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Greta Van Fleet Just Want to Impress Their Parents

It used to be that the chief goal of rock ’n’ roll was to piss off mom and dad. Now its greatest purpose is to pay them homage.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On the third episode of the recent HBO limited series Sharp Objects, Camille Preaker’s 16-year-old roommate at a rehab center hands her an earbud and introduces her to the musical stylings of a hot new band called … Led Zeppelin? I can believe Zach Braff’s character in Garden State convincing a girl that the Shins will change her life, sure, but a present-day scene involving a teenager introducing a fully grown adult to Led Zeppelin did not quite feel authentic. Had this scene happened in the real world, for one thing, the teenager would probably be introducing her elder to Greta Van Fleet.

Greta Van Fleet are three brothers and one friend from Michigan, between the ages of 22 and 19. And yes, they sound exactly like Led Zeppelin. You would be hard-pressed to find a single article about them that does not mention that fact in the first paragraph—here I am, contributing to the problem—but you would also be hard-pressed to listen to more than several seconds of Greta Van Fleet’s music and not think, Hmm, sounds like Led Zeppelin. Robert Plant himself has, rather derisively, referred to them as “Led Zeppelin I,” and has called the band’s frontman, Josh Kiszka, “a beautiful little singer.” Not since Aretha Franklin said of Taylor Swift’s music “great gowns, beautiful gowns” has such legendary musical shade been thrown in the direction of the young.

To Kiszka’s credit, most aspiring rock bands begin their lives trying to sound like Led Zeppelin, and the reason that few of them achieve that level of mimicry is that very few people on earth can sing like a young Robert Plant, current Robert Plant included. Kiszka has pipes, and on Greta Van Fleet’s 2017 EP, Black Smoke Rising, and their just-released debut album, Anthem of the Peaceful Army, you can just feel him reveling in that fact: Most of their songs begin with some variation on an ecstatic woooooooaaaaaahhhhhh or yeeeeeeeaaaaaaahhhh as subtle as a traffic sign that warns, “100 FEET AHEAD: ROCK.”

In this way, Greta Van Fleet are out of step with their peers on the current rock charts: The biggest rock band out right now, Twenty One Pilots, pull freely from hip-hop and electronic music (and don’t even have a guitarist!); even the Black Keys have collaborated with rap artists. The Kiszkas, though, have spoken with contempt about what they hear on the radio, and seem resistant to modern influences. According to a Rolling Stone profile, they make an exception only for the Black Keys: “Our dad brought the Magic Potion album home,” bassist Sam Kiszka said, “and we’re like, ‘Wow, this is contemporary music?’” He meant that as the highest compliment.

Kiszka’s brother Jack is the band’s guitarist, hammering out crunchy riffs that set a sufficiently retro ambiance even if they don’t quite lodge in your memory. This quality of vagueness permeates everything about the Greta Van Fleet experience: Even the titles of their songs have a shrugging genericism about them: “Highway Tune,” “Safari Song,” and—yes—“Flower Power.” By my count, four of the eight songs on From the Fires feature Kiszka singing the word “mama” (or “ma,” or “ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma”) which, given the ages of the people involved and the familial connection, give the word a slightly different connotation than when Robert Plant sang it.

“We had what I would call a vinyl playground growing up,” Josh Kiszka told Billboard last year; their father played bass and introduced the boys to the sounds of Wilson Pickett, Joe Cocker, and Sam & Dave. Explaining the ethos of the band, he said, “We’re just creating music that’s true and honorable to the things that we grew up on. We’re a bunch of young kids and we’re contemporary artists. It’s not classic rock, it’s progressive rock.” This mind-set—which is not unlike that of another harmonious, parent-formed yet definitely more forward-thinking family band, Haim—represents a striking shift in rock culture. It used to be that the chief goal of rock ’n’ roll was to piss off parents. Now its greatest purpose is to pay them homage.

