Commentary

'Wheels' sets Foo debate in motion

Updated: January 5, 2010, 12:51 PM ET
By Paul Shirley | Special to ESPN.com

I hate the Foo Fighters.

[+] EnlargeThe Foo Fighters
Gareth Cattermole/Getty ImagesThe Foo Fighters aren't much different than Nickelback in their straight-ahead, simplistic rock style.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I heard the band's "Wheels" on the radio. And liked it.

I haven't always hated the Foos. While in college, I once drove to Iowa City, Iowa, to watch them open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. At the show, I marveled at Dave Grohl's stage presence and the happy-go-lucky attitude of everyone in the band.

But soon after, probably sometime around the release of their fourth album, "One by One," I lost interest. I can't claim there was a watershed moment; I can't remember a particular song that turned me off. Although, now that I think about it, the title track from "One by One" was pretty awful.

No, it was something else. Something about the way the Foo Fighters were presenting themselves. Or rather, something about the way they were being presented to me.

I often get into arguments about what "good" music is. I should probably stop having those arguments, as there is no right answer. Better yet, I should change the terms of the argument. Because much of the time, when I exclaim that a piece of music is "good" -- or that another is "bad" -- what I probably mean to say is that that piece of music is either meaningful or not.

When others employ their brains and their experience with the English language, they are left to wonder what the hell I'm talking about, especially when I say something like, "Well, it's not good music, but I like it." They can hardly be blamed; that sentence makes no sense.

In creating "Wheels," the Foo Fighters wrote a catchy, hooky, classic-rock song. When I first heard it, on one of five holiday trips to the Kansas City airport to pick up or drop off a Shirley brother, I assumed it was a cover of an obscure Tom Petty song. My next instinct was to congratulate myself for what I thought was a brilliant insight. That proved folly. My brief flirtation with self-esteem was obliterated moments later when I figured out that everyone in the car had made the same comparison.

As I listened to "Wheels," I was able to put aside my dislike for the Foo Fighters, even as I thought they were, at best, aping and, at worst, blatantly ripping off a musician I don't even like all that much. Probably because the song works as a classic rock song. And probably because I don't hate classic rock songs.

As the forgettable, predictable lyrics washed over my ears, (yes, Dave G, "thinking" rhymes with "sinking" and "down" sort of rhymes with "around") a mystery was solved in my mind. That mystery was this: Why, if I hold artists to such a high standard of meaning, do I often find myself liking pop music?

You might wonder how I can go from the Foo Fighters and Tom Petty to pop music. Very easily, actually. Classic rock is as pop as it gets.

An equation comes to mind. A simple equation. But an equation nonetheless:

Boston = Journey = Taylor Swift = Foo Fighters.

It's all pop music. And while I don't listen to much Taylor Swift, I do occasionally listen to Boston and Journey. I'll defend the opening acoustic strums on "Peace of Mind" to anyone who listens. I'll do the same for the synthesizer in "Ask The Lonely." But not for the same reasons that I'll champion A Place To Bury Strangers or Rage Against the Machine. In the case of the former(s), I listen to their music because it's easy and catchy. And because it brings pleasant memories to mind. For Boston: the back seat of the car driven by my best friend's father, on the way to YMCA basketball games. For Journey: the three days after "Greatest Hits" arrived from Columbia House.

I do not, however, listen to Boston or Journey when I'm in search of greater understanding of the world at large. That's what Zach de la Rocha is for.

As "Wheels" finished its bombastic 4½-minute run, I had a new theory. It is this:

[+] EnlargeTaylor Swift
Theo Wargo/WireImageTaylor Swift is akin to the Foo Fighters on Paul Shirley's pop music equation.

There exists two separate categories of music. There is the category occupied by Boston, Journey and the Foo Fighters. And there is the category occupied by A Place To Bury Strangers, RATM and Tegan & Sara. Sometimes the categories overlap (see: Springsteen, Bruce), but that overlap will be difficult to define, and fun to argue about.

More important was the realization that I like both, but only as long as one is not presented to me under the guise of the other.

Which brings me back to the Foo Fighters. And to Nickelback, but more on that in a few paragraphs.

Because of the Foo Fighters' roots (Nirvana), it was originally assumed that the band would be a serious, earnest group, similar to the one for which Dave Grohl had been a drummer. The problem: Dave Grohl is not particularly serious. And Nirvana, really, was more of a classic rock/rawk band than people realize.

It didn't help that the Foo Fighters' first album was relatively raw and alt-sounding, thus drawing in unsuspecting program directors and Nirvana fans across the world.

Then, even as the band's songs shifted toward a traditional classic rock sound, stations desperate for any Nirvana touchstone they could find clung to Grohl's band. And, eventually, annoying people like me who were hearing Foo Fighters songs and thinking, This sounds a lot more like Default than it does like Band of Horses.

As the years wore on, I gave up on the band. The dissonance in my head was too much to handle. When I dialed in a Foo Fighters album, my brain was telling me that it was expecting angst and emotion. My ears, though, were getting B-sides from .38 Special. And I was too daft to figure out that the problem wasn't the Foo Fighters. It was my expectations of the Foo Fighters.

My theory also helps explain my oft-maligned tolerance of (here it comes) Nickelback. And, conversely, the intolerance displayed by everyone else. Nickelback, like the Foo Fighters, is a straight-ahead, simplistic rock band. Most would argue that the Foo Fighters are superior. But in my mind, the only real difference is that one (the Canadians) takes itself seriously and the other (FF) doesn't. One might argue that this self-awareness is the reason that so many people like the Foo Fighters and so many hate Nickelback, but the fact that fans continue to buy Kobe Bryant jerseys pretty well decimates the "you shouldn't take yourself seriously if you want people to like you" theory.

I'm OK with straight-ahead, simplistic rock bands. Many people are not. Including, of course, everyone who has written anything on the subject of music after 2002.

I'm comfortable in my roots -- in my dichotomy. That doesn't mean that I devote equal time to both sorts of music, or that I think the music of the Foo Fighters or of Nickelback is as worthwhile as the work of, say, early Smashing Pumpkins. Or that it has as much staying power. But it's OK for a listen, now and then.

But that's just my opinion. For some, the Foo Fighters might occupy exalted status. Those folks might listen to the Foo Fighters every day.

For others, hearing "Wheels" once might drive the listener to a bottle of bleach poured past a chapped uvula.

I'll be here, in the middle, keeping both camps at bay. And listening to "good" music.

Whatever that means.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.