become, ferrying trash as well as treasure back to the future.

Here and now, three years out from the point when WaPo journalist Hank Stuever diagnosed us (re: Fuller House) as having reached “the point where nostalgia becomes more like necrophilia,” a pro-resurrection mood is still going strong.

In a different time, Greta Van Fleet’s style-to-substance fealty to the climate that inspired their parents’ favorite music would probably disqualify them as voice of a modern undercurrent. Which, many would claim, would disqualify them from rock altogether.

Image: Troy Larson [CC BY-SA 4.0]

But even when you factor in their relevance to the ongoing revival spree (RoseanneWill & GraceMurphy Brown, Cabbage Patch Kids, high-waisted jeans, wide-leg jeans and bell-bottoms, record players, etc.), there’s still an argument for dismissing or outright ostracizing the band. Anybody who detests this whole trajectory is likely to see Greta Van Fleet as hucksters of retro geegaws who need to be squashed before a thousand copies of copies occupy modern rock, thereby cumbering technical progression within the field.

The fact that they’ve gotten this high-profile, for doing that music, certainly raises questions.

What does it mean for the current punching-bag saviors of rock that nostalgia has unforgiving parameters (parameters that will logically restrict their evolution)? How will rock, the genre born to be dangerous, weather its so-called revival as a rear-view mirror? But perhaps most importantly this:

Why, on the brink of a future of unparalleled opportunities, are so many people looking backward so hard?

Yes — Your Grandmother’s Rock

Image by InspiredImages from Pixabay

Ever look at a group and — if it is thanks to the stylists, the lighting, the props, the marketing, the etc. — feel a flicker of that worldwide-movie-premier bigness, that inexorable drama, you maybe once felt about the biggest rock acts in the world? That drama that seemed to exist in concert with but (barely) distinguishable from the more contemptible side of the sky-high self-regard of rock prima donnas?

Don’t get me wrong — it was fallible all along. It was a seducing bellow for US and against the ENEMY but it was also self-righteousness with a glass ego and a temper built of napalm. Plenty of times it was the establishment profiting off the masquerade that it was anti-establishment. It was reckless in a neutral way: it was road-in-front-of-you/wind-in-your-hair reckless and it was taking-advantage-of-young-fans reckless. At points, the clearest balance it seemed to strike was between self-abuse and abusing those who loved it. At points, loving it meant seeing something shiny at the bottom of that heap.

And (shout out to my Firefly people) rock sure could, and can, be shiny.

Because it was also being there. It was bearing witness to the reigning frenzy of the day with a young, thudding soundtrack in the background. It was the junction between peaceful loving tidings and angst; it was reverently listening to your elected representatives when you felt voiceless. In the present it’s also what all objects of nostalgia are — it’s a thousand memories.

For those who first heard Greta Van Fleet on their local classic rock station, the fact that they tap into the sound associated with this second set of qualities is justification enough. Nostalgia isn’t always complex; it’s often simple longing for when things were fun and easier or at least feel, in the present, as though they were.

The fact that Greta Van Fleet invoke classic rock’s more admirable traits but exist in a world that doesn’t tolerate many of its ol’ harrowing flaws qualifies them all the more as beloved artifacts. Rosy retrospection — in which our evaluation of an event is more positive in retrospect than when it was occurring — is real, and it stands to reason that many people would welcome whatever factors assist their memories in further rosying up the past.

Image: NBC

With Greta Van Fleet, the fact that they’re young and clean-cut AF compared to those they’re always compared to, and that they sing about peace in broad, inoffensive strokes, potentially lends the era they siphon inspiration from a less prickly image. When you look at them, it’s easy enough to see reflections of free-lovism, optimism, the youthful belief that society will just keep getting freer and coming closer together, that everything can be awesome for everybody if everybody keeps the faith — all packaged within the more socially cautious, pro-vitamin humility sanctioned for modern rock stars.

And whether you think it’s good, bad, or neutral that this is happening, it does make sense. But then, classic rock radio isn’t the only place GVF can be heard. They’re one of the few bands to experience the duality of playtime on classic and modern rock radio not because they aged into it but because it’s where they started.

Music for the End of the World

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows defines anemoia as “nostalgia for a time you’ve never known.” And if the juniors’ aisles loaded with ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s fashions — and the toy aisles stocked with near-exact replicas of toys from a similar range — are any indication, the sorrow isn’t so obscure these days.

Speaking of which, have you been to Target recently? Have you peered at the curtain-print bell-bottoms sized for ten-year-olds and wondered what the deep-purple hell is going on?

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Has it seemed disconcerting to walk twenty feet from these throwback threads to endcap “human interest” magazines questioning the place of human beings in a world dominated by AI? From shag-texture sweaters in the mellowest of yellows to a news mag whose front-cover think piece announces the last year there will be fish in the sea, or life on earth, period?

Despite rationally knowing that every generation has had to drown out its own doomsayers, do you ever get overwhelmed by the scope of the deathwatch now in vogue? Get bummed about the bad news regarding the planet, bad news regarding politics, bad news regarding unity and even civility?

Do you get scared?

There’s a fascinating suggestion by William Strauss and Neil Howe that there are four main generational archetypes (Hero, Artist, Prophet, and Nomad), and that a time of great crisis is what defines the would-be Hero generation: they’re the ones who grow up to solve it. By Strauss & Howe’s timeline, the Heroes of recent memory belonged to Generation G.I., and those naturally next in line are the Millennials.

Whether or not that’s true, there’s no question that Millennials — and all of us — need to remain tuned in to our society’s catastrophes to at least some degree so we can work out which problems we can help solve. And the ubiquity of social media means a whole new level of tuned-inness.

