» «

The creative problem of longevity in popular music

On March 7th covering , , ,

Following up to a comment to this post, There is certainly the sentiment that it’s better to make a statement and quit than fade away. Long-lived bands are always subject to complaints from their fans that it’s not the same, etc. Metallica is a great example of a band whose fans seem to include an army of whiners. Do Metallica fans like anything Metallica has ever put out? (I think the real complaint is “you’re not young any more and neither are we and it’s your fault”).

I prefer to think of this as a creative problem, especially for groups who fill stadiums when they are young. What do they do with themselves as they grow up? There are a lot of ways to play it, and I don’t feel the need to prescribe how they should go. My big point is that when bands implode from their toxic social dynamics, this creative problem and creative choice is taken away from them, and that’s a shame. Maybe they’d do something interesting with it.

It doesn’t help that nobody is ever happy, there’s a backlash no matter what a huge band does. Keep touring with the old stuff? You’re now your own tribute band – lame. Write new stuff in the old style? You’re out of ideas – lame. Change stylistically? You’re betraying your fans. Go off and study an entirely different musical genre and try to bring attention to neglected great music, like Sting studying the lute? Self-indulgent aging rock-star crap. This is how fame and money unleash powerful forces to destroy what made the band want to play in the first place.

How bizarre is it to contemplate what the Sex Pistols would be playing had they all survived and kept playing together? It might be horribly lame and cringe-worthy or maybe they would have amazed us all by learning to play their instruments (to the wrath of the fans) and going through more stylistic changes than Miles Davis. Maybe they’d be a salsa band by now. I wish they’d had the chance to see what they’d do with it.

Because I’ve been more immersed in classical and jazz traditions, I assume that a creative musician can make wonderful music until he or she dies. They may go through productive and fallow periods, and sometimes musicians have early work that is so stratospheric that there is no surpassing it — but still, they are entitled to carve out a life in music for themselves. What else are they going to do? Sell insurance?

R.E.M. and the Rolling Stones stand out as bands that with impressive longevity. I know that there are critics who would prefer to shrink-wrap their stunning early years and leave it at that. I don’t care to play critic and I actually don’t care if the fans are happy. I don’t even care if I like the music they make. I care about the musicians finding their way with the creative problem of building a satisfying musical life.

One Response

Subscribe to the comments RSS feed of this post Comments feed


Mar 8 at 11:48


I think you sum it all up when you say, “This is how fame and money unleash powerful forces to destroy what made the band want to play in the first place.” The early work of so many is so bright and brilliant because they have no fame or fortune to lose. It IS all about the music, the art, the creativity at that point. So many things happen after that, if they become commercially successful, that can stunt that creativity. It’s exciting for a new band to suddenly find they’re creations attracting notice. It’s every musician’s dream (whether they admit openly or not) to be signed to the big record deal and fill arenas and win more awards than they have wall and mantel space. So when the opportunity comes along, it’s easy to fall under the fame and fortune spell and churn out what the label says the fans want to hear. That’s when you start listening to outside voices instead of to your own inner muse. And that’s when the creative magic begins to fade and the music begins to sound like everybody else. There’s a line in the book “The Eagle and the Raven” by Pauline Gedge that reads, “the artists forgot that their calling was noble and became imitators instead of creators, charging exorbitant sums for the rubbish they churned out with one eye closed.” I think that just about sums it up for so many.

On the good hand, however, there are some bands who have managed to survive longevity and commercial success and still maintain their identity while pursuing fresh new approaches to their art. The Cure have been doing so for a good 30 years, Bjork for 20, Beck also for 20. And then there’s Tom Waits.

Leave a Reply

Formatting: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong> .