Essay # 2
THE UNKNOWN FATE OF 'COMMERCIAL' MUSIC
I've been listening to a lot of 'commercial' music lately. No, of course I don't mean all that todayish gang o' talentless thugs like Marilyn Manson and modelled models like the Spice Girls. What I mean is artists that were once considered 'hip' but have sold out many times since then - Elton John, Rod Stewart, David Bowie, oh, you know the list can be endless. And, of course, how can one hide from those bands that were commercial by their very nature, like ABBA or the Eagles or, I dunno, Bad Company? Now if you're a fan of either of these, hold back buddy! Do not hurry to flame me just because I called your favourite band 'commercial'...
The problem is - does 'commercial' necessarily represent a bad attribute. Over the years, we the careful listeners have almost developed some kind of a pathetic allergy towards the word, like, you know, in the sense 'oh them? why should you waste time to listening to such a shitty band! they're manufactured!..' On the other side, how often do we question ourselves what really is a sell-out. Once one starts digging deeper, though, it becomes obvious that there is no clear and unique answer to that question. So this will be the point of my essay: to try and formulate what 'commercial' really is. What kind of music is commercial? Does 'commercial' equal 'bad'? If not, what kind of commercial music can be good? And so on...
The word 'commercial' itself predefines not exactly the style of music itself; it predefines the goals that are to be achieved with a specific album by a specific band or artist. And that goal? Why, sell as many copies as possible, of course! Isn't that the dream of every recording company? Here, though, we come to the first big rub. The problem is that ninety-nine percent of bands, commercial, un-commercial, whatever, set their goal to sell as many albums as possible. Not that many bands in the world aren't concerned at all about their sales, I tell ya! The Beatles certainly were, and the Stones, and the Who, and everybody. Yes, from time to time people tend to take a risk and release something wildly experimental like Metal Machine Music or Lumpy Gravy, albums that only a crazy person could expect to sell well. But these are still exceptions to the rule. Nobody could expect Lou Reed or even Frank Zappa to release such kinds of albums all of their lives. Even Zappa, a defiant symbol of anti-commercialism, had his Overnite Sensation and Sheik Yerbouti, albums that are undoubtedly at least partly commercially-oriented. No, the correct view towards the problem would be to admit that commercialism and creativity always tend to live near each other.
What can one object here? Oh, it's obvious. On one hand, there are artists who go into the studio to record and make money - their music is simply made to satisfy the times, bring its authors a few quick bucks and disappear for eternity. On the other hand, there are artists who place true art before money - Zappa is still the most obvious example: the true 'knights of music' who only make quick bucks when they're forced to it. A classic example is the opposition of the Beach Boys' pre Pet Sounds cash-ins like the half-baked Summer Days and the live Party: commercial throwbacks made mostly to provide financial coverage of Brian Wilson's ambitious artsy project.
Simple? Well, no. The fact that Summer Days was a commercial album does not detract me from the fact that I like it. Is this bad taste? And if it is, then what can be said of the first four or five Beatles albums? What were the Beatles thinking of when they were rushed into the studio for their famous one-night Please Please Me sessions? Were they thinking of themselves as musical revolutionaries descended on this Earth to make a worthy opposition to Stravinsky? Doubtful. It is much more probable that their thoughts at the time did not extend well over the level of sophistication shared by such today's greats as Ricky Martin or the Offspring. In fact, they were certainly even less sophisticated, because there was no thought-elevating concept of 'daddy I wanna be a rock star' those days. What they wanted was the usual teenager dream: drive in Porsches, screw chicks in thousands and earn enough money so as not to work any more and just be able to play their primitive rock'n'roll all day long. Hey, but does that mean we have to turn our backs to our old trusty copies of Please Please Me and spit at 'em? Hardly. The music there is still great - certainly not reaching the heights of Sgt Pepper, but not the least bit dated to my ears, as catchy and brilliant as ever.
