On The Record: Are You Happy Now?
"There is so much joy in what we do up here!" Craig Finn shouted, arms extended, during the cacophonous climax of the Hold Steady's homecoming show at Minneapolis' State Theatre on Thursday night.
"Long live happiness!" Bruce Springsteen growled less than 24 hours later, as 18,000 fans stood and cheered at the end of his sweaty, sold-out set at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Clearly, there must be something in the Twin City tap water. Rock acts are not supposed to act this way, especially not in this day and age. No one is buying records and the sky is falling and being in a band is a business and business is really, really bad. And rock — which somewhere along the way dropped its "and roll" surname — is no longer the soundtrack to Saturday night. Rock is important now. It is art, and as such, bands must suffer for it each night. Each performance is a pound of flesh. Thom Yorke does not have good times. Win Butler's body is a cage. And, not surprisingly, there is not much room in any of this for concepts of joy and happiness and — gasp! — fun.
Yet, for two consecutive nights last week, all of those things happened. Pretense was shed at the door, like so many winter coats. People in the audience — fathers and sons in matching T-shirts, mothers-of-three cutting loose — pumped their fists and sang along and hugged complete strangers. The bands smiled and drank (a lot, in the case of the Hold Steady) and didn't get bogged down in histrionics or politics or anything of the sort (even the Boss kept his polemic limited to a pair of onstage speeches about the state of the nation). It was everything rock and roll was supposed to be, twice over. There was happiness everywhere.
Of course, I'd be lying if I said all that joy wasn't a tad bit unsettling, though not in the way you might expect. What unnerved me wasn't the bliss, it was the fact that I didn't once consider the things I usually do while watching a band these days (blogs, the fate of major labels, In Rainbows). Rather, in the midst of all that merriment, I kept thinking about Britney Spears.
Because, really, Britney should be this happy. She's earned it. By the time you read this, Blackout, her so-far-beyond-a-comeback comeback album, will be sitting pretty at #2 on the Billboard albums chart, an impressive accomplishment given everything we've seen or read about her over the past two years. The album has been getting good reviews, and the first single, "Gimme More," is an actual hit. I mean, people thought that she was gonna die, and she has one of the top albums in the country. Whatever happens from here on out, Britney pretty much wins. And this should all be sweet vindication for her, but you get the feeling that she's not exactly happy about any of it, or even is she is, she has no real way of showing it.
This is largely based on the assumptions I have formed about her, having never interviewed her, nor even been in a room with her. But I don't think it's a stretch to say that there is very little joy in Britney's life, what with the kids and the paparazzi and court appearances and the alleged running-over-of-people's feet. She exists in a world in which her every move is documented — not that this isn't mostly her own fault — and as such, she'll probably celebrate Blackout's success by doing what she usually does: go to a club somewhere, perhaps dance on a table, maybe not wear underpants.
But just once, I bet she'd like to experience the joy Springsteen did last week, or to be overcome with happiness the way Finn was at the State Theatre, and to do it without being judged.
I realize, of course, that none of that will probably ever happen. As do I realize that it's probably much easier for both Springsteen and Finn to be happy. Neither of them is under the microscope Spears is. The Boss sells out arenas around the world, lords over a loyal army of subjects (though all those "Bruuuuuce" chants must get a bit old after a while) and fronts an amazing band. He is pushing 60, yet can probably do more push-ups than I can. He is rich and famous and people know all the words to all his songs. Finn and the Hold Steady can't compete with Springsteen's level of massiveness, but I don't think they'd ever like to. They are the best bar band in the world. To them, happiness is drinking beers and playing rock and roll and constantly finding themselves in places they never thought they'd be, like headlining the State Theatre in front of their families or making appearances on "Kent Hrbek Outdoors" or opening for the Rolling Stones in Dublin (something Finn mentioned not just during between-song banter in Minneapolis but also in a new song they played, "Ask Her for Adderall").
I wonder if Britney will ever be this happy, if the little things like triumph and silencing her detractors can bring her joy. In reality, happiness is what you make it. And maybe she is very happy about Blackout. It's a shame that she'll never be able to show it, though. Because I shudder to think what Craig Finn would do if the Hold Steady came that close to topping the charts. Actually, I sort of imagine that it'd be like the past two years of Spears' life — the partying, the passing out, the rehab, the shaved head — all rolled up into one, well, Massive Night. And hopefully, it'd take place in Minneapolis, with the Boss there for moral support (and maybe to do a version of "Rosalita [Come Out Tonight]"). And I'd get tickets to see it.
B-Sides: Other Stories I'm Following This Week
Alicia Keys alienates her entire zombie fanbase (see "Alicia Keys: 'If Your Heart Doesn't Feel Me, Then You Are Dead!' ").
Shia LaBeouf was arrested at a Walgreen's in Chicago; that "3rd Rock From the Sun" kid is working at a Rite Aid in Alabama (see "Shia LaBeouf Arrested At Chicago Drugstore").
Jack Nicholson is both a Lakers and a Yankees fan, which defies explanation and makes me like him a little less (see "Jack Nicholson Talks! In Rare Interview, Actor Reveals Details Of Never-Shot 'Chinatown' Sequel").
Questions? Concerns? Craig Finn? Hit me up at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.