I REMEMBER the very moment when I knew I'd have to write this little meditation, the blinding flash of insight that didn't feel like real insight—what occurred to me was so obvious. I was spending yet another night hugging the balcony in Irving Plaza, New York City's premier midsized pop music venue, watching yet another set of squeaky fresh "alternative" rock bands toss their highlighted locks around to the factory-floor beat of their radio-friendly songs. This night's headliner was Lifehouse, a not-so- secretly Christian group from Southern California with a singer born to guest star on the WB Network and not an ounce of mess in its sound. The sincerity of these guys made my sinuses throb. Perfectly packaged and lethally effective in their deployment of the modern rock surge, they felt deeply every rock truism that rushed through their Gap-clad bodies.
Now, nothing makes me happier than being in a dark room with hundreds of people swept up by noisy music, joined together on that twofold path: inward, reaching for unarticulated emotions that help them better create their own secret life stories; and outbound, melding with everyone else caught in the flow, relishing the permission rock and roll gives to open up your improper heart. I witnessed that happening as Lifehouse triumphantly commenced its hit single, "Hanging By a Moment," a by-the-book midtempo rouser with a sing-along chorus and a riffy chord progression. Instinctively, I reached into my rock-critic bag of thoughts to pinpoint the thing that made this little ditty stand out from the others on the modern-rock albums clogging my sell pile—trying to assess why Lifehouse's hit earned its status. I sought the kernel of originality there, because there is a moral aspect to the aesthetics of the Top 40, right? Those melodies claiming so much space in our shared consciousness have to justify themselves, if not in terms of authenticity, then by some dint of novelty, cleverness, difference.
Suddenly it occurred to me that my standards might be all wrong. As one of those "maverick" rock scribes who had long embraced commercial trash, regularly ranking Backstreet Boys singles and nu-metal albums high on my annual top-10 lists, I considered myself able to find the seed of innovation in the most seemingly mundane pop offerings. Like approximately one-half of my critical cohorts (the other half are specialists submerged in the nuances of particular genres), I was fighting the noble crusade against elitism by taking every artist I encountered seriously, even those clad in orange pleather and clich鮠Taking artists seriously meant uncovering their distinct contributions to the evolution of the pop language, celebrating how they tweaked it to "make it new." Shania Twain made country new by sexing it up with hair-metal guitars. Mary J. Blige made soul music new by singing like a man from a woman's perspective. Even Creed made blowhard rock new by sandblasting that style's grand gestures until they shone clean again.
But maybe new wasn't the point. In fact, maybe it was a problem to be remedied. Listening to Lifehouse, I felt a spike of appreciation for qualities not usually valued in contemporary art, and certainly not important in rock and roll. Consistency was Lifehouse's strength; the band showed a workmanlike dedication to replicating the musical and lyrical patterns of every good midtempo ballad that had climbed the charts before. Virtual anonymity, a modest stepping away from the flamboyant personality quirks of most rock stars, was its goal. Lifehouse gave its audience the same old feeling by the same old route. Perhaps this was more than OK—perhaps this refusal or originality, in the servants of the congregation gathered to partake of rock's ritual, propelled Lifehouse to excellence as surely as outrageousness made legends of Little Richard and Elvis. Certainly, the fans singing Lifehouse's simple lyrics as if this were "Amazing Grace" weren't so naive as to imagine no one had said these things this way before. Instead, this banality was just what they needed to feel included and safe. Was it still rock and roll? That was the question that challenged so much of what I'd long believed.
Formerly a pop critic for The New York Times and a senior editor for the Village Voice, Ann Powers now works as a senior curator at EMP. She'll discuss "Pop as Pop" at 1:30 p.m. on Sat., April 13.