It's now a given that rap and R&B hold a preeminent place in the hard drives and headphones of America's young people. While rock-oriented acts still make the occasional sales splash (Evanescence, Nickelback), hip-hop albums have accounted for 17 of the 31 albums to gain the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Top 200 album charts this year. Rock acts have counted for seven (country artists, compilations, Barry Manilow and a few others make up the rest).
But even in the shadow of hip-hop's continued dominance, traditionally minded rock 'n' roll -- think cars and guitars -- is quietly thriving, thanks to the Killers and the Hold Steady, two acts that have carved out niches at opposite ends of the sales spectrum and with varying degrees of critical favor by reclaiming Springsteenian tropes from the scrap heap of classic rock radio.
Dusty dirt roads, drunken teen parties, small-town frustration, saxophones and unpimped rides have largely disappeared from the pop music landscape. But the success of the Killers' "Sam's Town" (it debuted at No. 2 on Oct. 3, selling over 315,000 copies) and the critically acclaimed Hold Steady's "Boys and Girls in America" (which earned the distinction of being the influential Pitchfork Web site's highest rated album of the year so far when it came out, also on Oct. 3) suggest that the Americana-awash rock 'n' roll iconography that developed with musicians like Chuck Berry and Little Richard in the '50s and reached its apotheosis in Bruce Springsteen's early '70s albums -- an admitted touchstone for both bands -- still has relevance in today's hip-hop landscape.
The lyrics of the Killers and the Hold Steady are the most obvious signs of their indebtedness to Springsteen's vision. Take this verse from "Born to Run":
Beyond the palace, hemi-powered drones scream down the boulevard
the girls comb their hair in rearview mirrors
and the boys try and look so hard
the amusement park rises bold and stark, kids are huddled on the beach in the mist
I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight
in an everlasting kiss.
All of a sudden the Killers' "We're burning down the highway skyline/ on the back of a hurricane/ that started turning/ when you were young" (from "When You Were Young") and the Hold Steady's "those Twin cities kisses/ sound like clicks and hisses/ we all tumbled down and drowned in the Mississippi River/ we drink, we dry up, then we crumble to dust" ("Stuck Between Stations") sound familiar, the echoes of Springsteen's desperate, only-in-America imagery ringing loud and clear.
Even so, the inherent dream of popular music is no longer about embracing oblivion on a quick trip to anywhere. The resonating theme is to become master of your environment and rise, so to speak, from the street to the penthouse suite. Take these lyrics from T.I.'s "King": "Fresh off the jet to the block/ Burn a rubber with a top-pop/ I'll pop and bust a shot and tell em stop and make the block hot/ Ya label got got/ cuz you are not hot/ I got the top spot/ and it will not stop." Scarface and John Gotti are the role models, not Elvis and James Dean.
With those conditions in place, how is it that the Killers and the Hold Steady have managed to avoid coming across like hopeless anachronisms? How is it that both the year's best big rock album ("Sam's Town") and the year's most highly acclaimed commercial nonentity ("Boys and Girls in America") can trade in musical and lyrical tropes that the rest of the popular music world has given up on and not seem hopelessly out of date?
The Killers did it by going big, diving head-first into the feeling of triumph that rock 'n' roll and its attendant myths capture so well. The critics who have drubbed the album -- which is most of them -- have latched on to its grandiosity, its sonic boom guitars, its massed vocals and gargantuan drums as being empty gestures exacerbated by overstuffed lyrics full of meaningless floating signifiers ("Grandma Dixie," "Uncle Jonny," the Fourth of July, empty carnivals, highways) strewn about like buckshot. The New York Times called "Sam's Town" "a simulacrum of an important album" and Rolling Stone decried the fact that a band with "nothing to say" had tried to make "a big statement." But since when has anything other than big and loud not been good enough for good rock 'n' roll?
Big and loud is something the Killers do awfully well. I defy anyone listening with open ears not to be roused by the new album's "When You Were Young," "Sam's Town" or "My List." Rock and roll is all about surface, size and spunk. Little Richard said more screaming "a whomp bomp a lula, a whomp bam boom" than a thousand wordier bands have said with a thousand wordier songs. It seems to me that critics are responding in part to frontman Brandon Flowers' "this is the best album of the past 20 years" bluster, which made the Killers seem too calculated in their attempt to make big, important, epic music in the tradition of Bruce Springsteen and "Joshua Tree"-era U2. And the band's change from the Las Vegas androgynes of 2004's "Hot Fuss" to their mustachioed dust bowl-boho chic seems a trifle excessive. But by sheer force of will and exuberance their marriage of stock rock 'n' roll iconography to a heroic, epic sound revives the old clichés, and places them back in the sturdy arms of singalong choruses and fist-pumping guitar lines where they belong. I'll gladly take a big, dumb rousing rock song about "burning down the highway skyline" over whatever intricately conceived robojam Radiohead's working on at the moment.
If the Killers succeed by going big, the Hold Steady get over by staying small. Where the Killers sing about generic places and names, Hold Steady lyricist and singer Craig Finn revels in specificity. A longtime Minnesota resident currently living in Brooklyn, N.Y., Finn's densely worded sung-spoken songs utilize street names, neighborhoods and a recurring cast of characters (Holly, Charlegmane) in a manner similar to that of a certain Jersey fave -- only with an added dollop of Led Zeppelin's guitar stomp -- to achieve a grandeur that is similar, yet more literary and humble, to that of the Killers.
The stories the band tells in "Boys and Girls in America" are about finding love in the "Chillout Tent" and partying in "Ybor City," and the album's reappearing characters have their roots in Springsteen's tales of Crazy Janey and Hazy Davey drinking, dancing, losing and loving on the Jersey Shore -- albeit with a lot more drug use and casual violence. But also like Springsteen, the Hold Steady's intense locality never feels hermetic. The band draws you in by setting their stories to music anyone with a jones for meaty guitar riffs and dazzling keyboard fanfares can love; they're content to let the stories sink in after their '70s hard rock-influenced songs (think Thin Lizzy, Bad Company and Kiss with a drunken, adenoidal ranter for a frontman) have softened you up. After a listen or two, the specifics feel universal. Which they should, because the trials and tribulations of teenagers struggling to make meaning out of the beer and the parties and the endless driving around is something we're almost all familiar with.
Or at least it's something we were familiar with, until rap narratives replaced their rock 'n' roll cousins at the top of the charts. Rebellious, headstrong souls like the narrator of "Born to Run" gave way to the idea of the hustler, backed up against all odds, beset by enemies, and grinding his way to the top. But if hot rods and beer are old hat compared to Maybachs and Cristal, the shout outs awarded to the Hold Steady and the cash money the Killers are raking in speak to the lingering relevance of big, brawny rock 'n' roll -- rock 'n' roll that speaks in the language of roaring engines and chugging guitars. And when that language is spoken with the rousing power of Springsteen, the Killers and the Hold Steady, it makes a sound a great many people are still willing to believe in.