Saturday, April 3, 2010

90's Guilty Pleasures #3: Stroke 9 "Little Black Backpack" (1999)

A certain level of freshness and excitement was pushed into mainstream music upon the breakthrough of bands like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Beck, Green Day, Oasis, Weezer, and dozens more who gave "underground music" fans an overwhelming sensation that "we've won," albeit temporarily. If the big labels were ever masters of anything, it's how to spoil a great thing. By the end of the decade, the corporates did their best to weaken this excitement, in the interest of keeping themselves in control, and keeping listeners away from those wacky indie-labels. This opened up some doors for alt-rock marketing, searching for bands who could easily crossover onto Top 40 and Adult-Oriented Radio (AOR), and lessening listener standards to the lowest common denominator. Matchbox 20, 3 Doors Down and Train weren't necessarily shitty bands; they just sounded completely out of place on the same stations playing A Perfect Circle, At.The.Drive.In and Queens Of The Stone Age. This is ultimately what killed modern rock radio.

The Silver Lining: Practically every mainstream radio trend, no matter how mundane, produced a few outstanding singles. In the case of late-90's/early-00's AOR, "Little Black Backpack" is that shining moment, mostly thanks to its contagiously catchy punch and impenetrable darkness. Lyrical allusions such as "up-smack" and "Your mind is lined with layers of lead" suggest drugs playing a big part in its narrative. But its most obvious layer of darkness is that of extreme violence: "I think I'm gonna bash his head in," and the image of a "bloody" backpack. Radio listeners didn't seem to mind; around the same time, Eminem was releasing songs like "Stan" and "Kim," so violent lyrics seemed to be within the norm of the moment.

Its structuring is also noteworthy, with 2 "monster ballad" verses of heartbreak giving way to a huge pre-chorus build, leading into the angry, up-tempo major-key chorus. Heartbreak and anger then congeal for a strong bridge and solo section. Stroke 9 were formed out of a "rock band" college course, and have stuck together for the past 20 years, so they had time to tweak and strengthen their formulaic songwriting just in time for this AOR giant to be ripe for heavy airplay.

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