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Athens, Ohio, United States
"Art and love are the same thing. It's the process of seeing yourself in things that are not you."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

We Killed the Radio Star

Music is dying.

Every time I watch MTV or pick up a Rolling Stone, I am assaulted with  new facts about falling record sales, corporate record companies being greedy and the problem of digital piracy. The sky is falling, artists will be put on the streets and it is all those damn computers fault. Why bother trying to change marketing policies and strategies when record companies can just complain, then sit at home and pray that the Internet will soon go away.

If you think you know where this post is going, then I regret to tell you that, unless you are unusually perceptive, you are probably wrong. I am not going to be another one of the eight trillion other reasonable voices telling corporate America to start embracing new technology instead of bemoaning it (although that is a very worthy cause). I am simply going to tell the truth about why the music business is struggling and who or what is responsible.

ITunes is not killing the music business. Neither are poor marketing techniques, nor the advent of any other media. We are killing the music business. This holier-than-thou music culture is killing music. The obsession with finding that next new, cool sound is tearing talented existing bands apart. 

To me, there is nowhere that this phenomenon is clearer than the use of one of the most hideously absurd phrases ever. Ever hear of a "Sophomore Slump"? If you follow the music business in any capacity, I am betting you have heard of it. The Sophomore Slump is the idea that a popular music artist or band's second full length album will pale in comparison to the first album. At least that is the industry and culture's concept on the term. My interpretation on any music critic's use of the word Sophomore Slump is this: "This album either sounds the same as the previous album or is way more experimental and subsequently way better but it is not certified platinum like the previous album so I am going to label it with a witty, alliterative phrase invoking a college athletics terminology to explain the fact that consumers are more interested in a shiny new band that just came on the scene." You can see why they went with the phrase "Sophomore Slump"; the actual definition is quite a mouthful! 

Only being 18 years old, I can remember the phenomenon of the Sophomore Slump existing as  far back as 1994. The band, Green Day's, first album, Dookie was by any account: just a damn good time. It revived simple chord structure that the pop music audience had not heard since 1970s British punk. Dookie was the band's first major label debut and as such, it featured ideas and sounds from its entire music-writing and playing existence in the Bay Area. It was a clean, concise record that was the summation of years of experimentation and good ideas. America simply ate the album up. Critics showered it with praise, it won a Grammy for Best Alternative Album and was eventually certified diamond. Then just over a year later, Green Day released its second major studio album, Insomniac. America didn't really care for Insomniac. It didn't sell nearly as much as Dookie, critics lamented the loss of a promising new band and Grammies were nowhere to be found. But you know what? Insomniac was a far superior album in every sense of the word. Having spent all their creative lives on Dookie, there were no stock songs or ideas left for Insomniac. The band simply had to dive into the darkest parts of their creative souls and just spit whatever came out onto paper. The result was darker, more visceral and far more artistically filling than their first effort. It was cute when the punky lead singer Billy Joe Armstrong declared on the first record: "No time for motivation, smoking my inspiration", but it was scary when he snarled on the second album's opening track: "I must insist on being a pessimist. I'm a loner in a claustrophobic mind." And what is good art, if not scary. It should go places we don't expect and be as genuine as possible. 

But we as Americans had moved on. We were done with this particular band, and had moved onto the next big thing, not stopping to think that maybe some of those old dogs were producing new tricks year after year. Since the Green Day example, many other excellent albums have been labeled as Sophomore Slumps. We largely ignored one of the finest alternative albums of the decade, Weezer's Pinkerton, simply because it's powerful riffs and messages of desperation, self-deprecation and mediocrity wasn't quite the same as the poppy surfer punk of Blue Album. We scoffed at The Killers' attempt to be the next Bruce Springsteen with Sam's Town even though it was actually an excellent pop-grungy meditation on American life even though it abandoned the new wave sound of Hot Fuss. We were disappointed by Gnarl's Barkley's Odd Couple because the slow, deliberate songs of pain and sorrow couldn't match "Crazy's" frenetic pace. And time after time after time, these albums have been and will continue to be labeled as Sophomore Slumps. Sometimes the music culture chides artists for doing the same things over again (T.I vs. T.I.P) or  changing the sound of the previous album TOO much (Pretty. Odd.), either way, the artist can't win, they just have to give in to the fickle ways of the machine.

And while this obsession with the "next big thing" isn't unique only to the music biz, it is the harshest instance of it. In the film industry, there is room for a brilliant creative mind like Quentin Tarantino to make a successful gangster movie like Pulp Fiction immediately after making a successful gangster movie like Reservoir Dogs without anyone complaining of a sophomore slump. No one in the literature world abandoned the Harry Potter series when the sequels were either too different or not different enough from The Sorcerer's Stone. And television viewers didn't call the creators of Lost sell-outs when the plot of Season 2 differed from Season 1. Only the culture of music chews up, then spits out talented artists with such regularity. 

They are so regular with it, in fact that I will make a prediction right now with Swami-like certainly. About a year and one month from today, Katy Perry will make another album. The studio will market the record heavily and she will make several public appearances promoting her new work. If it sounds similar to "I Kissed a Girl" in the slightest, critics and audiences alike will tear her limb from limb from not being able from growing as an artist. If the new albums experiments with different sounds and musical ideas, critics and audiences will tear her limb from limb from for deviating from what she does best.

Ahh, the glamorous life of a musician! 

1 comment:

Woozie said...

So, what you're saying is listeners treat new artists like crack. The first album gives them a wonderful new high, but by the time the second one comes around they think it's of a substantially lesser quality. See, I did remember something from health class.