Inasmuch as that leads to the wider dissemination of productive ideas and more real engagement, yay! But there’s no denying the psychological dragthat comes with constant exposure — including screaming headlines during social media time you may have categorized as “recreational” in your head — to the news that the whole damned world is falling apart.

Image: Public Domain

Given the well-documented toll of too much bad news — news about the present alongside gloomy predictions of the future —it would be more than a little understandable if people felt the need to take succor in the past. And as past eras go, one that’s associated with peace, love, and strides in civil rights seems an especially safe haven.

If nostalgia has taken on the tone of a disease recently, that’s certainly not a universal estimation. Some research suggests nostalgia “increases self-esteem, fosters social connectedness, and alleviates existential threat.” It makes sense that the same comforts would apply to nostalgia for a time you’ve never known.

And while the alleviation of existential threat is one potential motivation behind our churned-butter-thick nostalgia, it’s not the only one. In fact, Paulina Martz, writing for The Observer, discusses another name for those born from the late ’80s through the early aughts:

“The nostalgia generation is made up of those kids who saw entire technologies emerge, commercialize and die within their childhoods. Unlike ever before, by the age of 10 most of the kids born anywhere between 1987 and 2000 had witnessed the birth and death of enough technologies to make those 10 or so years seem more like a lifetime ago.” (emphasis mine)

Whatever the cause or combination of causes, it’s clear that the kids — whether they’re alright or not — are definitely wistful. And while I’d be hard-pressed to call myself one of the “kids,” hey, I get it.

Building a Bonfire — ’90s-Kid Style

It was probably my own bout of anemoia that turned my attention to classic rock after (yes) I watched Almost Famous, loved Almost Famous, named my daughter in honor of a character from Almost Famous. As someone with a (long-undiagnosed) serious psychological condition, I knew a thing or two about unforced drama. And to me, rock music, especially circa the late ’60s and ’70s, was the soundtrack of exactly that.

My teen years were filled with radio-friendly ’90s music, where Whitney Houston and Celine Dion sang heart-breakingly beautiful love ballads and everyone else sang about sex. Half the time, in a way that was less sexy and more good-naturedly goofy. In fact, if I could define the popular music of the decade by any one term, it would probably be “lighthearted.”

I usually like to preface whatever I write about generations with the disclaimer that those labels are probably at least 49 percent useless. For most of us, I think it is, as it was for me, having one foot planted in cultural goings-on and one foot in private experience.

Privately, I responded to the epic roughness of classic rock, but culturally, I caught the dying embers of Generation X (well, depending on who you ask — cusp babies are always tricky to place). I vividly remember the day a “motivational” speaker informed us that we should take offense at our nickname, or at least take it as a wake-up call. Because it meant that we were x-ed out. That we were x-ing ourselves out. That we were, in effect, Generation Nothing.

I don’t know about that, but according to Strauss & Howe, Gen Xers are the Nomads. And if someone were to argue that we were the generation between — meaning in between generations with more readily defining characteristics, I wouldn’t not get it.

Just like when Kenan Thompson, playing a game-show moderator who was (sort of) keeping the peace between Baby Boomers and Millennials on Saturday Night Live, said he was Generation X and just watched the world burn — I didn’t not get that.

I didn’t exactly have an oceanside seat to the great wave of American rock and roll, so classic rock isn’t attached to formative memories for me, but I also wasn’t born into the 24-hour doom-news cycle.

This isn’t to dismiss the fact that there were standout qualities about my generation — you you you oughta know, we had plenty of good stuff, from alternative music to Aunt Becky with the good rep — but being a cultural nomad gives me at least some freedom to judge Greta Van Fleet by sound and stage presence alone.

Which doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to pick apart. Because zeitgeist relevance aside, GVF still make an easy target.

Their lyrics range from okay to the lexical equivalent of silences so awkward you can hear the other person breathe, swallow, and comb their dendrites for something to say. They dress in braided ponchos and feather earrings, a detail I believe warrants no editorializing. Elsewhere in the multiverse, the only music their spiritual doubles are making is the rhythm of their knocking on locker doors from the inside so some kind passerby might let them out.

And if I love them with the same love that once inspired my best friend and I to send fan mail to “c/o record company” addresses at the bottom of CD liner notes, it’s because all of that only matters to a point.

Because when I stopped laughing at the seventh-grade-poetry-class lyricism of “Edge of Darkness,” it felt as sincere as a heart-print band-aid handed to me by a toddler when this time I was the one who skinned my knee.

Because the era they’re pulling from is my adopted “home music,” and for my money, they do it well enough that if I’m not careful, listening will leave me in a state of bucktoothed hope, raw and bullyable and giddy all at once.

I like ’em. Hell, I love ’em.

But I’m here less to try and convince anyone else to do the same, more to suggest that their rise to radio means something in light of the world we’re living in.

Maybe “Highway Tune” will eventually prove itself anthem of the Nostalgia Generation. Maybe they’re the natural product of a generation that watched its technologies get born, rise, and die at the speed of sound. Maybe they’re balm for those who are bombarded by empathy-fatiguing news and braced for a future where it won’t matter if AI does supplant them — not when the planet’s in cardiac arrest. One thing they’re not is just a carbon copy of Led Zeppelin.

So if you’re feeling a little nostalgic, or anemoic — if you need a break from engaging with the woes of the day — as the news warns you that outside the world is burning down, pull up a marshmallow-roasting stick and crank up “Black Smoke Rising” and give the revivalist peaceniks a chance.


If you liked this, join me on Medium.


This article originally appeared in The Junction.


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