Wednesday, August 24, 2011

August 24: Bad Religion, "21st Century Digital Boy"

Artist: Bad Religion
Song: "21st Century Digital Boy"
Album: Against The Grain
Year: 1994

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Though some musical styles may wish to present themselves in a different manner, the reality is that every style of music has its own rules and norms which one cannot get around.  Even within the supposedly anarchic world of punk rock and hardcore, there is a form to the music and certain elements which must be present to be labeled as such.  Yet it is in the history of these two styles of music where one can find clearly talented bands being "trapped" by the minimalist and often under-thought expectations, perhaps selling their full potential short in fear of losing their "credibility" within their audience.  However, there were also a handful of such bands that clearly paid little attention to such silly expectations, pushing the genre itself forward, and proving the wide range of sound that could be achieved within both the punk and hardcore forms.  While there were a number of bands that pushed these boundaries, few have had the "staying power" and fantastic musical development as one finds within the catalog of the iconic Southern California band, Bad Religion.  Even their name alone commands a massive level of respect, and their influence can be heard across nearly every band that came after their first releases.  However, what truly sets Bad Religion apart from their peers is their ability to keep the punk and hardcore ascetic firmly intact, yet compose musically progressive songs that have a much wider appeal, and this has rarely been more evident than in their brilliant 1990 song, "21st Century Digital Boy."

Truth be told, there are actually two very distinct versions of "21st Century Digital Boy," with the original recording appearing on the bands' 1990 record, Against The Grain.  However, this version did not find much success, and the band was asked to re-record the track for the soundtrack to the 1994 film, Stranger Than Fiction.  During intervening years of recording, the song itself developed quite a bit due to live performances, and it was this re-recorded take that quickly caught on with nearly every group of music fans.  The fact that the song had such a wide appeal is not all that surprising, as by this point, the band had been honing their sound for more than a decade, finding ways to bring the heavier, more aggressive sound to a wider audience.  In the case of "21st Century Digital Boy," the appeal lives within the interplay between guitarist Brett Gurewitz and Greg Heston, and the heavy drumming from Bobby Schayer.  The way in which these musicians smash together represents everything that makes more aggressive music so appealing, as there is a gritty drive within the sound that quickly captures the attention of the listener.  The fact that bassist Jay Bentley is able to keep a deep groove underneath this sound also gives "21st Century Digital Boy" a wider musical appeal, and one can argue that the track represents the ideal balance between the more fierce sounds of hardcore and punk and the more traditional "rock" arrangement in terms of the music and sonic progression.

Working perfectly with the duality found within the music, the vocals of Greg Graffin are without question some of the most instantly recognizable in all of music history.  The gravely, gruff sound he brings to every line does an amazing job of heightening the tension put into play by the band, and it is the balance between his vocals and the music over which he sings that makes "21st Century Digital Boy" such a unique moment in recorded history.  On many levels, Graffin represents the more underrepresented side of punk and hardcore frontmen, as he makes a clear effort to sing more than scream, and this in itself was one of the most critical ways in which Bad Religion as a whole helped to shape and alter the world of punk and hardcore music.  On "21st Century Digital Boy," Graffin brings a massive amount of intensity to his vocal performance, perfectly straddling the line between speaking and singing.  Yet it is this intensity that proves to be one of the finest aspects of the entire song, as the way that he never lets the listener go enables each line to hit quite hard, and cements the bands' place in punk, as one simply cannot ignore his vocals.  The lyrics are perhaps more relevant today than they were more than two decades ago, as the band seems to give a rallying cry against youth becoming "trapped" by technology and gadgets, and one cannot help but admit how perfectly these words describe the current youth culture.

However, while there is a great deal going on within "21st Century Digital Boy" in terms of both music and lyrics, there are also some more veiled elements of the song that cannot be overlooked.  It is within these almost cryptic elements of the song where the true genius of Bad Religion become clear, and yet most are unaware that such moments exist on the track.  Perhaps the most telling attribute of the song is the fact that in the songs' final verse, the band lifts the opening verse from King Crimson's legendary track, "21st Century Schizoid Man."  The main hook of "21st Century Digital Boy" is also a clear play on another line from the song, and the fact that Bad Religion recorded such lyrics shows the wide range of their own influences, as well as cements their knowledge of far more complex musical arrangements than one expects within the world of punk and hardcore music.  Yet as the years have passed, Bad Religion have found tributes being paid to themselves by many bands which they influenced, and there are a number of covers of "21st Century Digital Boy" to be heard, and the song has also been featured in a number of video games over the last few years.  In many ways, "21st Century Digital Boy" has almost moved "beyond" being a punk song, as it strikes an unrivaled balance between that style and retaining pop appeal, placing Bad Religion's 1990 song into a group of exceptional recordings that know no musical peers.

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