Foo Fighters
Photo: Courtesy of Nasty Little Man

How Dave Grohl Changed the Mythology of Rock ‘n’ Roll

Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl crushes the bad boy of rock ‘n’ roll persona that the Rolling Stones rely on and raises the bar with simple, humble, badass happiness.

Two seemingly incompatible things about Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters are true: he is safe, and he is cool. In fact, some of his coolness appears to stem from being safe. Writing about a recent incident in which Grohl brought his daughter Violet on stage at Lollapalooza to sing a cover of “Nausea” by X, Josh Carter for Alternative Press suggests he had “once again proven that he’s one of the coolest guys in music.”

It doesn’t take much fracking to reach the inherent cool in covering a song from an LA punk band whose drummer, a man named D. J. Bonebrake, was also known to drum for the band Germs. A song that requires you to sing, “Bloody red eyes go to nausea”, again and again to more than 100,000 in-person fans just is fucking cool. However, that isn’t what Carter was referring to, or what most fans were excitedly tweeting about in the days that followed.

What was so cool, specifically, was that Grohl was yet again being his happy family-man self. He was publicly ushering his 15-year-old daughter, Violet, into the rock spotlight, a space that is notoriously fraught for young women. Then he was leading a stadium of fans who had just heard him sing, “For lunch, that’s all you get to taste / poverty and spit”, in a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” for his seven-year-old daughter, Ophelia.

Maybe if “Nausea” weren’t such an exercise in punk depravity—and maybe if the child being sung to afterward weren’t a year younger than the character Kevin McAllister in Chris ColumbusHome Alone (1990)—the contrast wouldn’t merit comment. However, because the opposite components registered as extreme opposites, the whole event highlighted what Grohl has been able to accomplish in a music career approximately half the length of Mick Jagger’s.

Speaking of Jagger, the Rolling Stones’ first manager viewed the band as England’s bad boys—the “anti-Beatles”. While there would be an uncountable number of bad-boy bands along the way, the Rolling Stones did a lot to solidify the sex and drugs part of rock ’n’ roll mythology. From the time their singles began hitting the airwaves in 1963 if not before, rock was the official genre for pissing off parents.

In Grohl, the world saw a committed husband and father, someone regarded as a good guy by most people who’d worked with him, and the sovereign leader of America’s biggest rock band. That he fused two apparently contradictory worlds is impressive. That he did it while mostly staying in the good graces of the famously snarly rock press and remaining adored in fans’ eyes is the result of more than just skill, charm, and serendipity.

Writing for The Ringer, Rob Harvilla gives Dave Grohl credit for “winsome pop sensibility and radiant goofiness”, which are qualities that would naturally undercut any danger that lurked about him as a man of rock. If you’re familiar with Grohl from the candy-colored, costumed days of “Big Me” (1995) and “Learning to Fly” (1999), you also know he has considerably tamped down his campiness over time . . . with a few notable exceptions (see his elder drag in the music video for 2017’s “Run”). 

Most of the showmanship Grohl gives us now is straightforward by comparison to peak Silly Dave. In fact, he’s made perhaps the most serious move of his career by writing a book, The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, on whose cover he sports glasses and gazes pensively toward the spine. 

But his ascent (or descent, depending on who you ask) into seriousness has not prevented him from joking about his nostrils being so big you can see his brain, going ALL IN on a drum battle with Nandi Bushell, and whiling away the pandemic by sharing true stories full of all-caps typing, creative grammar, and heart. 

In other words, for Grohl, gravity and professionalism don’t preclude having fun. While a certain degree of aloofness, which perhaps goes on hiatus for concerts but comes rushing back for interviews, has long been associated with rock-star allure, Grohl still seems excited to be in the spotlight. The Foo Fighters’ heights of international fame indicate that wide swaths of rock fans are on board with Grohl’s folksy charisma. The cool factor is a staple of rock—and the consensus holds that Grohl has it—but he seems to have evinced that the “bad boy” factor is not.

In fact, while occasionally someone dings him for overexposure, any accusations he faces of uncoolness tend to be based on the music itself. 

Foo Fighters has always been his band, to such a degree that Taylor Hawkins is sometimes endearingly referred to as “Dave Grohl’s drum machine”. From the days when Grohl made his debut solo album under the name Foo Fighters to his self-isolating in an Ojai, California AirBNB to write the band’s 2017 album Concrete and Gold, he has always seemed to be that rare bird: the nice perfectionist. He supports his bandmates in their side projects and seems invested in their individual contributions, but Foo Fighters’ music is going to be no less than what he envisions. The music is, in other words, an accurate reflection of his intentions.

It seems possible that the difference between Grohl’s and many others’ approaches to rock ’n’ roll is that he is an ambitious long-term thinker. Nobody gets into rock without caring, and deeply, about the fulfillment of a personal dream—but it’s a dream that crashes and burns after a few years for many. In a profile for the New York Times, Jeremy Gordon spells out how Grohl is “a survivor of his old band, his era, and trend after trend after trend.” 

