Jack White. The Strokes. Foo Fighters — that lineup of “Saturday Night Live” musical guests could easily have come from 2002 instead of 2020 … and in fact, all three of those artists did perform on the show that year or in 2003 (with White as frontman of the White Stripes). For a show that in recent years has leaned heavily on very current pop, hip-hop, R&B and alternative, it’s a head-spinning shift of genre and generations. What’s going on?
Obviously, due to COVID, it’s an unprecedented season and an unprecedented time. But not only has rock music has been at a low ebb for most of this century — the White Stripes and the Strokes are the last truly galvanizing bands in memory — those three acts don’t even have new music out (although the Strokes’ latest album came out in April, and the Foo Fighters are up to something, judging by a cryptic Tweet they posted shortly after this article first published).
Reps for “SNL” did not respond to Variety’s requests for comment, and multiple media sources declined to talk on the record. But several did offer some off-the-record speculation.
“SNL”‘s new-old rock wave began on Oct. 3, with the first almost-normal show since lockdown began in March (when The Weeknd inadvertently ended up being the final musical guest of that season). Rising country singer Morgan Wallen had originally been booked as the new season’s first musical guest. But when footage emerged on social media of Wallen involved in some extremely non-socially distanced partying just days before he was to perform, the decision to cancel him was announced on the Thursday before the show. (To his credit, Wallen posted a classy and contrite apology.)
One source with knowledge of the situation speculates that White’s manager Ian Montone, who has developed a friendly relationship with “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels over his artist’s three previous appearances on the show, did some quick texting to secure the spot (Montone politely declined Variety‘s request for comment).
But the magic element was simpler: Rather than assembling the elaborate band that had accompanied him on the show in 2018, White was accompanied only by powerhouse drummer Daru Jones and bassist Dominic John Davis. Stripped down to basics, the trio absolutely scorched the stage, roaring through a medley of the White Stripes’ “Ball and Biscuit” and White’s Beyonce collaboration “Don’t Hurt Yourself” (with some revised, topical lyrics), as well the title track from his second solo album, “Lazaretto.” The latter track also featured a tribute to Eddie Van Halen, who’d died earlier in the week, in the form of a guitar he’d gifted to White.
The spontaneity of the performance paid off in spades, and the response was explosive. Generation Xers who’d been cooped up at home for months — and may not have seen a band rock that hard in years — gave a rapturous response on social media (fittingly, heavily on Facebook) and partied at home like it was 2002. One longtime “SNL” staffer said it was the most electrifying musical performance they had seen in years.
“‘SNL’ can turn on a dime,” a source tells Variety, “and obviously they’re of-the-moment. My guess is that Lorne saw Jack White get a better response than anything they’d seen in years, and decided to roll with it.”
While Justin Bieber had already been announced for the following week’s show, and a hard-rocking band wouldn’t have made sense with Adele as the Oct. 24 host (Adele-endorsed R&B singer H.E.R., who also happens to be a killer guitarist, performed), one pictures Michaels flipping through past shows for similar suitable rock acts for the Halloween show. There aren’t many — Billie Eilish, Coldplay and David Byrne are the closest from season 45; Gary Clarke Jr., Greta Van Fleet and Tame Impala from the season before — and sources say the Strokes may have been slated to play the show in April around the time of their album’s release before COVID derailed the season. (Their performance last weekend was solid, if not overwhelming.)
But the Foo Fighters always rise to the occasion and always bring the rock, and like Grohl, their longtime manager, John Silva, goes back with “SNL” to the Nirvana days nearly 30 years ago. And since there’s no new album to promote, it’s entirely possible they’ll play one of their tried-and-true hits and possibly bring out a special guest, do a clever cover (they crushed Prince’s “Pop Life” and “Darling Nikki” during a Grammy tribute earlier this year), or play a new song.
Still, none of the above entirely addresses the “why.” Obviously, lockdown has meant that no one is touring, which complicates matters for many acts — but it has also meant that artists are recording and releasing more studio material than before as well. Couldn’t “SNL” just as easily have called up, say, Ariana Grande or Sam Smith, both of whom dropped new albums last week, instead of Dave Grohl?
“First, she’s not a natural fit with Dave Chappelle as host,” one source tells Variety, adding, “Dave Grohl isn’t really either, but they’re both Daves and they’re both in-your-face, so it works.
“But also,” the source continues, “Jack White, the Strokes and the Foo Fighters turn up, plug in and play — there’s maybe an hour or two of prep. For Ariana or even a Sam Smith, there’s going to be hair and makeup and maybe some big concept to execute — that’s hours of prep and a lot more people involved, and those big productions are much harder to pull off in a pandemic.”
But most of all, both sources agree, the show’s bookers may well be responding to the roar of the virtual crowd.
“Is this kind of rock music a form of comfort food for a lot of people, at a terrifying moment in history?,” one of them posits. “Maybe.”
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