This is a topic very dear to me. Those who know me will certainly be able to attest to this. I must choose my words very carefully, and be sure to support my grievances with plenty of examples, as people on the other side of this eternal debate seem to be filled with TNT as I spew my fire at them at close range.
The mainstream ruins good music. I hesitate to use such a tired term, but I will stand by my decision to do so. By “mainstream” I mean not only commercial radio stations, Mtv etc., trend stores like Hot Topic, and end-caps in the Wal-Mart CD section, but also popular culture’s common knowledge (which is usually incorrect in its assumptions) and, overall, things teenagers these days think they understand, and by extension what adults think they therefore understand by watching today’s teenagers.
It is because this “mainstream” ruins good music that I find myself getting upset when (to name just a few examples),
- My favorite bands sign to major labels or go on tour with crap groups like Blink 182 or Nickelback,
- A song on one of those bands’ new albums (which I would have had for 3 months or more at that point) becomes some cell phone company’s new jingle for their commercials,
- New bands spring up that only imitate that what has already been done and get more attention for it,
- I see a store in a mall selling ready-made fashions that, years prior, I watched creative people design for themselves via thrift shops so as not to support stores in malls,
- The songs and albums that defined the genre in question are belittled by those who think they understand music better because that OLD stuff was never on the radio, but the NEW stuff is.
There is a general understanding held by many people that good bands get famous, okay bands are one-hit or one-album wonders, and crappy bands are just generic little garage bands you never hear of and that’s okay because they’re no good anyway. Furthermore, this general understanding also says that people who get mad when their music gets famous are just selfish and guided by some irrational, anti-establishment ideology and only listen to the music to perpetuate their image of independence from mass culture in the first place. That understanding is disgustingly wrong.
I’ve had this blog on my mind for quite some time, and since starting to write it two days ago I’ve gone “J.R.R. Tolkien” on it about four times (kudos to those of you who get that analogy). What I have concluded is the best way to state my case is to tell my music story, and then conclude with some insightful thoughts for all of you to take home. It is my goal that those of you who may, to whatever degree, agree with that “general understanding” I mentioned, go away with a broader perspective on the world of music, and the eternal struggle of artistry and sound vs. image and money therein.
I got into punk rock starting in 1995 and developed an affinity for the more pop-punk sound (featuring vocal harmonies and simple chord progressions) by bands such as NOFX and Bad Religion. It wasn’t long after that when I started getting into ska by way of bands like The Toasters, Mustard Plug, and Slapstick, to name a few. I dissected every album I had, learned all about the genres’ histories, and read other bands’ names in the special thanks sections and hunted down their works as well.
I was sure I was on the cutting edge of the new wave of popular music because mere months after friends introduced me to these two genres, they became more and more popular. However, I quickly learned a distaste for this as some of my classmates, who were Rage and Bush fans the week before, were writing “New Found Glory” and “Mighty Mighty Bosstones” in white-out on their backpacks, Mtv (as it existed in that day and age) was having a hay-day with “Sell-Out,” and other people were asking questions like, “What’s this new form of music called ‘ska?'” and when I’d inform them that ska is actually older than reggae, I was ridiculed for being so ill-informed.
There were guys that I knew as Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam junkies who actually convinced me that The Urge were a good band so I regrettably bought their second album. There were popular kids in the cafeteria singing the new ska-punk hit, “Walking on the Sun.” My gut twisted as I even saw a few of my favorite bands, such as Buck-O-Nine (see albums Barfly and Twenty-Eight Teeth) change their style in hopes of landing an Mtv hit (see album Libido). My heart broke as the popular kids that owned Turn Off the Radio and Dude Ranch, as I did, would roll their eyes at albums such as Life on a Plate and Lookit! (which, in my opinion then and now, are WAY better). I wanted it to stop. I wanted them to say away because, for some reason, I knew that since they weren’t genuine, the consequences could not be good.
Then ska disappeared like any other flavor of the week. From around 2000 or 2001 forward, there have only been a small handful of such bands, playing shows and releasing albums for those who were really ska fans all along. If you don’t believe me, check out groups like Mu330, Voodoo Glow Skulls, and Streetlight Manifesto. I think the Toasters might still be together, too, but I could be wrong.
