I was reading an interview yesterday with Robin Pecknold, the lead singer of Fleet Foxes, and it was…well, it was actually pretty boring. Apparently the quality and depth of an artist’s music is inversely proportional to the quality and depth of their interviews, because I ended up giving up on that thing after five questions. Anyway, as I was reading, a thought popped into my head, so I figured I’d share it with you.
You know what we rarely see these days? Popular bands in which many (or all) of the players are charismatic personalities in their own right. Take, for example, Nickelback; whatever your opinion of them, they are one of the better-selling bands of the last decade, which probably says more about us than it does about the quality of their music, but I digress. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who can name a non-Chad Kroeger member of Nickelback. Compare that to, say, The Beatles (that might be the first and only time Nickelback and The Beatles will be compared in such a fashion)- everybody knew the names of all the Beatles, and each Beatle had their own subset of fans. With the exception of boy bands, that hasn’t happened with a modern musical act in a long time; in fact, even if you include boy bands, the last time it happened was over a decade ago.
(Note: I’m obviously excluding modern “supergroups” like Them Crooked Vultures. I’m talking about bands whose members hadn’t achieved any significant level of fame on their own prior to the band’s formation.)
When I listen to The Rolling Stones, KISS, Led Zeppelin, etc., I come away thinking “These distinctive personalities came together and created a record”; conversely, when I listen to, say, Fleet Foxes, I don’t get that impression. Their music is just as great as that of the bands mentioned above, but it doesn’t have the same evidence of being a collaborative effort because, aside from Robin Pecknold, I have no idea who’s contributing to the music. When The Beatles were at the height of their popularity, people claimed that they could tell which Beatle wrote a song depending on how the song sounded, and they could do this because they had a good idea of each band member’s personality. (They could also tell by reading the liner notes, but let’s not let facts get in the way of a good story.) Nowadays, I don’t think that happens. It’s just assumed that each band member contributed equally to the creation of that song, whether they did or not. That probably means fewer arguments between band members who want to be recognized for their accomplishments; capitulating to the creative goals of the band is more important than individual acclaim. I think the flip side of that coin, however, is that we feel more of a connection to the band’s product than to the members of the band themselves. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but it does change the way we listen to and appreciate today’s music. Of course, plenty of bands have recognizable lead singers, but without the aid of Google, I doubt very many people would be able to name the bassist from Metallica. (His name is Robert Trujillo, and he’s the man.) As far as current music is concerned, just knowing all the names of a band’s members qualifies as intimate knowledge.
The more important question, then: Does it matter that we don’t feel like we know the people who make the songs we love? I feel like I know Justin Bieber, and as a result, I have ZERO desire to listen to his music, because the kid is a grade-A dipshit. It’s the law of diminishing returns: let us into your private life a little bit, and we love you for it (hi, Justin Timberlake!) Let us in too much, and your music loses its mystique and a large part of its meaning (fuck you, Chris Brown!) We tend to ascribe our bias toward the artist to their music, which makes it a very delicate balancing act for the people creating the art. Something to consider on this quiet December morning.
And speaking of Fleet Foxes: