The young generation fetishizes realness in entertainment, and that's partly Van Halen's fault. The '80s were about mystery and wonder: How do people like Dee Snider or Madonna or the Beastie Boys spring up from nowhere in cone bras and clown makeup to pour beer out on people's heads? Mainstream pop was a circus of artifice, with ridiculous haircuts and fog-imbued videos, and fittingly in 1989 it came to a screeching halt when Milli Vanilli's attempt at fame revealed the singers themselves to be a lie.
The '90s flipped all that over and made abstracted pain cool. Pearl Jam had long hair like its hard rock forebears, but cared about issues like abortion and its concert-ticket prices being too high. Kurt Cobain railed against sexism and homophobia. There was still a rock star fantasy in play, but a socially conscious one, not unlike the '60s. But the term “selling out” rose to the surface in a weirdly paradoxical way. People who grew up on Kurt Cobain and gangsta rap demanded “realness” without contrivance, plaid over hairspray. “Reality” became a market of its own by decade's end, with The Truman Show's premonition of reality TV. Suddenly the most popular form of entertainment was showing “real situations,” be it chefs competing for a high-paying job or Paris Hilton working on a farm. People escaped their own workday only to watch others face theirs. Fast forward a decade to Occupy Wall Street, and there's a culture-wide disdain for the “1 percent” to whom the economy was entrusted.
So this may not have been the best time for a reunion of Van Halen, a band infamous for excesses like making its roadies pick out all the brown M&Ms.
“It beats workin' baby,” sings David Lee Roth on his cryogenically frozen outfit's new album, A Different Kind of Truth — his first record with Van Halen in 28 years and the band's first with any singer in half that. He'd know, sort of, having attempted to fill Howard Stern's enormous terrestrial radio gap when Stern departed for Sirius satellite radio in 2005. But the line is dishonest. Roth's too angry for escapism, but too in-his-bubble for blue collar rage. By choosing to not throw a party (no “Dance the Night Away” or “Panama”; this time out, Van Halen went for guitarthenticity over hooks), they sound dutiful rather than energized.
Van Halen, though, has never worried about having to go back to work if its music doesn't please the fans. From the members' ridiculous personal disagreements to the fact this isn't even a real reunion — bassist Michael Anthony was the one guy who put up with everyone's shit from day one, but he was ousted in favor of Eddie's son Wolfgang — it's hard to understand the point of this. The new album's pretty good, but anyone who really cares will miss Anthony's harmonies and wonder what Roth's on about half the time. (“Heroes aren't born, they're cornered” is pretty awesome, but what does “She's the woman” or “stay frosty” even mean?) If there's such a thing as coasting on virtuosity, this band is doing it.
Few artists of the moment think it wise to present a detached fantasy. Lady Gaga wants to raise others up to her level, not stand over them, and she knows she's merely presenting theater. For all her industry hookups, Ke$ha brags about finishing your drinks after you leave the bar. Michael Jackson's specter hovers over the landscape as a cautionary tale, one that people are still hoping Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears heed. And the biggest musician in the world may be beautiful but is, by Hollywood or Karl Lagerfeld's standards, fat. Adele has much in common with the average woman as the average pop star.
It's Adele who kept Van Halen out of the No. 1 spot the week that A Different Kind of Truth was released. Would it have helped if Van Roth's widely disparaged comeback single, “Tattoo,” was an actual hit on its own merits rather than the logo's? Probably. But then, could a band like Van Halen even have a hit now? The last “rock” acts to have No. 1 hits have been Gotye, fun., Owl City, and James Blunt. Glee and American Idol reach regular people with wallets, not the kind of music fans who will point out the lack of guitars on the pop charts and admire this comeback for providing an alternative to the Black Keys or Nickelback. In the tightfisted climate of 2012, Truth has yet to achieve gold sales, and despite recently postponing a ton of concert dates, the band's two Bay Area shows were hardly sold out at press time. Mere returns have a knack for diminishing.
Recent rock album chart-topper Jack White is the closest thing to a rock elder statesman making good right now, and he's not very elderly. He's also a lot less alienating to women than Van Halen and its guitar-god peers. For better or worse, “Hot for Teacher” this generation is not. It's hard enough to have fun with a band whose members have been so publicly hateful to each other. It sounds gross to hear those youthful laser guitars contrasted with old man-isms like “Honeybabysweetiedoll,” which this multi-platinum band assumed were still universal. Sure, Van Halen's core audience might be culturally out of touch as well. But unlike the band, most of them still have to work for a living.