A simple question I couldn’t get out of my head while listening to Anthem of a Peaceful Army: Why does a band like Greta Van Fleet exist in 2018? (A friend recently joked, “Because it’s too expensive to clear the rights to Led Zeppelin songs,” which, Sharp Objects aside, becomes less of a joke the more I think about it: “Highway Tune” took off after it had prominent placement in an episode of Shameless.) Perhaps even more pressingly, why is this band (moderately) successful in 2018? Their top track has more than 31 million streams on Spotify; a video of them performing “Safari Song” in a nondescript radio station studio has upward of 7 million views on YouTube. They are whispered about in the industry as rock’s saviors, they have earned praise from the likes of Sir Elton John (“It’s the best rock and roll I’ve heard in 20 fucking years,” he has said, which just makes me very curious what Elton John was listening to 20 years ago), and, according to an immaculate sentence in their bio, have received “accolades from a slew of fellow artists” from “Nikki Sixx to Justin Bieber to Tom Hanks.”

Although they came to what they’re doing organically, Greta Van Fleet have had plenty of industry support, and it makes sense: They are the kind of band that promotes the comfort of a continuity with the past and, for people within the rapidly changing music business, the hopeful fiction that maybe the old model has some life in it yet. But Anthem of the Peaceful Army isn’t nearly notable or unique enough to move the needle, and its very existence feels superfluous. I cannot think of any possible scenario in which I would rather listen to this album than to Led Zeppelin IV or, if I did not have access to it, the sound of my own voice humming some of the songs from Led Zeppelin IV. (Or, if I were in a place that demanded complete quiet, my half-remembered recollections of every song on Led Zeppelin IV.)

The odd thing about Greta Van Fleet is that I’m not sure whether or not their recorded music being any good actually matters.

In Hollywood, people are constantly imagining a not-too-distant future in which streaming content further isolates people within their homes, trading the theater experience for the sofa experience. The music industry, though, has been a little different. There is still an appeal to seeing a band or an artist live, and as streaming has become a behemoth so too has “festival culture” or “Coachella-core”—the fetishized and self-consciously “vintage” appeal of seeing artists live, particularly the kind that can play to mammoth crowds. Greta Van Fleet—who, on their coming tour, will play sold-out shows at 2,000- and 3,000-capacity venues—feel almost reverse-engineered for this brave, old world. (There is also something hilariously ironic about a band blatantly ripping off Led Zeppelin, when Led Zeppelin themselves are infamous for ripping off other artists, and in some cases have all but admitted to cribbing melodies from blues musicians.)

For as long as school sucks and weed exists, there will always be teenagers discovering Houses of the Holy for the first time. What there won’t always be is the experience of seeing a young, spry, able-throated Led Zeppelin (or Pink Floyd, or, someday, maybe 70 years from now, the Rolling Stones) in a live setting. I do not understand the appeal of streaming a Greta Van Fleet song on Spotify, but I theoretically get why someone would be excited to see them live, especially if they are living in an age when a “rock band” is an anachronistic novelty. According to a Rolling Stone profile, the boys’ classmates didn’t know what to make of their “odd” musical tastes until Greta Van Fleet played the homecoming dance, at which point the kids “freaked out.”

The purist in me (I call him “Jackson Maine”) still wonders whether it is accurate to call Greta Van Fleet a “rock band” at all. I do believe that rock fundamentally has something to do with abrasion, attitude, and rebellion: It is the categorical opposite of doing your homework, and these guys sound like they did it as soon as they got home, with a little help from their parents to boot. Still, although there are definitely some people out there who think Greta Van Fleet represent some kind of return to the good ol’ days, a scan through their YouTube comments and Twitter replies reveals that there are just as many (if not more) knee-jerk haters who are incensed by how blatantly they’re ripping off their source material. Maybe that is the most sacrilegious thing about them, and thus the most rock. Maybe, in its own way, this is the rudest and most offensive thing a rock band can sound like in 2018: literally just Simulacra Led Zeppelin.