In a week’s time, there’s an expansion coming for one of my favorite games. ‘A once favorite’ game may be a more truthful testimony. I’m pretty sure my love of Rock Band has partially waned because music just isn’t what it used to be.
The problem isn’t so much with Rock Band itself, although the scaled back features of Rock Band 4 with its limited character customization and bare-bones story branches have contributed to some of my disinterest. It’s not even that my days spent playing the game have drastically changed since I am rarely able to hold living room sessions with my friends—though that has something to do with it, too.
My problem is my somewhat plateaued interest in music.
I adore music. And like a lot of people—as obvious a statement as that is—I like what I like and gravitate towards particular genres more than others. But I haven’t been really been keeping up with the music scene. There are artists whose names I don’t recognize; pop sensibilities that are forgettable, one-seasonal anthems. Just about everyone’s changing their style to be relevant to fit a very particular mold that’s current for specific genres, and cross genres. That happens, and it’s not surprising. It’s what sells.
Bands should evolve, and experiment. It takes guts to do so. It may not always result in success, if my friends’ opinions are to be believed—U2’s Pop comes to mind, even though I loved U2 in that phase. But I think there might be a line that crosses from creativity to pandering. Let’s just take a look at Coldplay, as an example.
What is this? And while we’re at it, what is this video?
Coldplay wasn’t ever exactly roaring guitars, but I don’t recall the overly Disco Stu pop being this strong. Then again, I may not have liked anything past their second album of alternative, piano rock ballads (I hear you, that person out there saying I shouldn’t even be admitting that in public), so maybe this has been Coldplay for a really long time.
They came from a time when, for me, music was still exciting, often dominated by my favorite alternative rock genre. In the same year as Coldplay’s sophomore album “A Rush of Blood to the Head”, The Streets released “Original Pirate Material”. Spoon had “Gimme Fiction” and Interpol’s “Turn On The Bright Lights” helped cement their greatness.
Somewhere along the way things began to change—NYC lost its own alt-rock station, and I started noticing fewer good rock albums and performances at (albeit always cruddy) award shows—a part of me went with the rock scene that got muted for different genres of music. It evolved. I did so too. My interest in Indie bands happened when Indie rock became more widely noticed.
Rock’s not dead. In the mainstream, it’s just a little bit different now. Yes, there are many bands that still do straight up rock, and alternative rock. Favorite bands still exist. They’re out there and there are stations dedicated to their style. I do feel that it’s just not as prevalent as it once was and it’s harder to find them streaming on regular airwaves, and as I said, changed in other cases.
I’m not here to tell you that old joke that my [insert band name] is better than yours. The reality is that I’ve always been very much a part of the mainstream—going with the flow of what’s popular in the type of music I like and dislike. I think it’s possible, though, that I’m now just too old for the current tides. I haven’t moved with the times—at least in some measure, over the past few years. Even if some of my favorite bands keep putting out music, sometimes it’s just not good enough.
For another fairly recent example, the same can be said of my recent lukewarm feelings of Muse. If you’ve known me pre-2012, you’ll know I went through a phase where nothing this band did could be wrong. And they didn’t. “Origin of Symmetry”, “Absolution”, “Black Holes and Revelations”—all brilliant.
And then, for me, they did do wrong.
“The Resistance” wasn’t terrible. Time allows you to reevaluate a body of work with fresh eyes (or ears, as the case may be), in place of first impressions and being affected by peer opinions. That’s what happened for me with “The Resistance”. But I just couldn’t excuse the 2012 follow up, “The 2nd Law”. And 2015’s “Drones” has half an album that’s decent. I haven’t thought about the album much. The cursing was surprising. How edgy! Right…
Beyond that, the new overly pop-ish sound was even more surprising, and “The 2nd Law”’s song ‘Madness’ is cringe-worthy, but I’ll admit I find myself singing along even if I get awash with slight embarrassment. But it leans heavily on pop. It’s not the nonsensical, over the top rock anthem of ‘Space Dementia’. Muse hasn’t always been alternative anthem after anthem or devoid of pop-rock, but their latest departure on their last couple of albums has been incredibly noticeable. Even if the latest seemed headed back to roots, it still wasn’t all there. Maybe this is just their new sound in their evolution. And from a purely subjective standpoint, it just doesn’t work for me.
This isn’t just a Muse problem, this is a me problem with a lot of music. There are very few albums I’ve listened to in the past few years, fewer that I’ve enjoyed. There are some new-to-me acts I’ve discovered but I don’t feel as though there’s a wealth as with my past years.
These thoughts on music, of course, are affecting my approach to and feelings on Rock Band. I used to spend countless hours playing this game in 2007 and all through its initial popularity. There are countless DLC and in-game content available: over 2000 songs, actually. Of that number, I’ve amassed a playlist of over 300 songs.
