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Reading Jonah Weiner‘s Creed encomium yesterday reminded me that when “Higher” hit the airwaves in 1999 as the first single from Creed’s Human Clay, I knew on first listen that I had to learn that song.
When I suggested “Higher” to my guitar instructor, he scoffed. Our arrangement was that I could pick a song to learn (as opposed to having one assigned), only if it supplemented the sight-reading, theory, or scalar focus of our lessons. Radio rock, with the exception of Metallica (pre-Black) and the Foo Fighters (anything from The Colour and the Shape), was verboten.
But when my instructor saw the pull-off in the opening hook for “Higher,” he changed his mind. At first, he didn’t believe that guitarist Mark Tremonti was playing it as transcribed: It required the guitarist to simultaneously make a bar chord at the 7th fret using the first finger (drop-D tuning) while completing a pull-off (on the notoriously fickle G string) that stretched all the way to the 12th fret and required the pinkie and ring fingers. If this makes no sense to you, just imagine having to stretch your fingers much farther apart than feels natural, and doing something elegant with them like that.
In essence, this one musical line changed my instructor’s opinion about Creed, a tough sell considering that very few technically proficient guitarists have anything nice to say about contemporary radio rock. But for many, many people, no convincing was or is necessary. I played “Higher” at parties through college, and the response was always one of warm recognition.
Human Clay is a platinum album, which explains why most people recognize—like, even—the riff from “Higher.” Millions of people bought the album, from which we can extrapolate that many, many people like the album. Is an encomium for a widely purchased album that defined an era of radio rock necessary?
No. Based on sales, longevity, and concert attendance, Creed is actually an overrated band, it’s just not rated by the select tribe of paid music critics whose job is to play taste police.
In Chronic City, the new novel by Jonathan Lethem, the character Perkus Tooth observes that “[r]ock critics gather for purposes of mutual consolation, though they’d never call it that. They believe they’re experts.”
One music writer telling his colleagues that Creed is better than we realize, or, as Ron Rosenbaum argued in January, that Billy Joel is not as good as the millions of people who buy his albums think he is, appears at first glance to be a deviation from the consoling we do so frequently: Talking up indie acts, poorly selling albums, and obscure deep cuts, and bemoaning the bad taste of the masses while railing against the labels that keep them fed and stupid. Yet defending Creed isn’t a break from that; it’s condescension disguised as counter-intuition, and in its own way, a mirror that reflects the impotence of the average music critic: Creed didn’t need Slate in its corner 10 years ago, and it doesn’t need Slate now.
Ironically, Weiner’s piece has been widely reviled by his target audience: people who consider themselves experts. In fact, it’s spawned its own twitter meme. Bloggers with “great taste” have dismissed Weiner’s argument wholesale, and have sworn to hate Creed even more now that one of their own has dared to save the band from their very tiny, very dull pitchforks.
And that, people, is destined to be the exercise’s only value: It reveals the massive divide between what the idiots want and what the smarties want, and the utter futility of suggesting to the latter group that the former is ever correct.