When people talk about music now, “biggest” and “best” are often applied synonymously. “Biggest” signifies celebrity, commercial success, cultural cachet, winning — if you believe that “best” can be quantified, it really can mean the same as “biggest,” I guess. But at the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I’d argue that “best” remains subjective and tied up in personal, idiosyncratic visions that frequently resist broad appeal. “Biggest” rewards the consistent and the familiar, whereas “best” feels unique and a little unsettled. They aren’t the same at all; they are, in fact, usually at odds.
I was reminded of the biggest/best divide when I saw a recent Rolling Stone story declaring the Foo Fighters the biggest band in America. There’s no question that Dave Grohl has consciously positioned himself as rock’s figurehead at a time when most of the era’s best bands have ditched pop, accepting that the mainstream music industry has virtually no interest in supporting artists outside of the top one percent of the biggest stars. As our nation’s unofficial president of rock and roll, Grohl is constantly called upon to make ceremonial appearances on award shows, in documentaries, and in magazines. Without Dave Grohl, would rock be represented at all? I doubt it. There’s nobody else famous enough. You remember how on Saved By The Bell they would always put the same two or three nerds in every scene to stand behind Zack, Kelly, and Slater at Bayside High? That’s what Dave Grohl is in the context of Beyonce, Taylor, and Ed Sheeran. He’s the “rock guy” extra.
For the Foo Fighters, “biggest” status has everything to do with Grohl’s celebrity and prestige as a former member of Nirvana, the most celebrated rock group of the last 25 years. But what about the Foo Fighters’ music? How does that rate? It’s kind of amazing to consider that the biggest band of America has never at any point also been considered the best band artistically.
Scanning the Foo Fighters’ discography, I’m loath to declare any album a masterpiece. I remain very fond of the 1995 self-titled debut, which was more audacious at the time than people remember, given the nearness to Kurt Cobain’s death and how similar it sounded to Nirvana. From the beginning, Grohl aimed his pop-friendly neo-grunge squarely at the largest possible audience, at a time when displaying such ambition instantly undermined his credibility. (Where have you gone, Krist Novoselic? Is there an alternate universe in which Sweet 75 is playing stadiums in 2017?) The next two records, 1997’s The Colour And The Shape and 1999’s There Is Nothing Left To Lose, represent the Foos’ artistic peak, though 2011’s feisty Wasting Light remains a late-career highlight.
But does anything compare with the best output from the Foo Fighters’ mainstream rock peers in the ’90s and ’00s? Not really. Grohl’s workmanlike oeuvre has never approached the likes of OK Computer, White Blood Cells, or Funeral. (The best post-Nirvana record Grohl has played on is Songs For The Deaf by Queens Of The Stone Age.) He doesn’t seem predisposed to take those sorts of swings. While Grohl has the glamorous reputation of a homerun hitter, the Foos’ catalogue is actually stacked with singles and doubles.
The cliche about Foo Fighters’ albums is that, like most Tom Petty albums not named Full Moon Fever or Wildflowers, there will be two or three killer singles and lots of pleasant filler. This is the formula that Grohl dutifully reproduces with virtually every Foo Fighters album cycle. To give credit where it’s due, Foo Fighters are one of the only truly reliable singles bands of the modern era — “This Is A Call,” “Everlong,” “Learn To Fly,” “Best Of You,” “The Pretender,” and “Walk” remain highlights of otherwise arid rock-radio playlists. But if Grohl’s really is our culture’s reigning rockist, he’s fallen curiously short when it comes to producing the rockist’s favorite totem, a wall-to-wall classic album.
The truth is, Grohl operates more like a pop star than he might care to admit. “Without sounding too business-y,” says Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins with a conspiratorial gleam in that Rolling Stone feature, “I think we deliver something people can count on: Big choruses, guitars and a little bit of screaming.” The Foos are consistent and familiar. They’re biggest.