Whether you believe his image is a calculated result, whether you think he’s leaning on the dad thing a little hard, or whether you think any such speculation feels pessimistic: Grohl’s centrist career in rock reflects some endgame. Had he not known what he wanted from early on, his trajectory would have zigged and zagged like most artists’. But he didn’t simply know what he wanted—he saw how to get there. 

He had seen Nirvana’s star rise with a hard swing of the culture’s reflexive mood; perhaps from that, he took the lesson that, while he couldn’t predict the popularity of music scenes, it was reasonable to have faith in the staying power of mainstream hard rock. He has made no bones about the fact that he didn’t want Foo Fighters to be the dangerous band Nirvana had been, but it’s apparent that he also didn’t want his forever-band to be confined by the parameters of grunge or any other subgenre. There was foresight and confidence in the decision to commit everything, as he did, to rock’s middle path.

Had he been any less skilled, any less of a perfectionist with a blue-collar ethic, results would have probably been abysmal. As it stands, however, his work-hard approach to rock has resulted in a career’s worth of music that—while it might not have broken the mold—has kept fans hooked for good reason. 

Foo Fighters’ earlier hits like “Everlong” (1997) and “All My Life” (2002) are enormous, but the band has also reliably delivered rock jams in the years since. The newest album, Medicine at Midnight (2021) was well received by most critics and fans. And when it comes to their previous album, Concrete and Gold, well, just try cranking up “Make It Right” without jiggling your leg to the annoyance of everyone around you. Or “The Sky Is a Neighborhood” without drifting off to some fantasy where you’re a superhero complete with a cape. Or the metal jungle disco number “La Dee Da” (perhaps the band’s most purely fun song of all time) without dancing your ass off. It’s all safe mainstream rock, but it’s generally enjoyable enough to make you wonder why that sounds like such a bad thing. 

In the same way, Grohl himself is enjoyable enough to make you wonder why being a safe rock star just sounds wrong.

He does so little to engage the rock star persona that what he does is telling. He’s happy to let you know he’s an epic drinker who knows how to roar an f-bomb (such as that “FUCK YOU, DARRELL!” that serves as the benediction of Concrete and Gold). He’s a T-shirt-and-jeans-wearing, bearded frontman known for slinging his long hair around tornado-like. He’s all about charging riffs and lyrics that are tertiary to music and vocal sound. Throw in the occasional metal growl, and you have a prototypical rock star in all ways except being an elusive asshole.

But then, the big question isn’t whether Grohl is a good guy or even whether he’s, well, good. He is a man of raw talent, which he has spent methodically over the years. The question also isn’t whether he’s smart: he has achieved longevity in music through Foo Fighters’ strategic songbook. Never have they meandered so far from the center of rock that they risked falling in with a current style—reflective of an intense but fleeting cultural mood—and then fading when it did. 

If the goals were to not die a trend, to not offend the fanbase, and to forge a mature and conscientious path through the Rock ’n’ Roll Dream, all while delivering committed entertainment, Grohl is one of few successes. That alone is enough to make a person ask the real question: What exactly does rock mean now? 

The lifestyle we refer to as rock ‘n’ roll has always been eternal childhood laced with adult thrills. Dave Grohl’s legacy might just be amending that dream to include lasting happiness. 


Work Cited

Anderson, Sarah. “50 Incredibly Geeky Facts About Dave Grohl”. NME. 14 January 2015.

Carter, Josh. “Dave Grohl Invites Daughter Violet Onstage to Cover X’s ‘Nausea’—Watch”. Alternative Press. 2 August 2021.

Garcia, Dan. “8 Major Moments from Lollapalooza 2021”. OnMilwaukee. 2 August 2021.

Gordon, Jeremy. “Dave Grohl’s Epic Drum Battle With 10-Year-Old Nandi Bushell”. New York Times. 9 November 2020. 

Gordon, Jeremy. “Foo Fighters Wanted to Rule Rock. 25 Years Later, They’re Still Roaring”. New York Times. 1 February 2021. 

Hahn, Bill. “I’m Beginning to Think Dave Grohl Is a Publicity Whore”. KRNA Classic Rock. 3 March 2016.

Harvilla, Rob. “The Foo Fighters Are Still Medium-Cool. And That’s Perfectly OK”. The Ringer. 9 February 2021.

King, Louise. “Taylor Hawkins on Birds of Satan and Foo Fighters”. MusicRadar. 5 June 2014.

May, Emma. “Dave Grohl Details New Foo Fighters Album Concrete and Gold”. SPIN. 27 July 2017.

Murray, Robin. “Foo Fighters on Their Band Name”. Clash. 11 January 2010. 

Schwartz, Shelly. “A History of the Rolling Stones”. LiveAbout. 14 January 2020.

Zemler, Emily. “Dave Grohl Will Share ‘True Short Stories’ During Self-Quarantine”. Rolling Stone. 25 March 2020.

FROM THE POPMATTERS ARCHIVES
PopMatters