Pop Music Critic

Brian Howes gets a little hot under the black-leather collar when asked who listens to his kind of rock music. Speaking on a BMI-sponsored songwriter’s panel before last year’s Grammy Awards, the Vancouver-based producer, who has co-written hits for Hinder, Chris Daughtry, David Cook and Puddle of Mudd, sent an emotional shout-out to the common fan.

“I call it the hosers in Canada, the rednecks,” he said. “The flyover zones. The people in Middle America seem to still buy records . . . You can sit on the back of your flatbed Ford, have a six-pack, crank some AC/DC and throw on some Daughtry or Hinder.”

“Flyover rock” (like its more politically minded sister term, “red-state rock”) is the kind of insult critics apply to what they find bland or derivative. Yet for Howes and his peers, identifying with music’s middle ground is a point of pride and commitment.

“This is no slam against the media -- I used to be that elitist punk guy,” said Howes, who played in a successful ska-punk band in the 1990s, by phone recently. “But the media are looking for the next cool thing, whereas Middle Americans just want good music that makes ‘em feel good.”


Since the days when former art-school kids the Rolling Stones declared themselves exiled on Main Street, populism has served as a normalizing counterpoint to rock’s freaky bohemian tendencies. The idea of the “average Joe” keeps rock stars grounded and helps fans relate. But for artists like Hinder, Nickelback and “American Idol” winner Cook -- all of whom release albums nearly guaranteed to top the charts this month -- ordinariness has become a source of distinction.

Their music’s phenomenal success says a lot about what rock signifies in the 21st century and how much the mythical “rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle” has influenced the way so-called ordinary people live.

“Sarah Palin likes the music that Tipper Gore hated! I find it kind of perplexing,” said Chuck Eddy, author of books including “Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe.”

In the mid-1980s, moderate “Washington wife” Gore helped organize Senate hearings to examine the content of songs by Poison and Motley Crue (as well as Prince and Madonna). Now, partly because of hard rock’s legacy, a little excess seems like fun, and the uber-conservative Palin shows her hard-rock roots by giving her son Trig the middle name “Van,” after Van Halen.


Flyover’s turf

Flyover rock thrives in an expanded heartland that also encompasses parts of the South and Western Canada (and maybe the L.A. neighborhood where Buckcherry lives). But it also exists in an imaginary zone only tangentially connected to current political concerns, moral judgments or fashion trends. The flyover fantasy world is a place where mothers bring their daughters to arena shows, where hearty partying is seen as a healthy release after a hard week’s work and where rockers view themselves as traditionalists, just like sports fans, churchgoers and patriots.

The most wholesome flyover rocker yet might be Cook, whose first major-label album comes out Nov. 18. Growing up in Missouri, Cook wanted to be a baseball player before turning to rock. He sees the sports analogy as particularly apt.

“Let’s say tomorrow I do two things,” he said at his management company’s West Hollywood offices. “I go see Game 1 of the World Series, and it’s 15 innings, no score, until the very end. And that same night I go see one of the greatest Paul McCartney concerts ever. They’re both things I’m gonna talk about for the rest of my life.”


Austin Winkler also wanted to play pro ball before becoming the singer for Hinder. Speaking by phone from a stop on tour, he described his band’s desire to uphold the legacy of Aerosmith and Guns N’ Roses as “basically the whole big fun part of rock ‘n’ roll. It went through a very dark period whenever Kurt Cobain and Nirvana and those bands came out,” he said. “Rock was getting a little too cheesy, and those bands called out the earlier guys. But at one point, before that, it was real.”

“Real,” for bands such as Hinder, means both blatantly hedonistic and openly emotional. There’s no contradiction between the impulse to “be up all night/doing things your dad won’t like” -- a lyric from Hinder’s new album “Take It to the Limit,” out Tuesday -- and the desire to avoid such temptations, which was the subject of “Lips of an Angel,” the power ballad that put the band on the map.

“There’s a duality,” said Howes, whose band will also play an election night concert Tuesday at the Wiltern. “Like ‘Lips of an Angel.’ It’s not about cheating, it’s about thinking about cheating. Everybody can relate to that.”

A country connection


Thinking about cheating -- that sounds like a country song. The connection between flyover rock and country is often played up in the media and embraced by artists in both genres. “Dark Horse,” Nickelback’s sixth album (also out Nov. 18), was co-produced by Mutt Lange, famous for catapulting both Def Leppard and his ex-wife Shania Twain to stardom. It closes with “This Afternoon,” a drinking song that would fit right in on a Kenny Chesney set.

“I actually grew up listening to country,” said Cook. “My mom would drive my brother and I to Little League football games and we’d listen to country radio; I remember always going to this doughnut shop and grabbing doughnuts and listening to George Strait.”

Winkler admires country’s simple lyrical content. “Country’s got some of the best lyrics in the world. They’re very easy and simple to understand, they paint a picture for you. It doesn’t make you have to think a lot.”

For all of the mutual admiration between flyover rockers and country stars, the core connection between country and flyover rock isn’t a musical one. It’s philosophical. Both genres explore the idea of hedonism as a necessary part of a healthy life -- the eternal wild Saturday night that contrasts with the penitent Sunday morning.


“Country has often courted excess but with a guilty conscience,” said musicologist and hard-rock historian Steve Waksman in a phone interview. “It’s about people doing bad things, then feeling bad about doing them.”

Like populism, the lure of letting go is a common theme throughout popular music. But it intensified during the 1960s, when rock became countercultural, challenging social mores on a larger scale. By the 1970s, said Waksman, rock had become less radical, but the self-indulgent trappings remained.

