"Play this really fucking loud," M. tells the cab driver, handing him Gluecifer's Basement Apes. The driver slams it into his CD player, cranks up the volume until the cab's windows shake, and guns it: We're zooming at a few hundred mph through the tunnels under Oslo, Norway, and the band's recycled hard-rock riffs suddenly seem as awesome as they want to be.
We're on our way to an after party for the Øyafestival—a four-day music festival in Oslo, for which the Norwegian government has decided it'd be a good idea to fly in some foreign journalists, including me. M.'s a local, a gossip columnist for a Norwegian magazine. She's one of those people who lives to rock; she's got a Smashing Pumpkins logo tattooed on the small of her back. ("It's so vhen da guys are hittin' me from behind, dey can remember who is really my troo loff," she explains.)
Before the after party, though, she decides I have to see an authentic Oslo hipster bar. It's a hangout for the local "casuals": Norwegians who want to be a particular kind of English football hooligan, the kind who wear Izod and Burberry and will rough you up if you don't support their favorite team. (Mike Skinner of the Streets is reputed to be intimate with the subculture. The Streets are among Øya's headliners, and the casuals are very excited about it.) A couple of girls at the bar wear buttons that say "FUCK AMERICAN LIFESTYLE."
I first spot that button at "club night," the night before the Øyafestival's three days of outdoor shows. The club gig I was most eagerly anticipating was Tøyen, a local electronic duo whose adorable new record is called Did You Bring Me on National Television to Tell Me This Too? (Racing Junior). They claim to play music on Sony PlayStations exclusively, and their setup onstage sure looks like it. But the TVs set up in front of them are turned toward them—not the audience—and the novelty wears off after their opening cut-up of a-ha's "Take on Me." (It may have come out 18 years ago, but "Take on Me" was the last major international hit from Norway, and Norwegians are fiercely proud of their boys.) Later that night, though, I stumble on a terrific band with a terrible name: the Low Frequency in Stereo. There's more than a bit of Mogwai in them, but they're much happier to mess with their own formulas.
At Øya's outdoor festival area, the three stages are connected by a long strip of land, and also by a polluted lake, which almost nobody even dips their toes into. (When the Unicorns, from Canada, end their set on Thursday by tossing off their instruments and leaping into the water, the audience gasps, and starts yelling to them not to drink any of it.) Aside from local-boy-made-good Sondre Lerche (whose songs lose something without their recorded versions' space-age-bachelor-pad orchestrations, and gain something else with a giant crowd drunkenly singing along), the big turnouts are mostly for the overseas artists. Thursday's lineup features Air, whose surprisingly exciting set turns their buffed-plastic early hits into prog-rock workouts, as well as the Streets, who reproduce most of A Grand Don't Come for Free note for note.
On Friday night, the headliner is Velvet Revolver. Scott Weiland looks like death warmed over; Slash is wearing a T-shirt that says "SUCK ME FUCK ME LICK ME ALL OVER THEN GET THE FUCK OUT." As one of my traveling companions notes, a little enviously, that counts as an appropriate work outfit if you happen to be Slash. And on Saturday, there's the Lemonheads—really just Evan Dando and the guys he's been playing with lately (sadly, not the semi- re-formed MC5, whom he's been helping front this summer). Still, the audience is delighted to hear them; they were huge over here, back in the day.
If you ask the people who live here, though, Øya is all about the glories of Norwegian music. Everyone I ask for recommendations pores over the schedule, enthusiastically recommending almost every single Norwegian band, with one exception: "There's Black Debbath—well, they're sort of an in-joke band for Norwegians; you probably wouldn't get it."
Kim Hiorthøy, on the other hand, is an unexpected highlight: A well-known Norwegian designer, he's also an electronic musician, and although he spends his set tweaking a mixing board, he's really getting into it—bobbing and dancing so enthusiastically that even the otherwise mellow crowd gets into it, too. And then there are the bands that simply cop familiar styles outright: the ones who want to be the Black Crowes, the ones who want to be Oasis, the ones who want to be Insane Clown Posse, and . . . did you know that there's such a thing as a Norwegian reggae group? They're called Tungtvann, and now you can run away if you ever see their name.
Those bands represent the strangest and saddest thing about Norwegian rock culture, and European rock culture in general. It mostly aspires to be its American or British equivalent—that is, it wants to be sort of as good in exactly the same ways. Sometimes it can be, under the right conditions—at blistering volume in a fast car, say. But the more it cheers the international recognition of its local heroes, the more it fixes the center of the universe outside itself, and sentences itself to just the sort of dependence on the American lifestyle that it's trying to escape.