Irony Is A Dead Scene

The Darkness is an enigma, surrounded by a puzzle, wrapped in leopard-print spandex

The interview I had scheduled for this week's music feature was with English hard-rock phenomenon The Darkness. It fell through, however, as interviews with hyped, Rolling Stone-worthy acts are often wont to do for writers with less-than-national exposure.

(I'm actually kind of glad it didn't happen, truth be told. I was feeling obliged to tell whichever member with whom I spoke about the anonymous fan who was so outraged by my lukewarm review of Permission to Land that he broke a window at the Planet offices, taped the review to the door, and wrote "The Darkness Rules" under it — which, of course, would have necessitated telling the artist that I gave his album a lukewarm review. Not that I mind relaying such information, but it's one of those things that, in my experience, can definitely catalyze a less-than-revelatory conversation.)

But I want to write about The Darkness anyway, because I find the hoopla surrounding the band's success endlessly fascinating. There's a bizarre sort of juxtaposition there, with regard to both how the band presents itself, and on what level it is appreciated by various fans.

For those of you who don't know — and, seriously, if you don't know, make some contact with the outside world, stat — The Darkness play riffy, dated big-hair/big-dick melodic rock like it's going out of style or, more appropriately, like it never went out of style. Now, the group's members aver that they're just making the music they love, that there's nothing consciously contrived or kitschy about what they do. Which is all fine and good. However, the fact that numerous elements of their presentation, from vocalist Justin Hawkins' glass-shattering vocal histrionics to the video for "I Believe in a Thing Called Love," which looks an awful lot like every clip from Def Leppard's Pyromania, makes such an assertion all but impossible to believe.

The Darkness has been the biggest thing in their homeland since Oasis for a while now. Their profile in the States, on the other hand, is still new and rising. And their success here surprised lots of folks who didn't think it would happen at all, because of the assumption that American fans would have to digest The Darkness as either hip irony or sincere hair-metal atavism.

A few months back, ever-entertaining Spin senior writer Chuck Klosterman predicted that the band would never be huge here, for that very reason. Klosterman noted that American culture has a hard time embracing entertainment that works on multiple, seemingly contradictory levels, which is a very eloquent way of describing our obsession with simple, swath-cutting labels.

He was speaking in generalities, of course, and he's right. While there are certainly plenty of people capable of enjoying entertainment outside the boundaries of "what it's supposed to be" (my girlfriend, for example, has an inspiring and exasperating knack for enjoying everything from daytime TV to Britney Spears as both tacky noise and valid, enjoyable expression), most of us want to know "what it's supposed to be" before we can pass judgment. Klosterman didn't underestimate mainstream America's lack of patience when it comes to nuance and abstraction.

He did, however, underestimate its insatiable hunger for the hip new thing, for tardily adopting the postures and tastes of the cool kids.

The vandalizing shithead mentioned at the beginning of this column isn't somebody weaned on Zeppelin and Bad Co. who's earnestly glad that sound is making a re-emergence in the form of The Darkness. It's almost certainly a young emo fan and hopeless irony addict who would normally loathe something like The Darkness, were The Darkness not (in his or her eyes) so obviously mocking arena rock excess.

This person doesn't like, or even care about, the music — they just think it's really, really cool to fake being excited about something so uncool that it's cool, to the point that the excitement isn't really fake anymore. And some will surely disagree with me, but I suspect that, even though The Darkness has reached modern-rock radio ubiquity, at least half the band's fans are coming from a similar place.

But certainly not all of them are, and I constantly hear songs from Permission to Land in the company of people I would've assumed didn't care about The Darkness, or actively hated them. Just the other day I was at a birthday party for a guy who, while not exactly a full-fledged hippie, definitely likes a little granola with his yogurt. I'm often pleasantly surprised by what he pops into the CD player, but admit I was floored to hear "Get Your Hands Off My Woman" coming from the speakers.

I actually like Darkness' music, which sounds a bit like Thin Lizzy and L.A. Guns arguing publicly over a favored groupie, before quietly finding a closet in which to fuck each other. It's those flailing, milk-curdling falsetto vocals that constitute the deal-breaker for me. Perhaps not coincidentally, they're also the characteristic of The Darkness that most often leads people to believe that the band can't possibly be serious about what they're doing.

Well, why can't they be half-serious about what they're doing? Why does a band have to be either a novelty or an artistic endeavor? Why can't we appreciate an act as both?

I guess it doesn't really matter in the end. The Darkness might not be encouraging American audiences to appreciate them on multiple levels, but plenty of people are appreciating them on one level or another. And that'll keep them in regular airplay rotation and sold-out mid-size venues until another band comes along and delivers some other hyperbole with a straight face.

At least, that's what the audience will assume they're doing.

Contact Scott Harrell at 813-739-4856, or [email protected].

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