Let's take another painful Sixties' example: the Monkees. I know that many of you cringe at the very idea of their stuff being reviewed on this site, but if that is so, here is my question: have you ever tried sitting through an entire Monkees album with an open, un-biased mind? A thing that is very hard to do, of course. The poor Apes are always referred to as your prototypical 'manufactured' band, and indeed, the decadence is right here before your eyes: they didn't play their instruments, they didn't write their own songs and they looked like a cheap Beatles parody. Some people who like 'em but aren't brave enough try to cling onto the last straw by inducing arguments like 'but you know, isn't it interesting that the best songs on their classic records are always self-penned?' No. It's not true. They wrote some good songs and they wrote some horrendous songs - even Nesmith, the most creative soul in the band, didn't always live up to expectations, especially on his later derivative country-rock stylizations. They had corporate songwriters working for them who wrote some good songs, and who wrote some horrendous songs. The truth is that we always tend to find the easiest solution. Isn't it easy to condemn the Monkees just by saying: a) The Monkees were a commercial manufactured band, therefore the Monkees are crap; b) The Monkees were a commercial manufactured band, but when they wrote their songs themselves, they were good. What a perfectly easy, happy set of solutions! Unfortunately, both are equally distant from the truth.
Actually, solution (a) is what people who don't care to think and analyse much apply to most of the music. Really, what kind of criteria do we have when we speak of good and bad music? How can we decide? Wouldn't it be the easiest thing to brand some band or artist as 'commercial' and get rid of 'em forever? This is the kind of thing that happened to the unfortunate ABBA, for instance. Just because they were a glam-pop band with two conventionally-looking chicks and two drug-abstaining dudes who never relied on guitars and wrote stupid, banal lyrics, they got panned and 'binned' (you know what bin I'm speaking of). Everywhere you go you see the brand 'manufactured' hung on them. But I'm pretty sure that anybody who prefers to stay away from ABBA on the ground of their being 'manufactured & brainwashing' has simply never sat through an entire album. Go and buy The Album, and you'll see that the 'drug-abstaining dudes' had one thing most modern bands only have to dream of: a genuine talent for writing creative, original and beautiful melodies. I could care less what kind of 'wrapper' they used to market them. Yes, I'll be the last person in the world to claim they weren't thoroughly 'commercial'. They were marketed with verve, and their image totally fitted in with the image of such 'stars' of the time as, I don't know, Boney M. The question is: where is Boney M now and where is ABBA? While they were nearly equal in Europe at one time, time has shown the living capabilities of each.
Yes. It is perfectly understandable how people tend to shun the very term 'commercial'. It gives them an 'elitist' feel - passes a steady, unbreakable line between them, the people with 'good taste' and the wider public, the ones who 'like all that conventional pop garbage'. I don't blame them for that. I consider myself an 'elitist' myself - and, by the way, I think that most of my regular visitors are 'elitists' too. In fact, everybody who hates Britney Spears and Matchbox 20 are 'elitists', for that matter (don't try to fool yourself thinking there's too many of us. Not that many. Then again, wouldn't life be boring if it were otherwise?). The problem is that the criterium of 'commercialism' is too weak, unsteady and deceptive to truly represent something really significant. In fact, it often leads to things looking downright stupid. I know people, for instance, who have a passion for 'classic rock' but hate Fleetwood Mac. I cannot understand that. What is there in Fleetwood Mac music that contradicts the values of classic rock? Are they bad songwriters? Are they cheesy? (Okay, Christine McVie is cheesy sometimes, but Buckingham and Nicks - never!) Are they tasteless? God knows! Oh, wait - I know the reason. Rumours is one of the best-selling albums of all time, right? That's where the truth is hidden, isn't it? Even worse, Stevie Nicks was much too unfortunate to become a working class hero (no, I'm not joking: she has a real talent for converting simplistic persons into fans, just look at the number of bland, disgusting 'Nicks shrines' all over the Web). So what?
There is a general desire, in fact, to draw a thorough line between fans of Matchbox 20 and everything they like as well, on one side, and fans of, say, The Zombies and everything they like. No need to say that's impossible. In this case, we will have to let go of the Beatles and Dark Side Of The Moon as well. Let's face it, the former are the most commercial group in the world and the latter is one of the most commercial albums in the world...
...oh, I see. I'm getting mixed-up again, confusing 'commercial' in the sense of 'sell-out' and 'great artist recognized by the public'. But never mind. My main point is that, 'commercial' or no, this is no way to judge the music. 'Commercial' and 'artistically valuable' do not contradict each other. If you really want to draw a line between 'good' and 'bad' music, you'll have to find yourself another criterium. It'll be much harder to do, of course, but it'll be also closer to the objective truth, if there is one. It's easy to brand an album as a 'sell-out': but it's much harder to explain why this album does not seem meritable to you not based on the number of sold copies, but based on the quality of the music. This is perhaps why I always try to follow the artists' careers up to the present day. If I wanted to, I could proudly proclaim that the Stones have 'sold out' after 1972 or so and that's it. The truth is much, much more complicated than that. People who say those kind of things do it just in order to save themselves a lot of trouble, like, for instance, to eliminate the need for spending money on buying the latest 'dinosaur' releases.
