Greta Van Fleet vs. Poptimism

Greta Van Fleet’s new album, The Battle at Garden’s Gate, seeks revenge on the critics who have dismissed the band for no reason.

by Marshall Bowden

I’ve been aware of Greta Van Fleet for awhile now and I never bothered to listen to them until the release of their new album brought a new round of reviews and criticism from the self-congratulatory stew that is the domain of Twitter music writers. I had heard that they were Zeppelin wannabes and it seemed that their music generated an awful lot of controversy for no reason other than that. So I listened to The Battle at Garden’s Gate.

What I found was a band firmly ensconced in a classic rock sound with a vocalist whose mannerisms clearly emulated both Robert Plant and Geddy Lee. Maybe a bit too much, but the kid has a rock voice that is strongly evocative and will likely grow with time. I mean, shit, everyone was jazzed out of their minds about Adam Lambert’s turn as Queen’s replacement vocalist, and many fans were happy with the new Journey guy who was literally discovered doing his Steve Perry vocal thing on YouTube. I understand that these vocalists were hired by the actual classic rock band to fit into their sound and fill in for an iconic vocalist, but come on. Don’t pretend you don’t like it. Don’t pretend you don’t want it.

I read a few reviews and tweets about this record and started to wonder if I had missed something. The level of acrimony aimed at the group seemed completely out of line with the music they produced. Then I realized that a lot of the griping is due to the rise of poptimism as the primary critical voice of our time, and it all fell into place. 

Poptimism’s stated goal is to take music that falls outside the norm prescribed by a white middle-class male perspective, which is the perspective that rock music began with, seriously.  It seeks to add music by these marginalized artists to the canon, or better yet to do away with the idea of a canon of work altogether. That is a worthy goal on the face of it; a lot of the change of perspective that came about because of an emphasis on pop music as well as genres popular with marginalized people was not only welcome, but necessary. You can see the influence of poptimism in 21st century rock music writing and in the reassessment of groups like The B-52s and Duran Duran. 

But that does not mean that everything that falls into that old ‘norm’ perspective doesn’t belong there. Rock music, guitars, and bands have all been pronounced dead numerous times, but you can’t keep a good idea down, and that is why a band like Greta van Fleet is making inroads with listeners now. 

Another area of concern, or rather outright ire, is expressed by a couple of reviewers–Bonnie Stiernberg of Inside Hook and Jeremy Larson of Pitchfork. Stiernberg listened to Battle at the Garden Gates because she received a lot of hate mail from a previous article she had written, one that talked about the current ’70s revival that is playing out across musical genres. She is dismissive of the album, arguing that the group was somehow pitched at those who were too young to remember Led Zeppelin and those whose advanced age made them favorably disposed to music that sounds like Zeppelin. 

Stiernberg tips her hand in that previous article, Suddenly ’70s: The New Retro Influence Set to Dominate Popular Music. In it, she discusses the ’70s influence to be found on recent recordings by St. Vincent and Bruno Mars as well as mentioning GVF. So, how is it OK for a couple of established acts to wander into the ’70s sound bar, but not for GVF?  Stiernberg, tellingly, makes the poptimist argument in favor of celebrating the inauthentic: 

The key difference is that St. Vincent, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak all started as something else. They’ve got the ’70s looks and sounds down pat, but it’s done with the understanding that this is just a phase, that they’re in on the joke, championing the decade’s kitsch with a wink, and they’ll be on to the next thing on the next album cycle. The implication there is that this vibe is being cultivated specifically for this record. Greta Van Fleet, on the other hand, came out of the gate as a Led Zeppelin sound-alike, dressed the part, and haven’t really deviated from that formula since. It’s a fine line, but a clear one: pretending it’s 1973 is cool, but only if you’ve got your own thing going on and are doing it semi-ironically.”

The bottom line? It’s OK to do retro as long as you aren’t serious about it. 