“Usually, anti-elitist impulses are attached to fundamentalism and a deep religious conservatism,” said Waksman. “In rock it’s not the case. That’s very much a legacy of the 1970s. When countercultural activities like taking drugs and practicing ‘free love’ got dispersed, they lost their political grounding and became more things to themselves. It wasn’t about finding an alternative lifestyle. It was about finding the most pleasurable lifestyle.”

At this point, rock fragmented in new ways. Heavy metal emerged as a darker, more alien realm; punk’s pioneers found new ways to tear down norms. Southern rock expressed a fierce regional identity. Arena rock specialized in spectacle. These divisions multiplied as the decades passed.


“The basics of rock are always going to be there,” said Cook. “But there are so many subsets to it. There’s alternative rock, indie rock, emo rock, screamo rock -- I don’t even know what half of them mean.”

Flyover rock borrows from many of these sub-genres, reaching into history toward the pomp and flash of Led Zeppelin, the good-time charm of AC/DC and Motley Crue and the seriousness of grunge while connecting to Christian rock’s inspirational mood, pop-punk’s energy and country’s family values. Its leading artists take a classic pop approach to music-making: they patch together influences to come up with songs that appeal across many divides.

“It’s lifestyle music for an amorphous, unclear, undefined life,” said Chuck Klosterman, whose writing about hard rock and Middle America has made him a bestselling author. “I think that guy [Chad Kroeger of Nickelback], in a sense, is a pure kind of songwriter. It’s not that you hear these songs and you’re getting an understanding of what his life is right now or that he’s responding to culture or that his music is a manifestation of this time in history. He writes songs in a vacuum about what rock songs are about -- nostalgia for the very recent past, relationships that are meaningful but difficult, having a good time.”

Klosterman’s critique of Kroeger doesn’t sound too complimentary, but in essence he’s describing what great pop songwriters always have done. From Broadway to the Brill Building to today’s R&B; factories, hit-makers have applied their magic to established formulas, borrowing from street subcultures and historical sources to make the familiar seem fresh.


Stretching the appeal

This pop approach to hard rock has helped flyover rockers gain strong support on several radio formats. Rock radio is niche-oriented, with some stations focusing on legacy artists, others favoring heavy “active rock” acts such as Disturbed, and still others focusing on poppier “mainstream” rockers like the Foo Fighters. Flyover bands have a chance of appealing across the board.

“Draw yourself a couple of circles that overlap. On the right hand side you have classic rock. In the middle you have mainstream rock. On the left you have active rock. There’s overlap in every category. Nickelback can fit into any circle,” said Michael Vogel, charts and music manager at the trade publication Radio & Records.

Flyover rock’s appeal lies in its being musically eclectic while still seeming specific and, to use Winkler’s favorite word, “real.” It looks like hard rock -- its practitioners wrap themselves in leather and scarves, sport windblown hair and preen and prance with the best -- but its sound goes wider.


This magical trick has widened the music’s fan base. “I’ll be literally anywhere, in any rock venue in the world where Nickelback is playing, and I’ll look around and see teeny-boppers, and then you’ll see some 60-year-old parents, some bikers and then someone else you didn’t expect,” said A&R; executive Ron Burman, who signed Nickelback to the Roadrunner label in 1998.

At a recent mini-concert the band played at the Forum, the crowd included many Latino fans too, some dressed in the goth-punk style favored among teens, others with their pigtailed school-age daughters in tow. At least half the fans at that show were women, and they weren’t all the blond, buxom hotties Kroeger celebrates in his songs.

“Women go crazy when they play,” said Burman. “Some of their songs have heavy sexual innuendo, but that’s when the chicks are grinding up against the guys, hands up in the air. It’s like they’ve decided, it’s OK for me to let loose and party too. It’s acceptable in the context of the music.”

Lynne Holmes is one woman who threw her hands in the air when Nickelback played at the Forum. An administrator in the fire department for Banning, she’s been going to rock shows since her teen years chasing Oingo Boingo around the Inland Empire. She brought her 15-year-old daughter to see Nickelback.


Speaking by phone from her office, Holmes said that she’s discerning about the music she shares with her daughter. “I would not allow her to go see Ozzy Osbourne,” she said. “Even AC/DC would be a stretch.”

Nickelback, despite Kroeger’s sometimes lascivious lyrics, is different.

“I guess it’s in the way that they present it,” she said, contrasting the band with artists like Madonna or even the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whom she saw in their early days. “It’s not as blatant. Even though [Kroeger’s] language is atrocious, they’re really good onstage.”

Holmes is part of a generation that grew up with the artists who followed rock’s countercultural phase. For her, loving the music doesn’t conflict with a conventional lifestyle. She expressed mild concern over her daughter’s interest in gothic rock, speculating that it would be more beneficial for her to listen to the uplifting sounds of U2 or even naughty Nickelback.


Flyover rock bands appeal to these parents, who feel nostalgic for the same era -- the late 1970s and 1980s -- that their kids now find exotic and intriguing. Unlike hip-hop or all of those strangely named rock subsets, flyover rock bridges the generation gap.

“We’re 28 years after AC/DC released ‘Back in Black,’ ” said Chuck Eddy. “Maybe it’s just the normal chain of events. By the 1970s, Elvis seemed corny, but I don’t think Elvis seemed corny in 1955. The Stones seemed dangerous in 1965. Is there any music that offends Sarah Palin? I don’t know. Would she be OK with Marilyn Manson? Maybe. I would not be surprised if there were some of his albums in that house.”