The New Old Flower-Power Fantasy of Greta Van Fleet
If Greta Van Fleet are that wonderful horrible thing called zeitgeisty, that zeitgeist is defined by desire to escape to a fantasized past where the battles were cleaner and the battle lines simpler than today's appear to be.
By late 2018, nostalgia seemed to be outlasting the lifespans of most fashion trends and collective middle-age crises. The resurrection spree that encompassed Roseanne, Will & Grace, Murphy Brown, Cabbage Patch Kids, high-waisted jeans, wide-leg jeans and bell-bottoms, and record players was becoming a catchall, ferrying trash as well as treasure back to the future.
That October, approximately three years after Washington Post journalist Hank Stuever diagnosed our culture (re: Fuller House) as having reached "the point where nostalgia becomes more like necrophilia", a rock album with undertones of eco-consciousness and sitar-y, shag-carpet-colored overtones was released. The album was Anthem of the Peaceful Army. And depending on who you ask, the group represent heirs or insults to the legacy of '70s rock and, specifically, Led Zeppelin.
While many critics have dismissed Greta Van Fleet, scathingly at times, it hasn't done much to dent their success. In 2019, they won the iHeartRadio Music Award for Rock Song of the Year, Loudwire's award for Best New Artist, and the Grammy for Best Rock Album. After appearing as first musical guest of the same year on Saturday Night Live, they played a sold-out tour. And there was that small matter of Elton John saying they made "the best rock'n'roll I've heard in 20 fucking years!"
Were they pioneers revivalists, it would be easy to pin Greta Van Fleet's grand splash on the novelty factor—finally a young set of good ol' boys who dispense with the modern mainstream sameness. (Though it should be noted, a version of that attitude certainly often greets revivalists—and certainly ignores the richness of the DIY indie scene and the diverse rockers driving it forward.) On the contrary, however, it seems as though several years ago the call went out that classic rock was dying and musicians everywhere took on the role of paramedics rushing to the scene.
Also sometimes compared to Led Zeppelin, along with the Black Crowes, Rival Sons have—like Greta Van Fleet—been credited with saving rock. Of the many people who've taken grooming, sartorial, and vocal cues from Freddie Mercury, Luke Spiller of the Struts is probably responsible for the most double-takes, on all accounts. If you didn't already know "Who Do You Love" was by the band Dorothy, you'd be forgiven your split-second belief that Jefferson Airplane was back in the studio.
Greta Van Fleet have stood out—but not because their time-traveling approach to music is rare. They have simply risen to the crest of an apparent retro wave in modern rock, which, on one hand, could hardly be thought anomalous as retail stores continue hawking tube tops, Teddy Ruxpins, and Taylor Swift on vinyl.
On the other hand, for the born-to-be-badass genre of rock to keep branding revivalists as saviors and to credit Greta Van Fleet, specifically, with "the potential resurgence of rock'n'roll as a cultural force" smacks of something deeper than trickle-down vogue.
At the dawn of 2020, humanity is in talks to mount a millennium-long space trip to save ourselves, deepfakes and ambitious AI are the stuff of think pieces, Boyan Slat is saving oceans not with clipboard petitions but with crowdfunded tech, social media networks' knowing susceptibility to hacky political ads is an issue of Congressional concern, the future is female, and thanks to the 24/7 mainlining of micronews, we are all continually aware of how splintered we feel about these developments and more.
At the dawn of 2020, also, Greta Van Fleet are gearing up to release a second album prior to their South American tour with Metallica in April. The open-hearted fealty of their fans, whom Twitter's census puts at 136.3K plus, has a way of casting their critics as myopic killjoys. The official video for the song that brought them to the world's attention, "Highway Tune" has now been viewed more than 57.5 million times. The breakout throwbacks are doin' alright.
For rock fans among a generation of futurists to latch onto revivalists this hard hints at some degree of cultural dissonance; this is made all the clearer when the revivalist band in question could—from style to substance—fit effortlessly into those years when rock got hard and album-oriented but before it had been smoothed to the Happy Meal appeal of Foreigner, Journey, and Kansas.
The years leading up to Nixon's resignation in August 1974 and the Fall of Saigon in April 1975.
The years when the American counterculture was not only still in effect but — apparently—poised to win the culture war.
