Would it be overblown and excessively poetic to say the Hold Steady started a revolution? Maybe, maybe not — but what’s even the point of the Hold Steady if not getting overblown and excessively poetic? Craig Finn and company cast a long shadow over today’s underground rock landscape, and that influence arguably reached its pinnacle with the album they released in the waning months of 2006. The previous year’s Separation Sunday is their magnum opus, but Boys And Girls In America, which turns 10 today, is the one where New York’s most famous Minnesota transplants since Dylan reeled in their rangy compulsions and kicked out would-be classic rock radio hits upon hits. It made the biggest splash of the Hold Steady’s career, one that’s still rippling out today.
We’ve been hearing conventional wisdom about the death of rock ‘n’ roll for so long that “No, rock isn’t dead!” has become a cliché unto itself. But the case for the genre’s vitality is a lot stronger in 2016 than it was a decade ago, largely thanks to the groundwork laid by the Hold Steady. In the years since Boys And Girls In America, rock fans have become acquainted with the grandiose punk-rock concept albums of Titus Andronicus, the howl-along majesty of Japandroids, the heartland rock visions of the War On Drugs, and the rocket-fueled teenage nostalgia of Beach Slang among other vibrant young (or youth-obsessed) guitar-slingers. These bands and more merged indie rock with classic rock in their own unique ways, but they’re all cruising a lane that may not have existed without the Hold Steady.
There were some bands in the underground playing around with classic rock tropes before the Hold Steady showed up: Sleater-Kinney sneaking Zeppelin-worthy riffs into fiery punk songs, Rye Coalition infusing the blues into post-hardcore. And let’s not forget the skuzzy, retro-minded ecosystem that birthed the White Stripes into the world, nor the newfangled ’60s psychedelia of the Elephant 6 collective. What the Hold Steady pioneered on their first couple albums — and distilled into a more approachable form on Boys And Girls — was different from all that. This was bar band music, though as Scott Plagenhoef slyly noted at Pitchfork, it’s hard to imagine Finn’s characters drinking at a bar: “That sort of drinking — introspective, sometimes done alone, indoors — is the antithesis of the imbibing in Hold Steady songs. These characters are drinking at apartment parties, at festivals, in fields, in cars.”
Finn and friends plundered all the best tricks from FM dial crowd-pleasers revered and disreputable alike, then spiked them with the kind of grand American dirtbag myths beloved by teenagers of every age. The album title was a Kerouac reference, for God’s sake — but unlike the punk kid from your college dorm clutching an acoustic guitar in one hand and a copy of On The Road in the other, Finn was a master of storytelling, spinning literary visions of waylaid youths roaming the Midwest in search of cheap booze and cheaper thrills. On opener “Stuck Between Stations,” the highest-soaring lowlife anthem in the Hold Steady’s songbook, he spits, “She was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian/ She was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend.” And if you think that’s evocative wordplay, two tracks later he beats Hemingway’s famous six-word short story by one: “Started recreational/ Ended kinda medical.”
Finn threw in more singing alongside his nasal raving this time around, one of the ways Boys And Girls In America smoothed over some of Separation Sunday’s more feral qualities. But he might not have sounded so much like the Midwest’s own bespectacled Bruce Springsteen if not for Tad Kubler, Franz Nicolay and the gang backing him with such awe-inspiring, Born To Run-level classic rock pastiche. The Hold Steady were founded partially as an affront to winking appropriation during those years when trucker hats and PBR became synonymous with the nation’s understanding of “hipsters.” Songs like “Chips Ahoy” and “Southtown Girls” hit with such power because there was zero ironic remove. Every titanic power chord and playful keyboard trill was delivered with absolute reverence, an experience fit not for air quotes but air guitar. While performing, Finn would often step away from his mic and carry on babbling with his arms flailing, his eyes wide, and his face clenched into a fiery grin. He was enraptured by his own music, and how could he not be?
That, more than any particular stylistic conceit, has become the Hold Steady’s legacy this past decade: Bringing shameless feeling back into underground rock. From emo revivalists to Tom Petty devotees, there’s an army of likeminded bands crisscrossing this continent every day who might not have found an audience for their hearty guitar theatrics if not for these guys making such a powerful racket that the cultural gatekeepers couldn’t ignore them. They were to their moment what their beloved Replacements had been to the ’80s and Guided By Voices to the ’90s, world-builders who never let impeccable songwriting and transcendent creative vision get in the way of a good time. So raise your glass to Boys And Girls In America, and then walk around and drink some more.