I wrote that offhandedly while listening to the new Foo Fighters record offhandedly. I've thought it for years, but never really thought about articulating it further. I think about lots of inconsequential stuff, after all. Then, when I posted it and a bunch of people chimed in, seemed worth elaborating on. And I'm on a long, rainy bus ride, so… win-win.
First off, I really need to underscore that I'm completely aware that Grohl and Diddy are both 80 gazillion times more talented and capable than me in so many ways. Just cos I'm talking about them rock-geek style and I happen to be in their field of work does not mean I think I'm on their level or anything. This is me as would-be rock academic, not as rock peer. I'm proud of what I've made and how I've made it, all that good blah blah, but really. I would love to open for the Foos any day, I'm sure Grohl would be awesome to hang out with, I'm sure I'd learn so much from him on so many levels. Similarly, if I were a hip-hop artist, Diddy would probably be amazing to learn from and work with. They have achieved great stuff on just about every level, that I never will. I'm completely okay with that, promise. I don't think all that's for me, probably never has been. And I just don't think I'm that smart/cool/talented/hard-working/good. Anyway, just wanted to clear that up before I got into this.
Predictably, it's been mostly Grohl fans taking issue with this idea, as most fans of Nirvana/Foos/rock think Diddy is a talentless, sample-sucker shyster, along with many other hip-hop artists, and don't want their guy compared to Diddy (also, I'm not clear on whether Diddy has fans passionate enough about his craft and career to nerd out like this about it). I do NOT hold this anti-Diddy view. I'm not a fan of Mr. Combs on many levels, AT ALL, but I'm even more not a fan of ignorant rockist (and sometimes even straight-up racist) views belittling and disparaging a newer and unquestionably more vital form of music that is just as competitive and creative as rock ever was. Sadly, hip-hop is pretty bloated already (maybe like rock in the 80s or somethin) and much of the age of innovation has passed, but rock is truly a 20th-century form. It has more in common at this point with jazz and blues in our popular culture than it does with hip-hop. It will always be here, but it isn't driving our culture the way it did. Anyway, that's a whole 'nother mess. Back to Grohl n Diddy.
Here's another controversial subject: Genius. Basically, I think that Biggie and Kurt were geniuses in their way, and I don't think Grohl or Diddy are, in any way. They're more the worker-bee type; they do their best, have a flair for being social and mellow, just generally work hard and take life easily. By all accounts, that wasn't the case for either Kurt or Biggie. I've heard & read that they were both quiet, temperamental sweethearts, both troubled, with various addictions and compulsions to wrestle with. The personality part matters to me, because it's relatively well-documented that genius and social awkwardness go hand-in-hand. Somewhere on the spectrum of Savant / Asperger's kinda stuff. I'm interested in the topic.
More importantly, the art bears out the differences pretty clearly.
Simply put, Diddy's business instinct has been as razor-sharp as his flow has not. He's made some beats and production choices worth noticing, but he's no Timbaland / Dre / Bomb Squad, etc. His success has primarily been in branding, promotion, talent-scouting, celebrity, etc. Again, he's been really great at all that. Biggie was just about the opposite of all that. He wasn't particularly savvy as far as I've read/heard, but his voice, flow and presence were instantly recognizable, honest and undeniable. Like Kurt. All the music stuff aside, those guys were just gorgeous, larger-than-life entities. I know they have the James Dean / Marilyn Monroe factor, the dying-young-and-perfect thing that we love to worship, but still. They really were that special.
Grohl is the most singular and musical rock drummer still going, which is saying a lot. He's pretty well synthesized the best of the great rock drumming innovators (Bonham, Copeland, Peart, Moon), kept that metal / punk-rock mania pulsing, and dusted it all with a truly songwriterly approach to playing. Great stuff. He seems like a happy, grateful, fun guy, and he works his ass off. He's written a handful of great songs along the way. My fave is actually still this old Nirvana b-side, I think it's called 'Magnolia'. Anyway, 'Everlong', '…Hero', 'Monkeywrench', some other good ones for sure, can't think of the names of a couple, I'm sure lots of people have their faves… And none of them are anywhere near 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' or countless other Nirvana songs. It's worth noting that Grohl definitely lifted that band to a new level with his playing, helped make it what it is, but even pre-Grohl, there were such effortless gems. Also, Grohl's musicality benefitted greatly from those years, as anyone's would have. I'm sure Diddy's did too. It must be a great thing to be around geniuses, let alone make stuff with them. I've rarely, if ever, experienced it, but I know what it is to be inspired and fired up being around great talent; exciting and life-changing stuff.
'Teen Spirit' alone is one of those songs that is so good, you have to just remember someone actually wrote it. It didn't just come from the sun or something. Kurt's impossibly simple, perfect melodies and changes. His obtuse, touching lyrics that got to you even when you had no idea what he was talking about -- just perfectly weird and astonishing pop/rock/punk genre-transcending masterpieces. And then, his voice; impossibly dynamic, somehow perfectly tuneful and completely chaotic all at once, soothing and unsettling, all the great paradoxes. Even his playing was stunning and visceral, in its messy way. In contrast, Grohl's growl/croon schtick is overdone, mediocre at best and simply nothing special. I like the croon much more, personally. In the studio he gets the screams goin pretty great, but still. He can play guitar really well, especially his right hand, but he doesn't have any sort of individuality to it that's worth remembering.
I could go on. I already have. Again, I'm not saying that Grohl n Diddy don't have talent, etc. I'm just saying that neither of them would have nearly the cultural or commercial staying power they've had without the ghosts of the geniuses they came up with. Diddy has been much more gross about exploiting it. That bit with Sting onstage butchering 'Every Breath You Take' in 'tribute' to Biggie before his body was even cold is really one of the most depressing things ever. That said, he's moved on, done a lot of other stuff, used the springboard of the mystery of his genius, iconic friend's death very well. As much as that sounds like a put-down, it's not. We all have our circumstances. It still takes talent and hard work to take advantage of them. Grohl has been comparatively tasteful about Kurt's spooky death, but really, if he didn't have the Nirvana / Kurt pedigree and mystique, his tunes would just not be taken nearly as seriously, on any level. His actual musical output shares less with Nirvana than with, say, STP. Again, not a horrible band, perfectly serviceable rock with some great moments, just forgettable. Just as STP wouldn't be if they were still together, the Foos would not be headlining Reading, winning all manner of awards, on every magazine cover like clockwork for 15 years running. They would be one of many, many bands that rode the wave of the early 90s dude-rock innovators (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Pumpkins, Rage, Radiohead, etc). 'Everlong' would be on some compilations and in some movies. 'The Colour And The Shape' would still be a really great record… If it ever got made. Working as hard as Grohl does, even without the Kurt factor, the Foos would have a nice base of ardent fans. He'd be known more for his many face-melting guest-drummer appearances with other artists (Google 'Honeybee Petty SNL Grohl' for a really good time). But see, he wouldn't even be the celebrity guest drummer if not for the Nirvana thing. It's obviously impossible to know what would have been if he'd never met Kurt, if there had never been Nirvana. It's pretty easy to imagine, though, that the Foo Fighters wouldn't be so popular. Perhaps they wouldn't exist at all.
That Diddy & Grohl have done what they've done in the wake of those tragedies is to be commended. I just want intellectually honest critical thinking about these gravely important matters. I'm joking about what a Rock nerd I am right now. Okay, I'm still on a rainy bus ride, and this felt fun to babble about. If you've read this far, go do something way more important. I'm going to try to as well. Here's to music and our crazy, wonderful culture of death and genius and success, whatever Success™ is.