“Sell-out.” “Gone soft.” “Gone to pot.” “Gone crazy.” Everyone’s quick to dis when their favorite musicians change tempos or styles.
Metallica had the nerve to slow down their frantic speed-metal power-chord attack a few years back, exchanging it for a more melodic approach — and got slagged for it by their hard-core fans.
The Smashing Pumpkins dared dabble with electronica on their last album — and watched sales pale in comparison to their previous two records.
Diehard Replacements fans listen to Paul Westerberg’s solo work and wonder when he’s going to write another Stink. Everyone wants their favorite band to keep making the music they like and not ever stop.
Sometime in high school or college, you start wearing your favorite bands like a badge. Rather than having to say anything about yourself, you just point to the Lemonheads, Hüsker Dü and Buffalo Tom, and let their music do the talking for you.
So when your boys decide to stash the loud, distorted guitars and heated-rock tunes for mid-tempo love songs, it kind-of leaves you upriver. The truth is, the job of musicians is only to express themselves. It’s great when what they have to say coincides with what we need said, but it’s hardly their fault when that changes.
Last week, I sat in on the press conference called to announce Metallica’s collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony. Amid a slew of questions about what their fans would think or what the band would wear in any performance with the orchestra, it became clear that Metallica were happy with whatever comes of the odd coupling.
Singer/guitarist James Hetfield offered a succinct explanation of the band’s attitude going in: “We don’t know what’s going to happen, which is kind-of the beauty of it.”
Hetfield’s point is well taken. Creativity doesn’t know heavy metal from classical music and doesn’t care. It’s not like the gods of creativity reach down to the guy sitting on the end of his bed with a guitar and bless him with nothing but the ability to write three-chord punk songs.
Former Replacements manager and founder of Twin/Tone Records Peter Jesperson recalled that the whole time Westerberg was slamming together two-minute sketches of fury, frustration and loss for the Replacements’ albums, there was a quieter side to the songwriter. Replacements fans never got to see that side of Westerberg until he went the solo route.
“All the time the public was hearing songs like ’F— School’ and ’God Damn Job,’ Westerberg was slipping me these private tapes he was making that he wasn’t even playing for the band,” Jesperson said. “They were him just playing solo acoustic things, solo piano things. He was doing these amazing ballads. It was a funny dichotomy.”
It’s understandable that you’ve got to slap a label on it to get the s— to sell, but it’s important to remember — what you hear ain’t the whole enchilada.
Truthfully, no matter how much you like a certain band or singer, you wouldn’t want them to stay the same. Art isn’t meant to be stagnant, and it’s not interesting when it is. The Rolling Stones are still making albums with the same signature sound that helped define rock ’n’ roll, but can you name even one track off the last few?
The best and brightest musicians don’t wallow in the success of their last record and then try to make sure no new sounds that might confuse the fans make it onto their next record. The good ones write the songs that make sense to them at the time and hope they stick — the buying public be damned.
So the next time you think about saying somebody’s gone soft, consider that they just might have moved a hair outside your narrow sights.