Every generation of rock music has seen bands that both defy and celebrate previous traditions. A sound comes out of these types of creative environments that can be classified as familiar and nostalgic, yet also new and exploratory. Front man Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney seem to fuse these two opposing natures in their music and through their stage presence as the award-winning band The Black Keys. Their music is categorized as “rock,” but part of the band’s exciting and elusive appeal to Generation Y is the difficulty of defining the band’s genre and style.
The Black Keys are often cited as being influenced by blues music, but in an interview with The Independent, Auerbach and Carney have both expressed that it is “ridiculous to say we play blues music,” emphasizing their hip-hop influences instead.
Then, explaining his love for rock & roll in a Rolling Stone article, Carney talked about his beef with today’s rock direction.
In the interview from Rolling Stone, Carney explained his disdain and the meaning of rock & roll: ”Rock & roll is dying because people became OK with Nickelback being the biggest band in the world,” he says, blowing cigarette smoke out the window of his rented East Village loft a few days before the band heads to L.A. “So they became OK with the idea that the biggest rock band in the world is always going to be shit – therefore you should never try to be the biggest rock band in the world. Fuck that! Rock & roll is the music I feel the most passionately about, and I don’t like to see it fucking ruined and spoon-fed down our throats in this watered-down, post-grunge crap, horrendous shit. When people start lumping us into that kind of shit, it’s like, ‘Fuck you,’ honestly.”
The Keys’ musical style fuses elements of rock, blues, soul, funk, and hip-hop, reflecting this generation’s hunger for remix culture. With the mass commercial success in 2010 of Brothers, and hits such as “Tighten Up” and “Howlin’ for You,” The Black Keys became known internationally and were soon on everyone’s iPod playlists, from your best friend, to your bluegrass-loving dad. Amidst all the sudden, massive exposure of the band through various forms of media, it can sometimes be easy to forget that The Black Keys are not new to the music scene. Since their formation in Ohio in 2001, the band build a foundation of loyal fans that has carried them through all times, both the good and bad, and has only expanded with recent mainstream success.
As Auerbach and Carney continue to experiment, it becomes clear that you really can’t assign a label or a genre to The Black Keys, which only makes the band more intriguing for a postmodern (or post-postmodern) generation. In this cultural climate of aversion to labels and narrowly defined identities, musicians and artists who embrace remix styles are the ones who make it to the top. Think of Girl Talk, Lady Gaga, Janelle Monae or YouTube sensations such as Pomplamoose and Karmin: all fuse genres and revive influences of the past, and are rewarded with fandom and exposure.
It is no wonder then that The Black Keys continue to exceed our expectations and to challenge industry norms. When they first began making music, the band was repeatedly compared to that other rock duo with Garage band roots, The White Stripes. To set themselves apart from the rush of post-punk revival bands, Auerback and Carney incorporated influences that ranged from bluegrass to psychedelia, offering a gritty and unrestraint sound. Despite initial, somewhat negative, comparisons to bands like the White Stripes and a 10-year ascent to their current fame, The Black Keys members Auerback and Carney pushed through obstacles and persevered to enjoy their current success.
Now, hot off their success from Brothers, The Black Keys are trying something completely different with their recent hip-hop project, BLAKROC. The collaborative project includes work with 11 hip-hop artists, such as Mos Def, Ludacris, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. You could argue that to their fans, The Black Keys represent the sort of iconic rock stars that our generation could be proud to claim: authentic, irreverent, and fueled by a real desire to traverse through unexplored musical terrains. Bulldozing their way through the music scene of the present, while retaining, whether consciously or not, remnants of the music of the past, The Black Keys offer that elusive mix of originality, nostalgia, and collaboration. The Black Keys continue blazing their own way into this time of experimentation, showcasing the kind of talent and determination that Millennials can respect.