That said, I'd like to point out (looking back to my Essay # 1), that the term 'commercial' has certainly lost much of its appeal lately. Back in the Sixties, art was obviously divided into 'conventional culture' and 'counterculture'. The former meant music your parents or completely dorky teeny-boppers were listening to: Frank Sinatra of the elders and Engelbert Humperdinck of the youngers. The latter meant everything else, from the Beatles to Herman's Hermits. Yes, to Herman's Hermits: history has proved most of bubble gum rock to be quite derivative and crappy, but back then it was still more in the Beatles' camp than in Pat Boone's. And since teenagers constituted the main bulk of the record buying public - your fat old Dad would probably content himself with the radio - 'commercial' was almost (not totally, of course) on par with 'artistically interesting'. Well, no, that's not entirely correct, of course - there were loads of crap marketed too. But was there a term like 'sell-out' in the Sixties? No, no and no.
The counter-cultural revolution that occurred at that time did a lot of good things... and a lot of evil things, too. It provided your average teenager with liberty - come on, the liberty that you and me the public (and yes, I'm also speaking of me, a Russian, although in Russia the revolution was delayed by a good twenty years), anyway, that liberty that we share today was undreamt of in, say, 1954. But the fact that the traditional, customary stereotypes have been broken led to a sad fact: art is no longer energetic, proud and ready for battle with traditional values. 'Art' has become lazy, easily-marketed and, in fact, a tool in the hands of corporate industry. Where in the Sixties bands like the Rolling Stones symbolized the sincere and teen-angsty hopes of whole generations, while traditional society feared and shunned them, in the Nineties bands like Nirvana were easily adaptable and 'subdueable'. Punk rock - the very punk rock that for a brief moment seemed to overthrow the shackles of money-making and corporate greed - was tamed within a couple of years. Heavy metal nowadays is as commercialized as could be. The very fact that a 'punk' band like Offspring is being shown on MTV ridiculizes the very idea of 'punk'. We complain about 'alternative' bands being shut up in the underground, unable to emerge on the surface; as soon as any 'alternative' band makes the big time, we scream about it 'selling out'. Where's the rationality?
The reason of all that is what I'd call a 'protest marketing'. This is a formula, and it works brilliantly. See, in the Sixties society chose the 'wrong' way of dealing with angry, menacing bands. They shunned 'em. They tried not to play their stuff on the radio. They avoided getting them on Top Of The Pops or the Ed Sullivan show. (True, the Stones did make it to the show several times, but only due to public pressure: Sullivan hated them. And everybody knows that famous Doors incident with 'Light My Fire'). They condemned them in the press. And it was good! It was a great stimulus for them to write songs with even greater emotional resonance, with even more bitter social commentary and with an ever improving desire to show the world that rock'n'roll was true art and not music for the lowest scum as traditionalists pointed them to be. Another good side of it was that there was a certain 'censorship game' going on between the artists and the society. I, for one, far prefer the epoch when the Stones masked their sexual sagas with oblique, witty references to the epoch when they were finally free to employ any lexics in their songs. Not because I'm a purist, but because it simply makes the song more interesting to me.
However, by the Seventies and further on, this policy has radically changed - inevitably. No, not because of a 'recording companies plot', as many would have you believe, but simply because Sixties teenagers have grown up. Starting with punk rock, the tendency is: the more 'riotous' you are, the better it is for us! We'll not follow the examples of our fathers - go ahead and crush as much hotel rooms as you like, draw any album covers you want to, express your disgust with society as much as you wish. And in the meantime, we'll market you for our own good. You'll break a guitar for us, sonny? We'll tape you and insert that into your latest video. (Sixties: you need to go see a psychiatrist, sonny). You'll have skulls tattooed all over your body? Cool! What a great thought! This'll sure attract the younger rebellious audience. (Sixties: you're a Nazi, aren't you? We'll see what we can do about that!) You'll play that super-duper distorted riff at a 100,000 watt loudness? Wow, your records'll sell like hotcakes - our babes like that kind of protest stuff. (Sixties: this barbaric stuff will disappear in a twinkle of an eye, you'll see, and we'll be back to Engelbert Humperdinck).
