Shaken, stirred

How relevant is AC/DC? And why can we only buy the new disc at Wal-Mart?
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Everyone has a tale to spin as part of the AC/DC piecemeal mythology/collective unconscious: the moment when the band's music scored the cementing of a lifelong friendship, triggered a scarring bar brawl, or set off a particularly torrid tussle in the otherwise-antiseptic CD aisle of Wal-Mart. Mine occurred in Barstow, during a particularly soused night kicking off a college-ending road trip down Route 66, falling for my long-lashed, ringleted, metal guitar player boyfriend, tossing back Jack and Cokes, and dancing in cutoff hot pants in an almost-empty cow bar to "You Shook Me All Night Long." It's basically impossible to mess up on the dance floor when it comes to that song: all you need to do is wiggle your pinky back and forth to the can't-miss-it-with-a-sledgehammer beat — good times. American thighs and all.

But that was a lifetime ago: how relevant is AC/DC today — apart from providing the fodder for godawful cover versions of "You Shook Me All Night Long" by Celine Dion and Shania Twain? We won't even go into Shakira's wretched "Back in Black." When near-anonymous, rarely grandstanding band members emerge from the silence between albums, they purvey the image of a hard-working, headbanging, rigorously hard-rock constant in a world in the throes of change, an audience-friendly reliable in an unsettled music industry that gives the fans what they want, free of undermining irony and unfamiliar moves. The rock-solid conservative choice for rattled times.

True to its components' working-class roots, the group is the blue-collar rock 'n' roll equivalent of Joe the Plumber: rockers who are pro-rock, hence the innumerable tunes with "rock" in the title and the banishment of power-ballad softness. Get thy Guns N' Roses operatic self-indulgence away from these manly men, churning out the hard stuff as if from a devilishly well-oiled engine à la their current "Rock 'n' Roll Train" stage set. In AC/DC's hands, all is reduced, or elevated, to rock and its all-too-evident properties: solidity, earthiness (hence those free-floating big balls and bombastic babes), and physicality (thus the band's refusal to allow its songs to be sold as MP3s). On the new Black Ice, the juggernaut only slightly slows for the ironclad blues-rock figure of "Decibel." Rockism is almost beside the point — what isn't rock, can't be rocked, won't be rocked doesn't exist in the AC/DC universe. Post-modernist pastiche? Hip-hop? Electro? Psychedelia? Neu-rave? Huh?

That's not to say that AC/DC is rocking in a void, a timeless Platonic plane completely divorced from encroaching reality. The group that appealed to punkers with its disciplined songcraft and streamlined riffs — and nodded to skinheads with the "oi!"s that decorate "T.N.T." — has at various times embraced a palpable sense of danger (witness Angus Young impaled bloodily on a guitar in the video for "If You Want Blood [You've Got It]") while also allowing its music to be licensed to the US Military for use in recruitment ads. Yet Black Ice's "War Machine" offers other ways to parse lyrics like, "Make a stand, show your hand / Call in the high command / Don't think, just obey / I'm like a bird of prey / So better get your name, come on in / Gimme that thing and feed your war," apart from simply "Go Army."

This crack in the armor of certainty — from a combo that hails from ye olde days of rock-as-rebellion monoculture, when big, bad guitars were the only option for revolt in town — reads like a cap tug toward increasingly murky times.

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