* * *
Although we've retconned them into spokespeople of the '60s and '70s, real hippies were always in the minority.
The majority didn't embrace the summer of love. And criticism of the Haight-Ashbury crowd as unpatriotic, lazy, and lost doesn't seem to have become all that exaggerated through retellings; reverberations from the mighty wrist slap that was Mark Harris's 1967 Atlantic essay "The Flowering of the Hippies" might dislodge peace signs from the raised hands of bohemians still today.
The criticism wasn't entirely without merit: it remains hard to swallow the idea of, as Harris put it, "white middle-class hippies who had dropped out of affluence to play games of poverty", when poverty was an inescapable state for many of the people they proposed to champion. But underneath its bullshit and blind spots, the movement did have a heart. It cared about things that, in retrospect, seem obvious. Equality between the sexes. Civil liberties. Civil rights. Inclusivity. Earth.
And if you don't look too hard , it almost appears as though having a heart was enough. Because there's a very real sense in which the counterculture movement, comprised of a small percentage of the colossal baby boom and broadly detested, won.
By the mid-'70s, many of the more palatable features of the counterculture had become standard in wider culture. Feminism, environmentalism, and other causes dear to its proudly bleeding heart advanced. Its absorption into the mainstream looked like the loosening up of pearl-clutching censorship and a dissemination of "live and let live" attitudes regarding sex and the inauguration of Earth Day and the popularity of Behind the Green Door and blue jeans for all.
The movement's ethics had come to define a new morality considered fair and smart enough to make conservatism look Mesozoic. And its media—most notably its music—had come to define the new cool.
* * *
Tying with sex and drugs for most recognizable emblem of the era, rock 'n' roll at the turn of the '70s was subject to the same uphill battle and eventual victory as the larger counterculture.
For rock, adoption by the mainstream looked like Jesus Christ Superstar pulling its rhythms from rock and a record-breaking crowd showing up for the Watkins Glen festival featuring the Allman Brothers and the Band in July 1973 and big-deal rock acts regularly appearing on the Midnight Special variety show. Rock was, according to the AV Club's Jason Heller, "settling in for the long haul as the cultural default setting of the Western world."
And there was never really a question about who the breakout stars of this new default were. One of several British bands we would adopt into dual-culturalship, Led Zeppelin were the biggest band of the '70s, if not of all time. How big were Zeppelin? In an excellent article in Slate, Jack Hamilton sums up their influence: "We have Led Zeppelin to blame for Creed; we have Led Zeppelin to thank for the White Stripes."
While the band's talent and hustle can't be disregarded, there are some adjacent explanations for the extremes their success reached. With their combination of guitar-driven heavy music, blues, folk, and harmless mysticism, they provided an easy transition from '60s psychedelia to the big hard rock of the '70s. They set the politically savvy sloganeering of the day to music whose throaty, flamboyant depths sounded dominant. If the basic tone of '60s rock had said, "Please hear us out, brother," in the early '70s, Zeppelin reworded that exhortation so it began "YOU WILL."
Zeppelin became expert vendors of big-cocked flower power: that marriage between the inherent aggression of hard rock and the stoned, sexually liberated, system-bucking naturalism of the movement (a combination of forces never clearer than in "Misty Mountain Hop"). And huge crowds of people were ready to buy what they were selling.
Led Zeppelin's sound was the sound of hippies who had become confident that, at long last, they were The Man.
* * *
No matter how much those spiritual successors of the Beat Generation may have objected to capitalism on paper, they tended to be young, white, and middle class, which generally endowed them with considerable buying power. And even if they weren't the majority, there were a lot of them — they formed a revered market demographic. Recognizing as much, evolving, and in some cases perhaps being genuinely devoted to the cause, industries became wizards at commodifying the counterculture's sentiments.
You Are Not So Smart author David McRaney says, "In the 1960s, it took months before someone figured out they could sell tie-dyed shirts and bell bottoms to anyone who wanted to rebel. In the 1990s, it took weeks to start selling flannel shirts and Doc Martens to people in the Deep South."
In the thick of the counterculture's momentum, companies figured out the art of accessorizing the underdog. As for the underdogs? Merch and media imbued with their brand of outsider cool was arguably more effective than sandwich boards at disseminating their vibe. Whether or not you championed the core tenets of the movement, damn did its couture know how to pull off a statement piece. Damn was its color scheme feel-good. Damn did its proverbs pop on bumper stickers.