In that way, art is simply becoming toothless. Whatever you do, it has two possibilities - either become 'unknown', or become 'commercial'. Nobody has any other choice - it's like take it or leave it. Which means, on one hand, that art is as nearly dead as it can be, on the other hand, that we needn't really condemn all modern 'cool' stuff as garbage. There might be something relatively worthy going on, too - it's just that it has made the big time and we the 'elitists' don't notice it for that matter. Even on MTV there are tiny bits of tasty stuff now and then. The question, therefore, is not whether you 'sell out' or not, but whether you're able to preserve your artistic identity and taste even after you've made the big time. It's harder now, but maybe it's also more challenging.
Anyway, to return to the main point: I entirely and completely disagree that 'commercial' equals 'tasteless' - whether it's the Sixties or the Nineties we're speaking of. It's true that there's a big overlap - it was less in the Sixties, now, in my opinion, it has reached 80 or 90%, but it's still an overlap, not a congruence. Public tastes and artistic creativity often coincide. What's more important, quite often music that's supposedly 'commercial' does not become so actually. How well did Paul McCartney's most 'commercial' album, Press To Play, sell, for instance? Not too much, I'm afraid. Which only strengthens my point.
If you really want to have a criterium that's able to distinguish good music from bad, I'm afraid there's only one: time. Like all kinds of art, rock music's best tester is time. And, while rock is still too young to really be tested, like classical music, one should notice that in our current age, when things are 'progressing' at a much faster speed than they used to one or two hundred years ago, even fifteen or twenty years make a difference. In that respect, I'd like to point out that some classic 'commercial' bands like the Monkees and ABBA have stood the preliminary test, while others, like Gerry And The Pacemakers or Herman's Hermits, have definitely not. I'm not speaking of talented, but virtually unknown Sixties bands like the Pretty Things or the Zombies here, because there may yet be a revival of them, like, for instance, there has occurred a major Kinks revival. It doesn't seem much probable to me there'll occur a Herman's Hermits revival some day, though. And one of the most important things that time does is exactly the elimination of borders between 'commercial' and 'non-commercial', because time tends to preserve art and destroy its ancient social frame. If a band like ABBA is happy enough to be remembered, say, three or four hundred years from now, well, how many people will complain about their being 'commercial' or 'manufactured'? Only rock historians, that's for sure.
In a certain sense, this essay of mine might be seen to contradict the first one - I'm probably much more optimistic and forgivable here. Well, that's just to show my supposed objectivity. Whereas I'm certainly not the kind of dude who'd spend most of his time watching MTV and trying to scrape out the good things, I really do not make that much of a difference between current 'underground' and 'sell outs'. Do modern 'underground' punk bands sound much different from Offspring? Not that much. Do modern 'underground' alternative bands sound much different from Blur? Not that much. How would you like to make music today that would not be 'sold out' and be generally accepted at the same time? To me, that seems like being dressed and naked at the same time...
Anyway, please mail your comments about this one. I'm eager to see what is your idea of 'commercial' and its opposition to 'underground', 'alternative', 'true art', whatever you might call all that shit. And don't forget: whatever you say may be used against you as evidence! Ha! Ha! Ha! And you don't have a right to a lawyer! I'm not bothering to find one for you, either!
Here's an old chestnut from my days as a True Unadulterated Progressive Music SNOB. SNOB stands for simplistic narrow-minded obsessive bore. Thats until I grew up and learned that no one cared if Yes sold out their high minded artistic ideals or turned into a really big commercial group. No one really liked that high pitched androgenous lead singer anyway. You just know I'm right about this, give in to it, let it go.But really, what happened is I found that I would not be thought of anymore highly if I did'nt try to be realistic and try to comprehend the taste of other people. The real reason I became intranced by music was not only for it's entertainment value but because I could discuss it's relative merits and my likes and dislikes with interesting and knowledgable people. The whole arguement about who's a commercial sellout and who remains artistically pure is based on the assumption that art should be created for it's own merit and not for the enjoyment of the people. People who do not enjoy art for itself are unwashed and ignorant. Art made for or enjoyed by a great number of people is compromised and wrong. David Bowie's Heros is great art, David Bowie's Let's Dance is crap. These are simple statements based on the arguement above. I like both, now am I unwashed and ignorant, or a misguided snob. HMMMMMM In other words, and to close for now, I realized I had to at least try to see if ABBA had any merit before I condemed them as crap. I like them, in short sharp bursts of positive, foot stomping, moments. They really could make you smile. Now will I ever give into a Ricky Martin craze, don't hold your breathe, but I will discuss if Madonna will become accepted for her contributions to pop music eventually. And I will try not to laugh too hard, who knows really what time will tell.