Larson, on the other hand, is vicious in his critique of a record that he considers worthy of only 1.6 points out of 10. Larson is an experienced music writer and he knows better. He’s got to have heard a dump truck’s worth of really shitty music over the years, and yet this is the time he chose to just lose it and beat the crap out of an album based on the fact that it was a personal affront to his aesthetics. I only remember getting that angry once myself, and that was when I reviewed a Paul Anka album (Rock Swings) on which he covers songs like “Black Hole Sun” and “It’s My Life.” I became angry and reviewed the album as a piece of crap because I perceived that the artist didn’t take it seriously. Larson lost it on GVF because, from his perspective, they are a marketing creation, made to ride Spotify’s algorithms to fame and fortune. And they may well do that, but the fault is that of the tech industry and the way that it treats music as a consumable destined for the trash bin. Spotify recommendations of GVF based on ‘If you like Led Zeppelin (or Rush, or whomever) aren’t what’s filling venues and selling records for Greta van Fleet right now. 

It seems that in many ways Greta van Fleet is a revenge on poptimism, because they are popular in the face of critical disdain. They won a Grammy for Best Rock Album and have sold out concert tours, which means that by the populist standards of recent critical favor they should be well regarded. The reason that they are not is precisely because the music they choose to imitate is classic rock. I well remember the general feeling about The Black Crowes 1990-92, when they released Shake Your Money Maker, followed by The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. “I thought we had already gone through all that” said one friend who eschewed the band’s Stones-cum-Faces-with-Allman Brothers-ascendant sound in favor of world music (an acceptable term at that time) and a variety of post punk bands, most of whom I quite enjoyed as well. 

Poor Lenny Kravitz is another example. His every record was labeled ‘retro’ and given short shrift by most music writers. When his memoir came out last year I read a couple of pieces that praised the book and acknowledged that maybe the press had clubbed Lenny a little too much with that retro derivative card over the years. 

It’s also too much to pin all of GVF’s classic rock affectations on a Led Zeppelin fetish. It’s a sign of lazy listening and lazy thinking. For example, the ballad “Light My Love” has very little Zeppelin, and when Josh Kisza hits his high note on each chorus, dropping right on that stratospheric sound from a dead stop, it reminds me more than a little of Jon Anderson. Sure, Jake Kiszka’s guitar riff on “Built By Nations” is straight outta Led Zep IV, but his wah-wah flanged guitar solo at the end of “Broken Bells” is definitely referencing Jimi Hendrix, or maybe Prince. “My Way Soon,” one of my favorite tracks, reminds me more of Little Games-era Yardbirds than Zeppelin. 

I guarantee you that if this was 1990, this is not the conversation we would be having about Great Van Fleet. Remember Stone Temple Pilots, Chris Cornell? We think of these as indie grunge bands, but ultimately they are riff bands, same as GVF, and that pedigree goes back to Aerosmith and Blue Oyster Cult (who I’m sure the GVF boys have heard) on its way back to primordial Led Zeppelin DNA. The main thing that is shocking about GVF is that it is rock and roll and it has made inroads because it hits the music industry’s blind spot. There is a large group of people, many of them young, who are weary of the manufactured and the fake. We’ve been inundated with fake news, fake outrage, fake entertainment, and yeah, to bring up the ultimate rockist bugaboo, a significant number of people are really attracted to a band that plays their own instruments (guitars, bass, drums keyboards), sings in their own voice, and writes their own songs. Even if that band is derivative of others that have come before, even if they are far from perfect. Greta van Fleet is creating excitement because this is all new to them, they are doing a magical mystery tour that was supposed to have been discontinued long ago, the acid sold out, the parking lots empty. 

None of this tells us whether GVF will be around in ten years, whether they will continue to develop and adapt their classic rock leanings into something more personal and intimate. But in the meantime, the poptimists should settle down and take some advice from their own playbook: for God’s sake, let people enjoy things. 

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