A couple years ago I had the opportunity to see one of my favorite bands, Saturday Looks Good to Me, at the Canopy. Their modern take on 1950s pop served a lot of great purposes as a high schooler and I was really excited to see them as a freshman in college. Unfortunately, their set was disappointing.
The beauty of SLGTM was their boy-girl harmonies, their use of horns and bells, the aesthetic created by drowning all their songs in amazing amounts of reverb. Their live show was five dudes rocking on their respective instruments with the gain turned up. They turned their poppiest tunes into garage rock numbers. It wasn’t bad, but having been an avid fan for such a long time, I felt cheated.
Ironically, the band that did not disappoint their fans that night was Of Montreal. Not as bombastic and explicit as they are today, Of Montreal was more concerned with hitting the high notes than thrusting their naked bodies around the stage (although that happened quite a bit as well). I say ironically, because I feel they’ve really turned away from their fan base with their steady descent into electronic dance-madness.
Their last two albums, though containing moments that are still good and worth examining, are unbelievably self-indulgent and pretentious. The more fluid-based their shows became, the less thoughtful their music seemed. I lost all interest in the group — even their older, better stuff.
But what does an artist or a band owe to their fans, anyway? Kevin Barnes has every right to express himself however he wants, even if that means making music that doesn’t interest me. Artistic expression shouldn’t be stifled by fan expectations or commercial pressures. But I don’t view the band’s shift to the shocking and pulsating as something entirely artistic in nature.
In a recent interview with Paste, Barnes discusses how the backlash revolving the Outback Steakhouse commercials made him want to prove he didn’t sell out and therefore set out to make crazier music. I don’t know if that’s the right reason to affect your art. It just seems isolating and self-important.
Any band that has experienced a level of success has to realize that they are someone’s favorite band. A band can’t exist and tour and sell the occasional CD by just having a bunch of apathetic, indie kids say, “Yeah I’ve heard of them,” when their name gets dropped. A band exists because there are people that know every word to every song and swear by their music. There might not be many such people, but even if there are just a handful of kids that show up to your shows inappropriately excited to see you, those fans are, in the words of Jay-Z, “so necessary.”
With that in mind, I think that bands have some level of responsibility to these fans, be it for emotional or economical reasons. Either your fans are so attached to your art that you don’t want to disappoint them, or there is a monetary obligation. They buy your records, so you should have them in mind when writing, recording and performing.
But is a band only supposed to make music they think their fans will like? Craig Finn admits he keeps some lines in his songs because he knows they’re what The Hold Steady fans love. I would guess “me and my friends are like / double whiskey Coke, no ice” would fall under that category.
Coldplay, though incredibly boring, does a pretty good job slightly tweaking their sound while catering to the huge audience they have – “Viva La Vida” is classic Coldplay-pop, but the little embellishments and Eno-like production make it OK for me to like, too.
When a band is on the cover of a magazine or their CD is available at Borders, they have a dual identity. The band becomes both artist and commodity. Commodity could be related to money or emotions, but more than anything, it occupies a place in mass media. The music reaches far beyond the people at concerts. Because of that, a band in that position has to play both parts.
I don’t think making sure there’s a single on an album is selling out; I think it meets expectations. Spoon wrote “The Underdog” so they could put “The Ghost of You Lingers” on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. I mean, they wrote “The Underdog” so they could name their album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. The result? An amazing single, a brilliant and expressive track and one of the best album titles ever.
So if the artist has to cater to the fan, what does the fan have to do? I say, buy their records. I’m telling this to myself more than anyone, but if you ever expect anything from an artist, make sure you’re supporting them.