My take on the whole issue of "commercial music" isn't really on the "don't complain about it because no one cares"-- I have a different theory: ALL music is commercial. That is, all music worth listening to. See, don't take that as "Huh? You mean Bowie's Berlin trilogy isn't worth listening to? What about Genesis's prog albums? Pavement's Slanted And Enchanted?!?!?" Bull, bull, bull. All of those albums can be thought of as commercial.
Everyone says that Bowie's Heroes album from the Berlin trilogy is "uncommercial." Err....no. It was just less commercial than the music on the charts in 1977....can you honestly tell me that "Beauty And The Beast," "Joe The Lion," or "Heroes" don't have pop hooks? And Genesis! I listened to their Foxtrot album last night, an album before they were supposedly "pop," and gee, I hear lots of accessible chords and instrumental interplay going on in there! The "Willow Farm" segment of "Supper's Ready" certainly is a bouncy, fun ditty, isn't it? And I mentioned the Pavement album because it's usually regarded elsewhere as an "indie masterpiece," but when I listen to it, despite a few tracks of what comes off as truly uncommercial noise.....I hear pop hooks! Straightforward songs with hooks! Buried in tinny production, and the songs would never get airplay, but that's simply because the songs were -less- commercial than what was on the radio at the time. However, the songs are -STILL COMMERCIAL IN THEIR OWN RIGHT-.
That's chiefly what I'm trying to get at. No matter how "indie" some people consider themselves to be, the music they listen to, unless they have a fondness for white noise or something (in which case, seek a psychiatrist), is pop. There are different DEGREES to pop (Invisible Touch by Genesis is definitely more accessible than Foxtrot) but it is all, at the core, POP. Yes' Close To The Edge title track is long, complex and jumbled, but what can you find within its 18 minutes? Pop hooks. Come on, you're trying to tell me that the whole "Close to the edge, down by the water!" sequence isn't catchy? Bull! No matter what the music is, SOMETHING has to draw you to it, and that, my friends, makes it pop.
In fact, sorry to bring them up, but on their first album, XTC have a song called "This Is Pop" which shows a viewpoint that we should destroy the "labels" people give to music and just call it all "pop." Because it is! It's all pop music! Just so I don't ramble on with this for five more paragraphs, I'll just close with this: Don't slam people for listening to pop music, because there's a 99% chance that what YOU listen to, whether prog or indie, has quite a plethora of accessible hooks as well.
George Starostin Replies:
First of all, congratulations to Rich - this is the first comment I've posted that bears the proud '2000' date on it. Welcome to a new age, friends!
Next, I'd like to say that, while the theory he propounds has some valid points in it, it is still rather 'maximalist' to be entirely true. If the idea is to say that basically ALL music is POP since it is in general destined for the public, not for a sheer artist's self-containment, I get it. But if the idea is that it is possible to find 'pop hooks' as we usually understand them in virtually every piece of 'rock music', I don't.
Yes, 'Beauty And The Beast' does have pop hooks in it; however, 'Moss Garden' on the second side doesn't. 'Willow Farm' does sound 'poppy', but 'The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man'? No way! And albums like Gentle Giant's Octopus or Frank Zappa's The Grand Wazoo... nah, I don't suppose such a generalization as Rich does here is really acceptable. In fact, I think I could have easily counteract Rich with an opposite, 'minimalistic' statement: NO music that's worth listening to is 'commercial'. Example? Go to www.prog.net and read prog lovers' reviews of Genesis' Trick Of The Tail: all of them stand in line and complain about the title track of that album being too much 'pop' (although each and every one of them also seem to admit that they rather like it - as a, ahem, guilty pleasure). Well, each time I listen to it I don't see that much 'pop' in it: sure, the chorus smells of music hall a little, but the verses are so twisted and complicated that they never fit the idea of a 'commercially accepted' song. I could go on...
