Dave Grohl is a machine. He hardly finishes one project or album and he’s got the next one lined up. The man is married, with three kids, and is one of the richest lead singers in rock today. But he does not stop.
In one of Foo Fighters’ most popular songs, "All My Life," Grohl outlined his philosophy.
"Done. Done. On to the next one.”
“If Dave had time off he’d still fill it with work,” Foo Fighters guitarist Pat Smear said in a Rolling Stone interview. Bassist Nate Mendel also said of Grohl, “He’s got to be constantly in motion, like a shark.”
So when Dave Grohl told his bandmates they would be shooting an HBO series around their next album, the band took it in stride.
"I have a lot of respect for the fact that Dave’s a guy who consistently comes up with big crazy ideas and then figures out a way to get them done,” Foos’ guitarist Chris Shiflett told Rolling Stone Australia.
The project that we now know as Sonic Highways is an album of eight songs — fittingly the Foo Fighters’ eighth album — and marks 20 years for the band since Grohl walked into a Seattle studio to record a few song ideas by himself.
The concept for the album and series was ambitious, but brilliant. Foo Fighters would travel to eight cities in the United States that were known as influential in music. They would spend one week in each city, most of the band holed up in a local studio with producer Butch Vig, while Dave Grohl spent the days interviewing local notable music personalities.
The music for each song was mostly done well before the band arrived in each city. But the lyrics were not. Grohl would draw inspiration and lyric ideas from the interviews and locations in each city, write the words on the last day in each location, and record them then and there.
The eight cities chosen for the project were:
The HBO website says the show “taps into the musical heritage and cultural fabric” of each city in an effort to “documenting the eight-city recording odyssey that produced their latest, and eighth, studio album.”
Kiss frontman Paul Stanley, who was featured in interviews in the series, was asked his opinion about the album and series concept.
Stanley told Rolling Stone, “It’s such a brilliant idea – the idea of highlighting cities and then writing a song influenced by your experience in that city.”
He also called Grohl “the Ken Burns of rock documentaries.”
But not everyone is as complimentary of the Sonic Highways series as Stanley.
Writing for Jezebel, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd said:
"Sonic Highways is meant to reflect Grohl's own fandom and musical upbringing—but it also positions itself as a type of definitive oral history of each city's music scene. And with each episode, it becomes more dismaying, and much clearer, that Grohl's version of that history begins and ends with men almost entirely."
She further described the Sonic Highways show as “an eight-part special for HBO that delves into the musical legacies of [each of the eight cities]”. She defined the concept of the show as: “travel to eight cities in the United States, explore the unique musical culture that sprung up there, and with that history in mind, record a new song inspired by each locale.”
“I understand that Grohl was locating musicians who have influenced his specific music at this moment,” Shepherd says, “but it’s telling that barely any of them are women."
In the end, she says “he can do whatever he wants with his dumb self-aggrandizing album documentary.”
Shepherd is not alone in her criticism of the Sonic Highways series. Every week some resident or music fan of each city represented took to Facebook pages and forums to decry their favorite band or scene not being featured in the most recent episode.
Foo Fighters' Sonic Highways Seattle episode .. AND NO @theposies !? Ok the foos represent maybe a bit different scene but still, come on.
— Antti Siiskonen (@AnttiSiiskonen) December 7, 2014
Seattle episode of "Sonic Highways" gets put near the bottom of the list with the appearance of @macklemore
— Jay Caruso (@JayCaruso) December 1, 2014
Robert Summerlin, writing for BDC Wire declared in a headline “Why ‘I Can’t Stand Dave Grohl.’”
"Sonic Highways is nothing more than promotion for the Foo Fighters and their new record,” Summerlin complained. "The Foo Fighters are the nexus of each episode. Everything comes back to the Foo Fighters trying to record an album in this ‘revolutionary way,' not the city and its music.”
Here’s the problem with what people like Summerlin, Shepherd, and all the armchair documentarians and Monday morning producers are all saying:
Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters have never billed Sonic Highways as anything but that.
From the very beginning, this series has always been about — and was meant to be about — how Foo Fighters records this album. It was never meant to highlight your favorite band, nor even the “best” bands of each city.
Dave Grohl rolls into a town, digs around in areas that he is already somewhat familiar with and can mine in the space of one week, and comes away with enough material for lyrics and inspiration. End of story.
Part of that inspiration, part of what fascinates Grohl, is a factor that he has talked about repeatedly:
"How does the environment influence the music that comes from each city? What is it about New Orleans that made it famous for jazz? What is it about Chicago that made it famous for the blues? Or Nashville that made it the country capital?"
Beyond that consideration, there is no mandate for the show to grant exposure to any particular element of each city's scene.
Sonic Highways has also been called "a love letter to the history of American music." That's not the same as "a comprehensive exploration of the history of America's music." When someone writes a "love letter," you don't critique it by pointing out all the things they could've said instead.
Shepherd says that it is “telling” that Grohl does not highlight many female musicians, taking particular issue with the series’ treatment of Seattle. “Telling" of what? The fact that he may not have as many female heroes in those cities that he could gather for the one-week window he was in town? “Telling” that he is a misogynist?
She complains that he does not mention Bikini Kill, 7 Year Bitch, The Gits.
“Hole is not mentioned,” she says. Hole? If I were Dave Grohl, I would never send an ounce of business Courtney Love’s direction, either.
What Shepherd takes out on Grohl is her anger at “a larger music industry that usually values women only when they’re working within pop music, or within R&B.” She rightly mentions Joan Jett’s struggle as an example of the male-centric nature of this industry. But the screaming irony of that becomes clear as the series finishes:
Joan Jett is in Sonic Highways, and plays on the final track for New York.
Haters, this show is about Dave Grohl and his bandmates making an album. It’s about one week in each city, and a peek into Grohl’s past. Did he miss huge chunks of each city? Yes. Are there other cities he could have explored? Absolutely.
But quit acting like Sonic Highways was ever meant to be anything other than a Foos’ concept piece. Paul Stanley can praise Grohl for doing a Ken Burns-quality job with the material he chose, but he was under no obligation nor inclination to fully mine each city for its musical heritage.
Take Sonic Highways for what it is, not what you would have done with it if you had Grohl’s money and connections.