S o I was perusing one of my favorite opinion article websites, grantland.com, when I stumbled upon an article discussing Feist and her new album, Metals. This album follows Feist’s most successful release, The Reminder, featuring her hit song “1234” which is likely most associated with the Apple iPod commercial in which it was run or the song’s notable single shot music video.
The crux of this author’s argument seems to be that Metals is Feist’s attempt to differentiate herself from her pseudo superstar status bestowed upon her after The Reminder. After listening to the album myself, I can attest to the fact that there is nothing as catchy or infectious as “1234.” Point taken, but the author also seems to argue that “it’s not just her choice to ‘get artsy fartsy’ and purposely avoid writing another ‘1234’” and that “For Metals, Feist’s storyline is about deciding not to pursue mainstream success.” The rather scathing and spiteful tone throughout this article seem to indicate that the author feels slighted or alienated by Feist’s latest album in that it’s not the mega indie follow-up that competes with “international slutwave movement where Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Ke$ha became the most downloaded, most popular artists.” Championing what he calls “buzzband utilitarianism,” in which the most popular bands are therefore the best bands, the author appears to be reprimanding Feist for attempting to please herself rather than please her fans.
This argument raises a variety of interesting questions regarding the relationship between the artist and his/her fans as well whether popular music is irrevocably better than indie music simply because it’s popular. Who should an artist be making music for and how can we determine if it’s any good?
First, I would like to address the question of who an artist should make music for: him/herself, or the fans. The two sides of this argument have already been laid out by the author in the aforementioned “buzzband utilitarianism” where “the goal of a perfect band is to make the best music so that it can reach the largest amount of people who enjoy it, regardless of their reasons for enjoying it” and the indie artists who (generally speaking) make music for themselves, regardless of what mainstream consumers desire.
One of the core principals of music is to communicate, to project either a message or attitude through the use of instruments and lyrics to whoever will listen. Where does this message come from? Does it come from the fans who receive the music with open arms? Or does it come from the artist who actually writes the music and/or lyrics? I think the answer is obvious. To suggest that an artist’s sound and message is determined by his or her fans is completely ridiculous. Now, an artist’s fans can certainly influence how the artist perceives the world and can therefore affect the artist’s music, but the source of any music comes from the artist.
Here’s where things may get a little complicated. If an artist becomes popular, fans eventually form expectations regarding the artist’s musical output and help support the artist’s continuing endeavor to make music. So, should the artist make music tailored to their fans’ desires and essentially become a slave to their fan base, spitting out the same style of music they have come to expect? Absolutely not. While fans and artists may share a connection in the message of the music, that connection is almost entirely random. If an artist is lucky, his music will capture the essence of a generation and come to define it. MGMT’s “Time To Pretend” is a perfect example of this as is Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” and the entirety of punk music. These songs have come to define their respective generations, but each was supported by an unyielding sincerity that made it authentic. Any attempt to actively capture a generation is shallow and dishonest. This insincere and give-the-people-what-they-want attitude, despite what this Grantland author thinks, IS what makes Nickelback suck, as well as Ke$ha, and post “Because of the Times” Kings Of Leon. Unless I’m really expected to believe that Ke$ha wakes up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy or Kings Of Leon just wants to go back down south despite singing rowdy songs about killing a man who slept with his girlfriend (“Joe’s Head”), there is nothing sincere or noteworthy about these songs. The fact that they’re popular is only the result of clever marketing and tried and true lyrical themes. Nothing in this music truly speaks to the artist or the fans. It’s throwaway music and acts as mindless filler we enjoy for a month and then throw in the garbage.
The bottom line is that the artists we know and love don’t owe us anything. If we like their songs, fine. If we don’t, that’s just as well too. Our relationship with the artist doesn’t extend beyond the music they make. The fact that we are all so quick to write off an artist as soon as he or she changes his or her sound only supports this. If an artist writes the same song over and over, fans are bound to get bored eventually (ex: The Strokes). However, if an artist tries to change things up, fans may feel alienated and abandon him or her anyways (ex: MGMT’s Congratulations). Why should the artist care what the fans think? If the artist is talented, his or her efforts will be rewarded critically, commercially, or most importantly, historically.
This brings me to my next point. The author seems to imply through “buzzband utilitarianism” that the best artists are the most popular. The fact that I even have to address this is almost insulting but that notion is completely irrational. Unless the author wants to disavow the influence and legacy of bands and artists such as The Velvet Underground, Pavement, Robert Johnson, and Pixies, then his argument has no validity whatsoever. Such a philosophy would also lead me to conclude that the best movies and books of the past 10 years include Transformers 2 and Twilight, something that I doubt anyone would rationally argue.
But perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe the author of that article is correct. Feist should disregard any personal aspirations she has and yield to the desires of her fan base. The lead single to Metals should have been entitled “5678” and she should have released a music video with twice the amount of participants. Perhaps The Beatles should have continued writing harmless pop songs instead of pushing the boundaries that would lead them to produce “Revolver” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Radiohead should have released 20 more songs like “Creep” and Beck should have stopped caring after “Loser.” Let’s just cut any ties that music has to art and personal fulfillment so we can let our ears be filled with the purity of popular demand and “buzzband utilitarianism.” After all, isn’t that what we’re owed?
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