The problem is that 'commercial' and 'full of catchy hooks' are actually two different notions. Ninety-nine percent of contemporary rap albums are 'commercial', but are they 'full of catchy hooks'? If yes, sue me, for I don't know what a 'catchy hook' is. On the other hand, the albums of, say, Renaissance are indeed 'full of catchy hooks', but are they commercial? They never sold anything! And they weren't really written with the idea of selling as much as possible in mind (I think).
In conclusion: I fully agree with Rich that 'pop' and 'indie' are far more close than most people consider them to be. This mostly stems from the fact that people are horrendously biased, and many of them are also 'elite-oriented', putting 'unknown' music on the pedestal far above 'well-known' music just because it's 'unknown' and it'll give them a chance to show off their knowledge and 'I'm-not-like-everybody-else' position in any company. On the other hand, I disagree with his billing ALL good music as 'commercial'. After all, let's not get carried away: Sergeant Pepper is easily accessible and Close To The Edge is not. Which of them sold more copies, actually?
Rich Bunnell replies:
I agree with your response (perhaps I was a bit too general) but Close To The Edge wasn't exactly a commercial failure-- it hit the Billboard Top 5. And what I was saying isn't that everything is utterly commercial, it's just that some things are more commercial than others and that's what becomes successful-- though I hear lots of accessible hooks in Sgt. Peppers, I still undoubtedly hear some in Close To The Edge, complex or not.
I appear to have said Sgt. Pepper has "catchy hooks." You sort of already refuted that, so let me say that rather than hearing "catchy hooks" in Close To The Edge, I hear lots of potentially commercial music in it. See, my point isn't that all music is commercial, the point I was trying to make is that music that people listen to while pretending it's "complex" actually has very many commercial tendencies of its own-- it just got outdistanced by all of the Phil Collinses and Whitney Houstonses out there. Yes, the title track to A Trick Of The Tail is a bouncy piece of pop, but I myself certainly find a lot of Selling England By The Pound very straightforward, while still prog-rock. It's complex, but it's complex because it winds together a lot of straightforward musical passages. Dig?
Richard C. Dickison replies to Rich Bunnell:
In response to the Rich's comments, what?I can refute your argument with artists like Eno, Wendy Carlos, etc.... I do not find Eno really searching for commercial success with his ambient style. I'm sorry but there really are some examples of people who are art for art's sake. I don't think for a minute Wendy Carlos cared a hoot if anybody listened to the Switched On Bach album. You can read it in the liner notes. She is so anal that she spends most of her time talking about the archeology of music and finding the perfect notation for her reinterpreting of Bach's music. A half page devoted to the discussion of finding the relative note decay potential and programming of the synth for this!?!?!? This is not a person checking the top 10 list for her lateest release. I may not like every release by a person of such obsession but you got to give them respect. Especially when she pointed the way for a whole slew of prog bands, showing that the synth was more than a hopped up organ, Tony Banks are you listening, take notes son. Eno's My life in The Bush of Ghost was a pure experimental album, it used the latest beat boxes, samples of ethnic recordings, seqencers galore. Neither artist involved sang one damn song. Yet with no top ten single in sight this albums influence can be felt to this day. These are not happy coincidences the best people in the music world are not recognized for their influence or innovations, that is left to the person who get's the first top ten single by ripping off their ideas. Sorry Peter Gabriel and David Bryne and David Bowie but you know I'm right.
Rich Bunnell replies to Richard C. Dickison:
Blah. I appear to have been misunderstood again. I was -not- saying that all artists are producing music with the intent of selling it. What I'm saying is that the fact that there are people like ambient albums by Brian Eno and experimental albums by Wendy Carlos and allegedly complicated progrock means that it must be accessible in some way. There has to be something which catches you about their music for you to like them-- even if an artist makes art just for the sake of making art, the fact that they can still garner fans makes them, in some minor way, accessible. Not nearly as "accessible" as, say, Phil Collins or Britney Spears (ugh and ugh), but accessible in their own right.
And I'm not denying the influence of those mentioned albums at all! An album doesn't have to have hits to be influential, but it doesn't need to have hits to be accessible either, and what I'm saying, is that all music, or at least a great deal of it, is "commercial," or for a better term, accessible, at the very core-- that's what drives people to like it in the first place.
I probably wrote myself into a corner again there, but that's my best attempt at explaining it. But keep in mind that my argument is not that David Bowie, Peter Gabriel and others put out their most-worthy-of-listening music when they met success. I personally think the opposite, but I'm not denying that there is very accessible music on their pre-commercial breakthrough albums.