People have been debating the fairness of the feats achievable with money — especially the passed-down parental type of money hippies were perceived to survive on—for ages and aren't likely to stop anytime soon. But as methodologies go for winning a culture war where the other side claims patriotism, duty, masculinity, femininity, and God, opening your wallet (or closing it in boycott) is relatively simple. Aided by their banks, the rich-eating rebels popularized a look, a funk, an artistic bent and, through these and other fashionable extensions, kept promulgating their philosophy lite.
And did we tell you the name of the game, boy? The massive star of Led Zeppelin — and for that matter, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, and basically anyone else who could qualify as voice of generation — was bought. Or, rather, sold.
The would-be classic "rock star behavior" Zeppelin universalized looked like a commemoration of untightened social and sexual mores, and it was; but it was enabled by lots and lots and lots and lots of money. For Zeppelin in the early '70s, one night's work could mean $1.5 million. The band demonstrated the rebellious side's win in their tone (thunderous) and the allocation of their wealth (unbridled celebration). If you were the vicarious-living sort, you could probably forgive them much of their quote-unquote problematic behavior because they were, in a sense, the guys throwing your party.
* * *
Greta Van Fleet onstage at the Red River Valley Fair, West Fargo, North Dakota, 2017 (L–R: Sam Kiszka, Josh Kiszka, Jake Kiszka, Danny Wagner) [Photo: Troy Larson (cropped) / Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 4.0]
If you try to figure out which of reboot culture's main freights — trash or treasure — accounts for Greta Van Fleet, you won't find an answer in their critical reception, which reads like an ode to the asshole you hate yourself for loving: that over-the-top, ridiculous, cocksure, wretched, vampiric, undeniably talented god.
In fact, the only takeaway from their so-called critical consensus seems to be that Greta Van Fleet are polarizing ... but then Starbucks holiday cups, gluten, keto, ASMR and emotional support animals, Al Franken, Facebook, Twitter, who sits by who and who chants what at ball games, Netflix stand-up, and fireworks and balloons and plastic straws have all proven adept parters of the Red, White, and Blue Sea.
Sowing discord, in itself, doesn't mean much in a society that appears to have long ago bypassed divided on its way to kablooeyed.
In a commencement address, Bloomberg said, "Think about this: In 1960, only 4 to 5 percent of Democrats and Republicans said they would be upset if a member of their family married someone from the opposing party. In 2010, one in three Democrats and one in two Republicans said they would disapprove of such a marriage."
The Pew Research Center found that, from 1994 to 2014, the percentage of Americans expressing "consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions [increased] ... from 10% to 21%", resulting in a political spread that would make Sir Mix-A-Lot happy—it is little in the middle. The percentage of those on both sides who view the other as dangerous for the health of the nation steadily increased over the same 20-year period.
In other words, on one hand, we have been shifting left and right, and holing up in silos far removed from the center, for some time now. On a not altogether different hand, it's now wildly convenient to see, parse, and regurgitate our differences. Trump helped bring our divisions to light, yes, but our digital habitats also make conspicuous once-underlying contentions, and perhaps incubate them as well.
It's easy for us to link up our grievances with those of a digital tribe.
Some of our chief communication venues encourage terse messaging ill-suited to refined arguments.
Shared, highlighted, quoted, and liked think pieces abound, on behalf of multiple politico-philosophical facets, bludgeoning the concept of unity for unity's sake.
Social media's ball-of-wax composition has preceded a rise in infotainment that satisfies both a need to feel caught up/cultivated and a desire for the insta-gratification of gossip. Nothing fits the bill so perfectly as constant coverage of the fires we start and then don't so much extinguish as wander away from because no one fire stays enthralling for long.
Our internet lives can easily shrivel to echo chambers in which battle cries as sober and nuanced as "fuck 'em" get points for savagery, which matters inasmuch as savagery has seemingly eclipsed rival criteria as the benchmark of social power.
