Brian Howes gets a little hot under the black-leather collar when asked who listens to his kind of rock music. Speaking on a BMI-sponsored songwriter's panel before last year's Grammy Awards, the Vancouver-based producer, who has co-written hits for Hinder, Chris Daughtry, David Cook and Puddle of Mudd, sent an emotional shout-out to the common fan.
"I call it the hosers in Canada, the rednecks," he said. "The flyover zones. The people in Middle America seem to still buy records . . . You can sit on the back of your flatbed Ford, have a six-pack, crank some AC/DC and throw on some Daughtry or Hinder."
"Flyover rock" (like its more politically minded sister term, "red-state rock") is the kind of insult critics apply to what they find bland or derivative. Yet for Howes and his peers, identifying with music's middle ground is a point of pride and commitment.
"This is no slam against the media -- I used to be that elitist punk guy," said Howes, who played in a successful ska-punk band in the 1990s, by phone recently. "But the media are looking for the next cool thing, whereas Middle Americans just want good music that makes 'em feel good."
Since the days when former art-school kids the Rolling Stones declared themselves exiled on Main Street, populism has served as a normalizing counterpoint to rock's freaky bohemian tendencies. The idea of the "average Joe" keeps rock stars grounded and helps fans relate. But for artists like Hinder, Nickelback and "American Idol" winner Cook -- all of whom release albums nearly guaranteed to top the charts this month -- ordinariness has become a source of distinction.
Their music's phenomenal success says a lot about what rock signifies in the 21st century and how much the mythical "rock 'n' roll lifestyle" has influenced the way so-called ordinary people live.
"Sarah Palin likes the music that Tipper Gore hated! I find it kind of perplexing," said Chuck Eddy, author of books including "Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe."
In the mid-1980s, moderate "Washington wife" Gore helped organize Senate hearings to examine the content of songs by Poison and Motley Crue (as well as Prince and Madonna). Now, partly because of hard rock's legacy, a little excess seems like fun, and the uber-conservative Palin shows her hard-rock roots by giving her son Trig the middle name "Van," after Van Halen.
Flyover rock thrives in an expanded heartland that also encompasses parts of the South and Western Canada (and maybe the L.A. neighborhood where Buckcherry lives). But it also exists in an imaginary zone only tangentially connected to current political concerns, moral judgments or fashion trends. The flyover fantasy world is a place where mothers bring their daughters to arena shows, where hearty partying is seen as a healthy release after a hard week's work and where rockers view themselves as traditionalists, just like sports fans, churchgoers and patriots.
The most wholesome flyover rocker yet might be Cook, whose first major-label album comes out Nov. 18. Growing up in Missouri, Cook wanted to be a baseball player before turning to rock. He sees the sports analogy as particularly apt.
"Let's say tomorrow I do two things," he said at his management company's West Hollywood offices. "I go see Game 1 of the World Series, and it's 15 innings, no score, until the very end. And that same night I go see one of the greatest Paul McCartney concerts ever. They're both things I'm gonna talk about for the rest of my life."
Austin Winkler also wanted to play pro ball before becoming the singer for Hinder. Speaking by phone from a stop on tour, he described his band's desire to uphold the legacy of Aerosmith and Guns N' Roses as "basically the whole big fun part of rock 'n' roll. It went through a very dark period whenever Kurt Cobain and Nirvana and those bands came out," he said. "Rock was getting a little too cheesy, and those bands called out the earlier guys. But at one point, before that, it was real."
"Real," for bands such as Hinder, means both blatantly hedonistic and openly emotional. There's no contradiction between the impulse to "be up all night/doing things your dad won't like" -- a lyric from Hinder's new album "Take It to the Limit," out Tuesday -- and the desire to avoid such temptations, which was the subject of "Lips of an Angel," the power ballad that put the band on the map.
"There's a duality," said Howes, whose band will also play an election night concert Tuesday at the Wiltern. "Like 'Lips of an Angel.' It's not about cheating, it's about thinking about cheating. Everybody can relate to that."
A country connection