“I DON’T want to be a rock star,” says Jennifer Herrema, America’s greatest living rock star.
And what is a rock star these days, really? The term’s been degraded and neutered with overuse, its totemic influence sapped by rock’s downfall from the position of power it held in global pop culture for half a century.
“Rock star” is a compliment issued in a human resources manager’s email. It’s a line in a rap song. It’s a guy buying a $900 John Varvatos biker jacket where the punk club CBGB used to be.
“Honestly, it’s a term of privilege,” Herrema continues, a twinge of exasperated disdain rising in her voice to join the raspy evidence of a million cigarettes. “Like someone saying, ‘You’re a rock star’ to the head coach of a pro football team or something. It’s this thing to bestow upon people who don’t play music. That always seemed so cheesy to me.”
Herrema’s contempt for the term—her refusal to act overly reverential toward rock ’n’ roll in general—is, of course, just more reason to consider her a rock star.
Musicians trying to uphold rock’s crumbling mythological stature have a way of looking desperate and, sadly, it’s become almost the default mode for an entire generation of rock ’n’ rollers living in a world that’s moved on to hip-hop and dance music. (It’s worth noting that Herrema was one of the few rock musicians in the nineties who seemed comfortable around rap music.)
Herrema has spent her career—pretty much her whole life, really—making scuzzy, druggy, capital letter Rock ’n’ Fucking Roll that taps into something close to the genre’s beating, molten heart. It’s music that’s never been affected by trends, never been tailored to a particular audience, and never strayed from her artistic vision, which she shares on a deep level with Neil Michael Hagerty, her longtime creative (and one-time romantic) partner in her best-known—or maybe just most notorious—band, Royal Trux.
At times, when rock ’n’ roll’s drifted furthest from its core, it’s seemed like Jennifer Herrema is one of the few people on Earth keeping it from spinning out entirely.
Times like right now, for instance. The genre’s in sorry shape, with its mainstream aspect defined by monumentally banal arena acts like Imagine Dragons and Muse, and an underground crawling with bands that would rather dig around for obscure nuggets of rock history to revive than come up with a new idea.
To rock fans desperate for a real kick, the new Royal Trux album, White Stuff—the band’s first release in nearly 20 years following a Harrema-Hagerty reunion—registers like a glitter-caked weirdo stumbling into a polite discussion about which boutique overdrive pedal best replicates the guitar sound on a particular obscure New Zealand punk album from the seventies. White Stuff is the reason why we haven’t walked out on rock ’n’ roll altogether.