An argument could be made that Greta Van Fleet are this generation's Led Zeppelin not because they sound like 'em but because they personify a zeitgeist as Zeppelin once did—only it's slightly easier to identify, at least in retrospect, what cultural mood Zep embodied. If theirs was the age of bellowing bohemians, do people respond to Greta Van Fleet because they're the perfect doe-eyed firestarters, allowing us to engage in the flame wars that define our era? After all, what could be more appropriate than a band whose very existence prompts arguments about retro-fetishism, with all its political entanglements, and progress? Whose critics and defenders are equally apt to tendentiously froth at the keyboard?
However, Greta Van Fleet only seem a thousand times more divisive than Led Zeppelin were because the latter's legend seems monolithic from where we stand now. The reality is there was nothing homogeneous about critics' reaction to the '70s/world's biggest band. (If you think that 1.6-out-of-10 Pitchfork review of Greta Van Fleet's album was an unprecedented sort of nasty, check out what Rolling Stone said about Led Zeppelin.)
The reality, in fact, is that no sooner did rock start raking it in, inhaling and exhaling the culture's mood, winning, than prominent critics began pronouncing real rock dead. To historian Piero Scaruffi, the early '70s constituted a "dark age" of rock, when "the Establishment did not try to obliterate it: it absorbed it." (Let's shelve all arguments about the "rockist" stance that attitude supposedly borders on and focus, for now, on the fact that "rock is dead!" is no newfangled gripe. There were plenty of people who thought Led Zeppelin, with their spotlight big as a werewolf-conjuring moon and their jackass antics and their money stacked to god, were the horsemen of the original rockalypse.)
The reality is that the past tends to seem straightforward and clean only in retrospect.
If Greta Van Fleet's popularity indicates anything—beyond the baseline that more than a handful of people like what they do—I believe it indicates widespread grateful indulgence in a certain fantasy. A desire to reboot not what hardcore beads-and-bellbottoms rock actually represented (the mainstreaming of a once-fringe sound and movement that was made possible with compromise and the wielding of significant capital and which arguably preceded the great smoothing of rock's edge) but what we wish it represented.
At the meeting point of fantasy and collective memory — where, for so many of us, the all-American counterculture lives — complex factors get simplified. Romance is preserved; issues of privilege are forgotten. Culture wars are won or lost rather than tacitly negotiated toward a tolerable middle; we don't look behind the curtain at the currency dynamics, issues of accurate representation, and so on. We're happy enough to look back and chalk up an apparent victory to the winning formula of being big-hearted, young, and right.
In the fantasy, a scrappy little movement once fell uniformly on the right side of history and their oppressors on the wrong. The bleeding-heart longshots won, celebrated their victory with debauched Gatsby parties and uncomplicated love and wailing anthems, and the world cheered them on. In the fantasy, as soon as the counterculture prevailed, the present fell into harmony—and the future looked nothing like a giant ticking question mark.
If Greta Van Fleet are indeed that wonderful horrible thing called zeitgeisty, that zeitgeist is defined by desire to escape to a fantasized past where the battles were cleaner and the battle lines simpler than today's appear to be.
Which still leaves the not-negligible question of what all this means for the band—or, more to the point, for their fans.
Is liking or disliking a band so enmeshed in culture, history, problematic spiritual heritage, issues, etc., now an inherently political gesture? When you buy their music or don't, are you voting for or boycotting a counterculture reboot with its trailing complex web of factors? Is being a fan, or hater, now unavoidably indicative of something about you as a civilian, a patriot, an evolved or regressive soul? Is there any such thing as just liking Greta Van Fleet?
As a writer, I've been fascinated by this band—what they say about the state of the industry, the culture, the staying power of classic rock or the intractability of Boomers' youthful tastes, chivalry in all its stickiness, the death not of rock but of the romance that certainly once framed rock excess, etc., etc.—since nearly the beginning. But even now, every time I hear "Highway Tune", I experience a still-fulfilling if fainter iteration of what I felt in the very beginning, when I heard the train-howl opening of that song and the "Oooooohhhhhh mmmaaammmaaaa" heard 'round rock radio: when my brain, set to coast in its casual-listening mode, recognized it had been improperly geared to process a moment, something I just had caught the edge of, and scrambled in a way I can only compare to Scooby-Doo running toward a treat or away from a ghost, determined to rewind and re-hear that introduction however many times it took until I'd made peace with how much bigger it felt than anything I'd listened to in a very long time, and wondering what I still wonder —"Who are they?"
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