Next came emo. Emo was harder to define than punk or ska. The bands were all so different, though they still carried a certain, common je ne sais quoi between them. There were straight-forward rock bands like Braid, Alkaline Trio, or Moneen. There were synth-rock bands such as Sig Transit Gloria, The Anniversary, or latter-day Get Up Kids. There was the hard-edged dissonance of At The Drive-In, the melodic screaming of Thursday, while also the artistic concept albums from Appleseed Cast.
Early on the label of “emo” was already viewed as negative by some because some pure-blood punk rockers saw emo as the next stage of evolution from pop-punk (and they were probably right), and those guys hated pop-punk. Also, many of the groups were interested in just being bands, rather than a kind of band, so they did all they could to distance themselves from the label. Usually they failed, and I’ve tried to maintain a much more loose and positive assigning of the word to acknowledge that to some degree. However, I always feel it necessary to remind everyone that what you may THINK or have BEEN TOLD is emo (Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Good Charlotte) is NOT what emo is. Or was. However you want to put that.
When I started listening to emo, I was a late-comer, as many emo bands of the time were gone or entering their last days by 1999. These groups were Tuesday, Braid, Jawbreaker, among others. Other bands coming onto or who would be on the scene for a while longer were The Get Up Kids, Hey Mercedes, Appleseed Cast, Alkaline Trio, etc. I had known of emo for several years at that point, and had hated it and avoided it like the plague. I began liking it when I realized 1) I was maturing with my musical tastes and needed new things, and 2) hating an entire genre as I saw it based on a tape an old friend had made me three years prior was just silly.
The downfall of what was emo came with Dashboard Confessional. Others may say otherwise, but trust me on this one; it was Dashboard. And Jimmy Eat World. I’ll get to that. . . . The lustful eye of the mainstream was noticing the commotion in the “underground” scene and was taking an interest already, so when Chris Carraba burst onto the scene with his second album, The Places We Have Come to Fear the Most, with his rugged-but-pretty-boy looks, soothing voice, and ringing, slide-tuned acoustic guitar, the teenie girls went nuts. Almost overnight, what was emo before (maturing punk-rockers with more complex song structure and at least an attempt at insightful lyrics) was re-defined as crying 14-year-old girls, singing along as Dashboard waxed sappy over lost loves.
Not much longer after that, Mesa, Arizona band Jimmy Eat World released the follow-up to their sophomore masterpiece, Clarity, and called it Bleed American (in case you didn’t know, it was re-titled Jimmy Eat World after 9/11, which was around a month later, and making it Jimmy Eat World’s third self-titled release). The title track was a good hard-rock anthem about who-knows-what, but there were a few songs on there that reeked of radio-pop-hits. I remember the first time I heard “The Middle.” I don’t think I made it through the whole song. Where Clarity screamed at me with the beauty of life through sound, and elevated the standards I held for what a good album should be, this song “The Middle” made me think of puppies and pastels and matching white suits and musical guest appearances on Regis and Kathy Lee. “Well Jimmy Eat World just isn’t emo, anymore,” I thought. But pretty soon, the song hit the airwaves and everyone was talking about this new kind of music, “Emo!”
“Oh, no, you don’t,” us emo fans shouted.
A tug-of-war ensued between those of us who didn’t want a repeat of what happened to ska and those who suddenly thought they knew how to define one of the most eclectic genres in rock music. But we were destined to lose. So sad. Those on my side either abandoned the whole “emo” thing altogether (remember that many didn’t like the label to begin with) or just hung out on the side-lines and threw punches when someone got near (like I did). Emo, as I knew it, flailed about like a fish on concrete over the next year or two in its attempts to somehow not end up in its inevitable fate of being a lame excuse for gutless teens to hide in corners and be laughed at by everyone. I was embarrassed when someone asked me what kind of band The Get-Up Kids were and I would respond, “emo.” I tried to defend myself, explaining that what they had been told was wrong, but no one cared.
And what followed was pretty weird. The scene’s look mutated. It mutated into some gross emo-goth conglom. I honestly don’t know how the goth look even came into the picture in this story, but it did. Maybe it’s because both were associated with Hot Topic, but I don’t really know. I’m still perplexed to this day. “Emo-Kids” before 2002 or 2003 looked like your normal college rockers, but since then they look like Apoptygma Berzerk rejects like that douche to the left. Keep in mind, I knew self-defined goth rockers at the time. I’ve gone to industrial rock shows. I know what “goth” fans look like, and it’s being called “emo” by the mainstream to this day.