Richard C. Dickison replies to Rich Bunnell:
Rich,You are not picking it up. The pioneers in music were not accessible when you first hear their albums. The other artist listening will then take these techniques and apply them to their standard fair, like Bowie did in the Berlin Trilogy, of course Eno was there helping, but anyway. You, being familiar with say Bowie's work will say, hah, Bowie has got the jam on, listen to this new stuff man. What you did not hear was No Pussyfooting, 1973, or any of Eno's work. You would have said, Hah, Bowie is using Eno to make his songs more intellectual and cutting edge. You listen to Remain In Light by the Talking Heads, what you did not hear was My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, which was a project that was started before that album. Now, go back and listen to the albums that were not popular by the pioneering artist (Eno,Wendy) and you will suddenly get it. It is suddenly accessible because another artist introduced you to the technique in a catchier way, or by using their showmanship. I still say there would be no Eno, without Wendy (they were same period though, could be argued), There would be no Peter Gabriel/David Bowie/Talking Heads, without Eno, etc etc....
I don't pretend to sound somehow "original" and maybe this was already mentioned by any of your commentators just an hour or a day ago, but... Commercial or not? Well, how can we decide whether this or that artist actually needs money, or fame, or just to express himself, or to teach somebody something? Actually, I'm such a weak theoretist that I don't dare judge unless to myself or in discussion with my friends. But what if they simply need... attention?Actually, as I see it, all those things mentioned above can be treated as signs of attention. Is it so questionable that if somebody listens to this or that artist, buys his albums and so on, he pays attention to this artist? On the other hand, it is hard for me to understand why a guy or a group comes to a studio, records an album and releases it if he/she/they don't want people to listen to it and to like it? Well, maybe not all people, at least some people, at least one person... it depends on each artist. If one would kindly argue, I would be happy... And marketing also means attention for some people. Is it such a bad position? Well, two or three years ago I thought it is a very bad position... I can't say now that it is good, it just depends... ... actually, it depends on quality of music. So, to conclude my little comment, I'll say that I agree with all of you: no matter the goal if the result is enjoyable.
I have two things to say to this:1.) Why do people bother with such terms as "commercial" or "independent"? Calling one album or another by such terms, in my opinion, indicates that you're reading too much into it. Personally, I don't need to know music's reason for existence in order to evaluate its quality, although it might be intellectually interesting to find out. Granted, so-called "commercial" music tends to emphasize the singles and crap on everything else, but there are exceptions. If I like Shania Twain's music, then by golly, I don't care if it's "mass-oriented" or not. She's good enough for me. 2.) The term "sell-out" actually did exist in the Sixties, though not really until the latter part of the decade. It didn't necessarily refer to musical qualities, either; mostly it referred to rockers (mostly anti-big- capitalism/anti-imperialism) participating in corporate advertisements or accepting corporate sponsors. This anti-big-capitalism mentality persisted until the late seventies, and finally was symbolically eliminated in 1981 by the Pepsi-sponsored mega-selling Tattoo You Tour of the Rolling Stones. See the 1967 album The Who Sell Out for further illustrations and hilarity. OK, three: 3.) Marilyn Manson may be a thug, but he sure ain't talentless. You will realize this once you hear his late-'90's albums. Singles notwithstanding, there's some pretty complex musical s*** on there.
