The Warm Glow of the Blog-Rock Era

On the band Voxtrot’s recent reunion tour, the experience of the audience members was shaped, more than usual, by age. Because the band hasn’t toured or released new music for the past twelve years, younger fans got the thrill of watching an act they’ve only ever known in the past tense. For the older folks in the crowds––the demographic in which, at thirty-eight, I am forced to count myself––the thrill came from seeing history resurrected. The music carried us back to 2007: to our twenties, to college, to crushes and heartbreak, and, perhaps most of all, to the desire to have those tumultuous feelings captured, stoked, and soothed by song. For some of us, the nostalgia had another layer: Voxtrot’s songs summoned memories of an online musical ecosystem, a way of finding and relating to bands online, that vanished long ago. I caught the tour in Chicago, on a Friday in October. Stepping onto the stage, the band’s front man, singer, and songwriter, Ramesh Srivastava, peered out into the crowd. “We’ve been away for a long time!” he said, sounding happy and slightly mystified.

Voxtrot formed in 2002, while its members were still in college. In 2005 and 2006, the band, based out of Austin, released two five-song EPs on its own record label; Srivastava’s dad lent them money for some of their earliest recordings. These early releases sounded as if they’d been made by eager students of the Smiths and Belle and Sebastian who were bursting with ideas––lyrics, hooks, buildups, climaxes––and eager to use them, quickly. A typical Voxtrot song held several normal pop tunes’ worth of ingredients, smushed together by enthusiasm, dense but simultaneously jaunty. The recordings had a rough-and-ready patina that evoked the experience of hearing the band next door playing in the basement but having the best rehearsal of all time.

Counterfactual history is tricky, but it feels safe to say that Voxtrot found a bigger audience––or found its audience faster––than it would have otherwise thanks to the Internet phenomenon referred to as “blog rock.” By the mid-aughts, starting a blog was easier than ever. Streaming hadn’t yet taken over our listening habits, but Web connections were speedy enough that, if a blog posted an MP3, a reader could be hearing the song a few minutes later. It was exciting, hopping from blog to blog as though you were reading a large, collectively authored, and constantly updated zine, with samples of the gushed-over music just a click away. And it was free! Optimistic thinking about the disruptive, democratizing potential of the Internet was everywhere, and it seemed like blogs had become––at least for fans of certain faddish strains of indie rock––the new A. & R. departments, the new radio, the new Seattle, a tool for wriggling free of the bias and influence of stodgy old gatekeepers. You could watch a band take off across the blogs, then see them booking bigger venues and drawing bigger crowds. Maybe you went to one of these shows yourself. Maybe you looked at pictures the next day in your blogroll. (For me, if the year 2005 were condensed into a single word, that word would be “blogroll.”) You could feel as if you were a part of something. Something new.

Amid all this excitement, it was easy to overlook how most of the acts these blogs were hyping weren’t especially durable. In a 2014 essay on the genre, the critic Steven Hyden listed some of the hallmarks of blog rock: “Terrible band names; a sound reminiscent of punk and post-punk that originated between 1978 and 1987; terrrrible band names; a ‘danceable’ sound; being ‘uplifting’; coming across as a little precious, a little infantile, a little nerdy, a little skinny, a little choir-y; Jesus Christ what terrible goddamn band names.” MP3 blogs were, looking back, full of Potemkin songs: slight little things with their inner brittleness hidden, only somewhat effectively, by quick coats of plucky charm and the novel energy of the blog scene itself. In 2015, Pitchfork reëxamined the phenomenon with incredulity: “Blogs could have offered almost anything––and this is what we chose?” But I always thought Voxtrot was the bright star in the blog-rock firmament. Their lyrics were smarter; their arrangements were tighter. Most important, the warmth on their songs’ surfaces wasn’t just on the surface; it was internally generated by solid coils of feeling, wound tight and throwing off heat.

It’s the easiest thing in the world for a band to fall apart after a few years––so easy that, when it happens, it hardly requires explanation. Voxtrot’s breakdown, though, felt at least partially tied up with the Internet hype cycle. In the summer of 2006, I saw the band play in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, opening for TV on the Radio, a major-label act with a towering sound that made obvious sense for a big outdoor show. Voxtrot looked small onstage, and its songs, which I’d found so full and dramatic on my computer speakers and in my headphones, lost their urgency somewhere between the stage and the crowd. It seemed the band knew this was happening and was trying to fix things by playing harder, but that only made the problem more noticeable.

When Voxtrot’s self-titled début album came out the following year, it felt frustrated by its own ambitions. (“Cheer me up, cheer me up, I’m a miserable fuck,” Srivastava sang. “Cheer me up, cheer me up, I’m a tireless bore. . . . Yes I’m a vanity whore.”) The reviews were mixed. Even on the blogs where Voxtrot had so recently been the next big thing, there was considerable disappointment. Not long before the album came out, Srivastava had written a post on his own blog, The Voxtrot Kid, that seemed to anticipate the response. “The Internet is a very dark place,” he wrote. “You. . . . may think that you deserve to be able to download an album at no cost, store it in your iPod, pass your particular judgment, and then immediately dispose of it or hype it at will, but you actually don’t deserve that.” Three years later, no one was especially surprised when the band called it quits.

In the days leading up to seeing Voxtrot again, I did a bit of poking around in the faded digital relics of the old MP3 blogosphere, encountering Web sites (You Ain’t No Picasso, My Old Kentucky Blog, BrooklynVegan) and bands (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Black Kids, Tapes ’n Tapes) I hadn’t thought of in years. Band names constitute an almost inherently cringeworthy genre, but in blog rock the cringe went nuclear. A few of the sites still exist––a few of the bands do, too––but the shared current of excitement linking them together is gone, as is the techno-cultural moment that energized it. Who downloads MP3s anymore?

Now there are playlists on streaming platforms for every genre, micro-genre, mood, and vibe. When you hear a song that you like on a playlist, maybe you stream the album, too. When the album finishes, your platform suggests something else it thinks you’ll like. Then something else. Then something else. In the streaming universe, popularity is shaped less by the enthusiasm (however blinkered or naïve) of amateur listeners than by the profit motive of the platforms themselves. It’s frictionless and plentiful. It also breeds a certain dissatisfaction, and not just once you start reading about the raw deal most artists get. Blog rock was mostly mediocre. MP3 blogs were very obviously high on their own supply. But, in the little world they created, human enthusiasm was its own currency. I miss that. If I were younger, or had different musical tastes, I might feel the same way about SoundCloud rap. This phenomenon came after blog rock, relied on sleeker social-media mechanisms that helped the wheels of the hype machine spin faster, and pushed a few young artists to heights of success that the likes of Voxtrot could only have dreamed of––but with a similar absence of supportive infrastructure. In 2019, the Times declared the end of SoundCloud rap, citing, as just one piece of evidence, the fact that three of the genre’s biggest pioneers—Juice WRLD, Lil Peep, and XXXTentacion—were already dead.

I’d worried that the Voxtrot of 2022 would sound like a faded version of its former self, straining to catch a glimpse of its glory days receding in the rearview mirror. But as soon as the band started playing, my concern evaporated. All the moments smashed together in their old songs were still there, and the band members still knew how to live inside them; they seemed joyfully appreciative for the chance. In interviews leading up to the tour, they were coy about the possibility of a more permanent return. Mitchell Calvert, the band’s guitarist, now does supply-chain management for Kohler, the bathroom and kitchen fixtures company.

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