Well, it’s been several years now, and rising in popularity (and in the mainstream’s peripheral), we have what is called “indie music.” Where emo was a difficult-to-define genre of rock, indie music (that’s “indie” for “independent”) isn’t really a genre at all, and certainly isn’t always rock; it’s more of a broad category (kind of how “metal” isn’t just one type of sound anymore, except broader). These days we have bizarre, hard-to-classify groups like Polyphonic Spree, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, or Broken Social Scene. There are also catchy soft-rock bands like Stars and Fleet Foxes; artsy, folksy singers like Sufjan Stevens; quirky line-ups like Mates of State; and even groups with heavy other-genre influence but providing new twists in the sound, like Black Kids, Miracle Fortress, or Vampire Weekend. The list would be infinite with this kind of music because no one (finally) is asking “does this band fit the genre?” There is no genre. It’s called indie because it is truly independent. They make their own genres, either for themselves alone, or one for each album or song. Bands make the music they want to make without pandering to a scene, and the scene that is there wants to see what they come up with. I’ve loved going to the few shows I have lately with absolutely no pre-conceived notions as to what the bands will sound like. The more originality, the better. The more clear influences and classic nods, the better. The more anything, the better.
But it’s happening again. It’s becoming fodder for comedians. The mainstream is catching on and putting these bands on talk shows and Caribbean cruise and cell phone commercials. I’ve already heard reports of radio stations spinning the new hit single from the band Feist!
I’d like to just shrug this one off, since the very nature of indie music is to let it be what it is – but I’ve seen it too much. I’m serious. I’m tired of my favorite bands becoming trends and then becoming teen-movie fodder for money, and my subsequent furry causing me to be lumped into a category of people whom everyone assumes just doesn’t like to share and only cares about image.
It’s not about sharing! It also certainly isn’t about image! I’m almost 30 and work in an office! I have no image these days, and I’m not trying for one.
I have stood by helplessly three times as the music I enjoy is destroyed. This “mainstream” gobbled up ska and pop-punk and emo like a Maury Povich fat kid on a pre-rehab ice cream kick. But he’s not eating Haagen-Dazs . He’s eating out of the plastic tub you find on the floor of your grocer’s freezer. As he’s shoveling it into his face-hole, he does not know how to, nor does he think to, enjoy the treat for the delightful confection it’s intended to be. Instead he acts purely on instinct and finishes two gallons before sane people could finish a half-pint. Then he throws up and is so disgusted by the memory of the gluttony that led to the cold-and-warm mass on the floor that he never eats ice cream again – nor does anyone else in the room. But he is not cured – no, his lusts are not quenched or swayed. He will find a new snack to devour with the fervor of a starved and rabid wolf.
Certainly, I am not so naïve to think that such a blog as this will forever change someone who defines the success of a musical artist by whether they perform at the Grammys or not; but please understand — I want success for my favorite bands. I want to be able to share the music I find and am introduced to by other friends with even more people. What I do not want is some guy at the head of a major corporation, whose main goal is to make money, to package and sell and overexpose the masses, and not only ruin perfectly good bands, but attract more to the arena that WANT to be used and overexposed, because as far as they know that is what music is supposed to be about. They come along and play the game by the numbers, crap out some quick hits that hit our ears like cotton candy to the mouth, until we all stop and wonder what was so appealing about any of this in the first place.
I want to conclude on a positive note by stating that regardless of what happens from here forward, understand that true music fans will always be one step ahead. Ska, punk, and emo are not the only genres to be devoured by the mainstream, and they will not be the last. But those of us who like good music and appreciate the artists that make it will always be doing something new and something different, and it is the mainstream that must catch up and exploit in order to survive.
 I want to point out that there’s nothing inherently wrong with Dashboard Confessional. I like Dashboard. I’m listening to him as I write this, because brining him up earlier made me realize it’s been a while since I listened to Places (though my iTunes has already moved on to the incredible So Impossible EP). Had the whole mainstream thing never happened, he would have been one branch on what was a beautiful tree of a variety of sounds.