[12 March 2009]
Several years ago I was a member of a very short-lived band, Sonic Boob. (Note: Band names have been changed to preserve the anomymity of the victims involved.) We made some great music together (a strange combination of soul, post-rock, and emo), but, ultimately, we went our separate ways, because our opinions were too disparate on one key issue: the Backstreet Boys.
For those of you that just landed on Earth, the Backstreet Boys were a pre-millenial boy band, a pop music enterprise whose main purpose was entertainment and commerical success—not to create meaningful, groundbreaking, or divisive art.
Given this information, naturally, the question that divided Sonic Boob was: could the Backstreet Boys produce good music?
In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that we were a band of music nerds, first and foremost, and so such questions seemed incredibly meaningful to us at the time. (Or perhaps that is already too clear.) At any rate, I fell on the side of the argument that thought the Backstreet Boys were capable of (and actually did produce some) good songs. Did I prefer to listen to these songs instead of, say, the works of Black Star, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, or Oswaldo Golijov? Certainly not. But, I also did not believe, as many of my bandmates did, that the Backstreet Boys’ apparent pandering to pre-pubescent youth was necessarily related to the group’s ability to perform/produce/create good music.
I supported my view with several alcohol-fueled points: 1) The Backstreet Boys utilized talented songwriters, producers, and arrangers who, while they surely wanted to make a buck, were musically-trained and have at least some artistic integrity. In most cases, the songwriting team and process is even insulated from the marketing machine for an album. 2) Extreme popularity and commercial success does not necessarily mean you suck. You can look at pop music as music of the masses. In other words, it’s a folk music (Intro to Anthropology, don’t fail me now). It doesn’t break new ground, sure, but it connects with people - -a whole lotta people—in a meaningful way and makes them feel. That counts for something—a variable or two in the complicated differential equation of good music. 3) A good song is a good song no matter how much you dress it up. (Please, no pig/lipstick metaphors.) AutoTune, synthesizers, and orchestral flourishes are nice, but they cannot cover up a crappy song. Similarly, they cannot make a bad song sound good. I mean, wasn’t the original Incredible Hulk TV show far superior to the recent CGI-saturated motion picture?
Here are my bandmates’ also alcohol-fueled rebuttal of my points: 1) The Backstreet Boys suck and so anyone who writes music for them also sucks. You certainly don’t need talent to write formulaic songs with a maximum of four chords and the most inane lyrics on Earth. 2) Economics and art do not make a tasty cocktail. They run counter to one another at nearly every step of the way. If you are worried about popularity and mass appeal, then you are at least unconsciously making decisions that compromise the artistic integrity of the music. Let’s say that as the songwriter for the Backstreet Boys, with your background in dodecaphony and atonal musical serialism, you are feeling a D diminished 13 chord as the next chord in the song you are writing for the group. Well, the audience certainly won’t stomach that kind of dissonance so, instead, you are forced to alter the artistic integrity of the song by plopping in a D minor triad—yet again. Over time, these compromises make music bland and boring—they make it suck. 3) A good song is a good song no matter how you dress it up. But in most popular music they successfully fool the masses into believing million-dollar production equates to a good song. Essentially, they make you believe the Hulk movie is way better than the original with its limited special effects. And the box office numbers don’t lie—they fooled most people.
In the end, Sonic Boob’s arguments were more interesting than our music and the band split. This brings me, in a most roundabout way, to my main point: Chris Cornell.
A brief, and albeit incredibly unscientific, survey of the growing body of (largely negative) criticism mounted at Cornell’s latest effort, Scream, a collaboration with pop-producing sensation Timbaland, shows, in essence, the debate I had with my bandmates lo those many years ago. Can a serious rock dude with major indie music street cred team up with a commercially-cognizant producer to make good music? Most critics have said “no.” In fact, the only reason I thought about a possible similarity between criticism of Scream and the debate within Sonic Boob was the extent to which critics have slammed Cornell for his apparent “change in direction.” What is significant, however, isn’t that critics dislike Scream. That’s certainly their job and what we love and expect from music criticism. What is significant is the way in which the critics have expressed their displeasure for Scream. This expression is what closely echoes my band’s disagreement.
Let me break it down: Many critics who dislike Scream seem to suggest that the album’s failings are related to Cornell’s desire for mass market appeal. As a result, these critics appear largely wary of the idea that good music can be birthed by artists aiming at commercial success. It’s not necessarily that these critics consciously believe that artists aiming for commercial appeal are incapable of producing good music. Rather it’s that their criticism of Scream is related to their belief that Cornell is aiming for mass market success. They believe, like my bandmates did, that this aim helps the music in some way to suck—at least a bit.
On the other side of the aisle are the handful of critics (myself included) that are at least somewhat fond of Scream. For the most part, they separate Cornell’s music from his potential desire for commercial success. As a result, they seem overtly open to the possibility that good music can come from artists with eye towards popular appeal.
(I am of course oversimplifying the issue, but I think it’s useful to do so in this case to show how differently people view the relationship between commercial appeal and artistic integrity.)
Of course there are plenty of critics who do not fit my rubric. But the question is still a relevant one, particularly in this age of growing commercialism, where your favorite song may just end up appearing in a Geico or iTunes advertisement. At least it was relevant to Sonic Boob.