"art is no longer energetic, proud and ready for battle with traditional values. 'Art' has become lazy, easily-marketed and, in fact, a tool in the hands of corporate industry."I just wanted to point out that I think that one statement strikes at the core of everything you've been talking about, especially the current shoddy state of popular music and art in general. Well said.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. The move towards a 'youth culture' in the sixties was a revolutionary thing, and one of the factors leading towards all the new forms of artistic expression (Rock, Modern art, etc.). I missed it by about thirty years but I get the general idea. But now everything is so perfectly tailored to the interests of the youth it has left us nowhere to go. If we rebel, the market researchers rebel right along with us. If we stray from Britany Spears' 'commecial' nature towards Manson, there are trucks of Manson t-shirts and Manson novelty items waiting for us.(Not that that's a bad thing, It's just doesn't feel quite as defiant). This has led to a strange and frightening new category of listener, the 'Anti-Hype'. I can't tell you how many times I've been having a conversation with someone and I've asked what sort of music they listen to and they have replied "Indie" or "Underground." First of all, that doesn't make any sense. Those aren't genres. 'Indie' only means that the band hasn't been signed to a major label, that they are 'independent', just as 'underground' only means not mainstream. These are also the people who reject anything they see as 'commerical' (which only means 'popular') as terrible, and anything unpopular as pure genius. For instance, a person who worships at the feet of Billy Bragg and trashes everything Bob Dylan has ever touched. This would be all right if the person really appreciated Bragg and disliked Dylan, but usually you only have to talk to the person for 5 minutes to see through their manufactuered passion for Bragg and complete ignorance of Dylan. It has become popular to stand on a pedestal and put down the Beatles for being 'commercial'. I listen patiently, only to find out the only Beatles song they are aware of is "Love Me Do", and they've never heard of Abbey Road. But it isn't all their fault, poor dilluted things that they are. It all goes back up to trying to fight the statement I quoted above. They're fighting it just like the Manson fans, and doing just as badly.I'm coming to a point here, I promise. I suppose in all that rambling what I'm trying to get out is that words like "underground" and "commercial" have no place in a discussion about music. At least in the way they are being currently abused. It's just like you said in your essay, people will worship a band like Green Day, and as soon as they become popular and sign with a label and a couple thousand kids start digging them....BAM! They have transformed into sell-outs, the lowest of the low, unlistenable pop garbage. One hit song and they might as well be Blink 182. It's lunacy. Just because no one else has heard of the bands you like doesn't make you mysterious, it makes you a boring candidate for a musical discussion. If I found something new, some new form of music that was really great, I'd want to spread it around. I'd want the maximum number of people to be able to enjoy it. Music is for enojoyment, ART is for enjoyment. That doesn't mean it isn't important and that doesn't mean it isn't beautiful, art is for the masses. It can be appreciated on any number of levels. Just because the Beatles hit it very big rather quickly and your favorite unappreciated so-and-so has to work as a janitor to pay the bills doesn't make the Beatles any less or any more what they are. There's not anything wrong with disliking the Beatles, just please for the love of god LISTEN to them before you get on the soap box, get some REASONS to dislike them. There is no reason you can't like the Beatles AND so-and-so, this isn't a one or the other situation, you don't have to pick sides. I'm not even specifically defending the Beatles, they just happen to be an easy target. And on a side note before I shutup and slink away, the whole concept of 'selling out' is so ridiculous. What do you care if 'Revolution' was on a Nike commercial? Does it change the lyrics, or the melody? No. So be quiet. What does it matter if Dylan has suddenly taken a fondness for the cause of selling women's lingerie? It doesn't suddenly make Blonde on Blonde crap. Don't take art so seriously, it will drive you crazy. Or else you'll just drive me crazy.
I'm really glad I read your Essay on the unknown fate of commercial music, because I have had the subject on my mind for a while. Elitists do tend to shun "commercial" music, under the rationale that it is a "sell-out". But I don't particularly see the sense in it. For one, as Rich elaborated, all music is commercial in a way. If you can go to the store and buy one of their CDs, they are commercial. The fact that they are selling their music, whether it be Eno or Wendy Carlos, makes it commercial. In that sense, it isn't particularly unknown.
But to shun a sell-out? That, to me, doesn't make sense either. Now, I consider myself an elitist. I don't listen to commercial radio, music television or anything like that, and Yes is one of my favourite bands of all time (equal to the Doors, but below the Beatles). Sure, one can easily dismiss 90125 as sell-out crap. Who didn't sell-out in the '80s? But, recall, they were accused of selling out as early as 1971 with The Yes Album, too. Why shouldn't sold-out music sound better? I mean... I like Time and a Word very much. But there is no doubt that The Yes Album has better songs. Consider songs like 'Life Seeker' and 'Your Move', which gained favourable airplay and commercial success. Does that indicate that sell-outs are crap? By no means. Excepting a few cases (Press to Play, So, etc.), if more effort has been made to refine the melodies, fill the album with pop hooks, like they did with The Yes Album, it makes it better. There has to be a logical reason why the wider public enjoy these songs, and that it is because they have been made better, knowing people would like them. If an Art rock band spends its entire career making pointless, hookless albums full of beeping sounds and other assorted sound effects, and then makes a magnificant, but commercial pop oriented, album, should they be criticised for abandoning their style to make their music sound better?