In 2007, my rock playlists included Radiohead’s “In Rainbows”, Interpol’s “Our Love To Admire”, Nine Inch Nails’ “Year Zero”, Arctic Monkeys’ “Favourite Worst Nightmare”, The Shins’ “Wincing the Night Away”, Menomena’s “Friend and Foe”, and Klaxons’ “Myths of the Near Future”. And goddamn it what a fine year that was. It was one I spent attending concerts to translate all of those moments engorging on lyrics, and rhythms into a live experience.
And no, I won’t ever apologize for liking that Euro-trash that is Klaxons.
Rock Band may not have pulled songs from each of those albums but some of those bands eventually found their way into the extensive DLC setlist.
Aside from the killer year for music, Rock Band had an exciting newness to it, filled with new and old favorite songs I could sing and be scored on. Songs I’d spend hours perfecting and throwing some misplaced vocal egotism into while failing spectacularly at drums and guitar. Songs and an experience that brought my friends together for years to come. It was an opportunity to learn and continue to love music in a different way. All in the comfort of a living room where I could freely butcher a song while in the company of other song playing murderers.
Rock Band caters to almost everyone’s musical tastes—country, alt rock, indie rock, pop, pop rock, metal, rap. And that’s fine. It’s honestly fantastic. Some of those may not be my favorites. Some are guilty pleasures. Some are great and defy genres because a good song is a good song regardless of genre and people’s definitions of ‘good’ vary. But it’s also fun to get together in a group and get a song request from a friend that I wouldn’t normally consider. A $1.99 investment for a 3 minute moment of fun and memories of a lifetime made isn’t so bad.
But when it comes to how much Rock Band I’ve been playing this year...well, I haven’t played that much at all. Overall, the weekly DLC hasn’t appealed to me. Amidst the Justin Bieber, DNCE, and The Weeknd, sit songs from generations that I’d pick up, such as Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. There’s a Stone Temple Pilots song I love from 1992 (R.I.P. Scott Weiland). Another from Outkast (though it’s that really popular one everyone knows). There are others that try to appeal to my younger self but I’ve outgrown my like of The Cranberries.
It’s not the older offerings that I’m bemoaning (and Rock Band to its credit has always had this balance of genres with old and new). It’s the last few years’ offerings from songs comprising release years of 2014 to 2016 that have me feeling a little blue. Rock Band’s DLC has been filled with more pop music than ever. This could be catering to a specific audience or a reflection of the current changes to the mainstream. The two probably go hand in hand.
If we didn’t have to think about licensed music troubles, there’d be more I’d want to see. I may not have kept up with music in the last couple of years but that’s partially due to the fact there’s very little that has caught my attention as well. For the things I have listened to, how awesome would it be for Rock Band to showcase some of my highlights, and diversify from the umpteenth The Killers track (and I do like them, don’t get me wrong!), or One Direction songs which fills it library?
For me, it’d be songs from the intelligent, powerful and conscious lyrics of Jidenna:
Stromae’s brilliant wordplay and keen pop cultural observations, while also presenting the challenge of singing in another language (something Rock Band has done with other acts in its setlist):
And Radiohead’s latest album “A Moon Shaped Pool” which is as sorrowful and gorgeous as Radiohead often are:
I’m looking forward to whatever Gorillaz puts out next, too.
For you, it may be something else.
For others, Rock Band’s current selections are doing just great. Theoretically, that’s what I should be feeling as well. But I’m feeling stuck in the past while embracing some new things too which haven’t made it into Rock Band’s setlist just yet (if ever). I’ve changed a little bit. I’d be worried if I didn’t expand my musical horizons, and by that I mean giving everything a fair shake without pre-conceived notions when I hear something on the radio or get a recommendation from a friend. And for personal growth, as well—to not blindly defend a band. I’m happy that I can admit when a song or album is terrible when I hear it.
Rock Band Rivals is slated for release next week. The bonus pre-order songs aren’t to my liking for the most part. But who knows? I might find something pretty sweet in there that I’ve overlooked or didn’t know about. It should be noted that the expansion pack doesn’t come with any songs on its own. It’s trying to change the experience of what Harmonix released a year ago. I think that’s going to help me love the game again, too—from the game playing perspective.
I’m excited to take the band to stardom once again. Part of the cut and dry experience of Rock Band 4 did not encourage me to play as religiously as I did with previous entries. A real charm to the Rock Band series is as much its collection of music as it is the investments devoted to the made-up band members. The rock stories attached are funny guidelines to sparking imagination, at least for me when I created my band and avatar all those years ago.
Harmonix is calling some of the new mode: a “Rockudrama”. I might find myself having an awesome time as I did before with my band, The Oxtails, up to shenanigans. I spent time with my friends making up these already in the past, so it’ll be hilarious to see a new narrative written from an entirely different angle with some hopefully brilliant execution. I may get to share a new experience with friends. We’ll see.
Rock Band may be the favorite game I often forget about. Rock Band may not be holding my interest in 2016 thanks to the state of mainstream music, and my current searches for the next big thing in alternative music. But with hundreds of songs, and some of the best moments I’ve had with any game contributing to some of the best life experiences, it’s time to bring back the band again. There’ll be something there for me. Just maybe not something that’s crisp and new, right at this moment in time.
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