Talkhouse Contributing Writer Zachary Lipez is the former singer for Freshkills and the current singer of Publicist UK. He writes the “Adult Problems” column for Noisey/VICE. He also contributes to Hazlitt, MySpace, and Vol.1 Brooklyn. His most recent book, with Nick Zinner and Stacey Wakefield, is Please Take Me Off the Guest List (Akashic Books, 2010). He tends bar at 124 Rabbit Club. You can follow him on Twitter here.
In my previous band’s occasional forays into cross-country touring, we’d usually play small clubs with audiences made up of the local ex-hardcore types and chronic burnouts — in other words, our people. Usually about 30 of them. Invariably there would be another show down the way, usually with a line going down the street made up of kids, actual teenagers, not “the” usually mid-twenties or older “kids” of your and my scene, wearing brand-spanking-new band shirts and sporting ear plugs that spoke of an almost willful misunderstanding of modern primitivism. These lines, that went from rural Indiana to the sea, were always for bands that got absolutely zilch press in New York: Hinder, Armor for Sleep, Hawthorne Heights. We all know about supposed coastal snobbery: the blinders that allow both writers and rockers in NYC, LA, SF, Portland, and (as it gave us both Pitchfork and Obama, it counts) Chicago to pretend that the noisenik-goth-dance-grind band that we all pass out in the bathroom to on any given Tuesday night is thesound that America is grooving to, or, at least what “the kids” (either variety) are losing their septum-piercing virginity to. To these writers and bloggers, what’s actually popular in the rest of the country is just mindless pabulum hardly worth a mention. What our lady from Alaska called the “real America” listens to doesn’t often get covered. It’s just considered Nickleback but less Canadian, so why bother? When Hinder was THE MOST POPULAR BAND IN AMERICA there was nary a peep from the print press or the blogs. Even now, a ton of my friends still have never heard of them. In case you’re curious, they sounded like what you imagine a band whose singer draped his mic stand in lingerie would sound like. (Now take your expectations down a few notches, and there you go). This is not to say that tastemakers only cast their shine upon bands from their areas, but that they prefer music that strikes them as more “sophisticated” (the Killers at least loved Bowie and the Smiths) or primitive in a way that could be classified as “artistic.” Metalcore and raaawk bands are neither. They are, despite any metal or hardcore drapery, considered the direct descendants of hair metal or Bob Seger. While tastemakers will at least acknowledge the existence of modern country, mainstream rock is taboo. Call it the narcissism of small differences, bands like Hinder and Armor For Sleep are Nirvana but wrong. Hawthorne Heights, also ignored by the intelligentsia despite being a top ten Billboard act for years, are slightly more on the radar by virtue of having spent years on that most loathed of record labels, Victory. Victory Records is famous for ruining straight edge, being pretty racist in its marketing, and for being dicks about the owner of Matador’s house burning down. Hawthorne Heights was the center of Victory’s ill-conceived plan to push their 2006 album If Only You Were Lonely over Ne-Yo’s album coming out the same day. Victory encouraged its fan base of Hot Topicals to hide Ne-Yo’s CDs and therefore help Hawthorne Heights attain number one in the charts. Anyone with an inkling of how the music industry works knows that this was pretty minor stuff compared to the usual payola and bribery to have competing artists squashed that goes on every day, and has since the days of Alan Freed, but Victory’s wording and the white-screamo-band-vs.-black-r&b-artist angle gave the whole episode an especially sordid aspect. Hawthorne Heights denied involvement and later sued Victory, but that’s how those of us not firmly ensconced in the Warped Tour know of them. Now Hawthorne Heights have a new album, and I don’t want to be mean about it. I wanted to write a righteous defense of them and a righteous denunciation of the callow snobbery of my peers and, really myself, that ignored these heartland heroes while the kids, the actual kids, knew better all along. I, out of a maybe incorrect notion of myself as a contrary creature, unfettered by the classist impulses of the NY/SF/Chicago axis I’m a card-carrying member of, deeply want to like the new Hawthorne Heights album Zero. I don’t want any part of the soft-target bullying of Jaded Punk Hulk, an entity that positions itself as some sort of counterculture truth-teller while consistently kicking the outliers as passé and kissing the canon’s ass, but here we are. I’ll have to apologize to Jaded Punk Hulk on Twitter because I can’t find much nice to say about this goddamned record. And I liked the new Fall Out Boy. Zero has a song that contains the lyrics “I just want to be something cuz anything is better than nothing.” As it turns out, the actual kids are actual fucking idiots. OK, wait, let me start again. Let me speak to the fans of Hawthorne Heights for a hot second: If you’re reading this, Hawthorne Heights Fan, you are probably thinking two things: 1. “This guy is a critic. Fuck him.” And 2. “This guy is jealous.” To which I say: “Correct and correct.” Your loyalty to this band speaks well of you as a person. Don’t lose that. They seem like very nice guys. I bet they take time out for their fans and are kind to moms and puppies alike. This album is extremely well played and it’s a perfectly competent modern gloss pop punk album where the harmonizing and kick drum are real audible. I and my dog were windmilling in the living room through most of the songs and I’m pretty sure only one of us was being ironic. I will be the first to admit that there’s a fair amount of songs that one could call “bangers,” in that they get from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible, by power chord and anthemic chorus. MOST IMPORTANTLY: if you love Hawthorne Heights and their songs mean something to you, there’s no way this album will change that. If Hawthorne Heights got you through some hard times then that’s what matters and god bless them and god bless you. Also, most bands that critics love aren’t that cool either. So there’s that. Luckily or unluckily for me, I will remember more songs off of Zero than I will ever remember from Kid A. Trust. OK, back to everyone else. Oh man. Good gravy. This is a concept album that appears to be about sweatbands and pro gear. It’s supposedly some sort of anti-corporate manifesto, but damned if I could makes heads or tails of it. It did help me get over my coastal self-consciousness, though. The coasts are correct and wicked smart in their snobbery. We should secede and move to a country that only plays Godflesh and Maxwell, cuz this shit is NOT what’s popping. The kids of America are fucking up on marijuana and domestic beer and meth, meth that I can’t BELIEVE they’re smart enough to manufacture themselves. No way, if songs like “Hollow Hearts Unite” are any indication, can we stay part of the “real America.” It’s dopey as hell and only a matter of time before we’re all up against the wall and sent to Camp Austin to be “kept weird.” Seriously, this is the sound of the Obama backlash. The next president is going make Bush Jr. look like Slim Moon, the Supreme Court is going to give the Warped Tour the vote, and there will be a Hawthorne Heights in every garage. We should all move to Alec Baldwin’s backyard, like,yesterday. Dammit. I didn’t want to be cruel about Hawthorne Heights. I feel like I just kicked a kitten with bangs. Let me just say this: I have heard MUCH worse music. I have potentially, in a blackout, recorded much worse music than this. But I have to believe, for my sake and theirs, that Hawthorne Heights, the kids (and actually, since the first Hawthorne Heights album came out in 2004, and what with babies having babies, man, I guess the kids of the kids), all of us, can do better. I’m not asking every band in America to sound like Vohl (though that would be swell) but I think we can safely put over-produced screamo pop-punk to bed now. It and the Warped Tour have fulfilled their functions. Our feet are safely and cozily nestled in a pair of brand new Vans and we’re all the better for it. Maybe the youth of America needs help and support, but when Hawthorne Heights strum those open chords and croon “…but I think I can save her,” all I want to do is get there first with a Bikini Kill tape and a bus ticket to New York.