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The Black Keys and the Myth of the Modern Rock Star

Noam Galai, Getty Images

The Black Keys finally scored their first No. 1 album this week. After a decade of releasing them — ‘Turn Blue’ is their eighth LP — and just missing the top spot on the Billboard 200 with their last two albums, they’ve now secured their place in rock ‘n’ roll history.

At least for this week. Or month. Or year. Or for however long this lasts for them. But the truth is, there’s not much that’s all that durable about the music on ‘Turn Blue.’ Not the way that, say, Beatles and Led Zeppelin records will still be played long after all of us are dead. Five or 10 years from now, how often are you going to play ‘Turn Blue’? How often is it going to show up in your playlist six months from now?

That’s not necessarily the Black Keys’ fault. It’s simply the way music is these days. Most artists don’t make records to stand the test of time. A few do — Radiohead, Kanye West, a handful of others — but when you get down to it, most modern-day rock stars are just as guilty of doing the same thing the derided pop market is so often slammed for: making music for now. Not next year. Not next generation. Now.

It’s all part of the modern rock-star package and the myth it wraps itself in. Rock stars don’t look like they used to. Just compare Keys singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach to Robert Plant. Or even Zeppelin drummer John Bonham to Patrick Carney. Bonham looked like the kind of guy who threw televisions out of hotel windows and drove expensive cars into swimming pools. Carney probably couldn’t even lift a TV set.

Taking a look at the Billboard album chart that the Black Keys top this week, they’re the only real rock ‘n’ roll act in the Top 20 besides fellow Ohioans Mushroomhead, a metal band that wears masks and includes members with one-word nicknames. Santana also have a Top 20 album, but when’s the last time they actually, you know, rocked?

This all goes a long in explaining why the Black Keys have become rock ‘n’ roll’s saviors over the past few years. It explains why their albums are almost always breathlessly praised in certain outlets and why just two guys can play arenas that used to house full-powered rock ‘n’ roll bands back in the day. Yes, we’re well aware that the Keys add a couple members to their touring band, but we’re still basically talking about two musicians and a bare-bones set on a stage that essentially dwarfs them.

The music, too, gets lost in this setting. When the Keys started out a decade or so ago in the basement of an Akron home, they were making music made to be played in clubs the size of, well, a basement. And for years that’s exactly where they played. But right around the time that 2010′s ‘Brothers’ supposedly launched a new rock ‘n’ roll revolution, the band graduated to bigger, more dominating venues.

Their music got bigger too — in a way. For the past few records, super-producer Danger Mouse has added various blips and bleeps to the Keys’ music, shading their blacks and whites with a touch of gray. It was a smart move. There’s only so far two white guys from the Midwest can take primitive garage-rock music inspired by a bunch of obscure bluesmen. (Auerbach’s heroes aren’t Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and the usual legends that typically show up when white rockers talk about black blues artists who’ve influenced them; Auerbach’s heroes were on the fringes of an already fringe genre.)

But even back when they were making those primitive, two-guy rock records out of their basement, the Keys and their music didn’t sound like it was built to last. It’s beer-drinking music, Friday- and Saturday-night music. Even, at times, background music. (Can anyone really even tell us what Auerbach is singing about half the time?) But somehow as ‘Brothers’ turned to ‘El Camino’ and ‘El Camino’ turned to ‘Turn Blue,’ the Black Keys became the new millennium’s biggest rock stars.

They’re big enough that they’ve played almost every single late-night TV show during a worldwide media blitz for the new record. They’re big enough that they announced a new arena tour, which doesn’t start for more than three months, with a video that looks low-fi but probably cost way more to produce than most under-the-radar indie rockers’ video budget for an entire year. And they’re big enough that they finally hit No. 1 and have been duly crowned the world’s biggest rock stars.

But there really isn’t all that much rock-star about them. They’ve gone through some messy divorces, and they’ve had some sparring words with other people. But who hasn’t? They really don’t have any rock-god talking points on their resume: no public hissy fits. No private airplanes blocking runways for hours while members “powder their noses.” No fish stories.

And the artists who do have those sorta stories to tell these days aren’t playing music anyone really listens to all that much. These bands have their followings, sure; all bands have their followings. But when’s the last time that real rock-star behavior and real rock ‘n’ roll music ever really amounted to a total package? Nirvana? Not really rock stars. Guns N’ Roses? Maybe. But have you listed to either ‘Use Your Illusion’ albums lately?

This just isn’t the era for rock stars — it hasn’t been for a quarter century now. And we need to stop piling these expectations on bands like the Black Keys, whose records certainly aren’t terrible. But classics? No way. When’s the last time you listened to ‘Attack & Release’? Last time I listened to it was in 2008, the year it came out, and I don’t miss it a bit. And I’m not going to miss ‘Turn Blue’ in 2016.

There are no rock stars anymore. And the Black Keys aren’t the future of rock ‘n’ roll. As soon as everyone calms down about this, we can get around to enjoying the music for what it is. It’s not going to save the world. And it’s not going to matter a few years from now. But it’s what we got. So we might as well make the best of it.

Next: 25 Facts About the Black Keys

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