The Battle to Stay Relevant

While at the Toronto International Film Festival for the screening of From the Sky Down, the new film about the making of U2’s 1991 classic and career saving record, Achtung Baby, a reflective Bono confessed, “U2’s been on the verge of irrelevance for 20 years.”

Now, what was the most common reaction to R.E.M.’s recent break up announcement? “Who cares? They haven’t been relevant for years.”

Jane’s Addiction, once an anarchic underground force, has just released a new record that opens with a bit of false advertising: “I’ve replanted my feet back in the underground.” It sounds more like Tool meets Muse and a desperate reach for modern rock radio.

And remarkably, the Rolling Stones have now been irrelevant for far longer than they were ever relevant (and that’s being charitable and conceding 1981’s Tattoo You as their last decent record). And it’s not like Mick Jagger wasn’t obsessed with trying to keep up with trends through the ’80s and ’90s and, sadly, failing.

Yes, it’s the great relevancy debate. But what is it to be relevant? Some criteria: First off, to be called “no longer relevant” you had to have once been relevant.

For lack of a better term, relevancy is to matter, and to do so beyond your own core audience. Because let’s face it, as highly regarded as R.E.M.’s first four records are, no one would have debated their relevancy if they hadn’t ever crossed over commercially. Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo and the Fall are all great bands who consistently produced compelling and challenging work throughout their 20-plus year careers, but those bands were never subjected to the pressures and expectations bands like U2 or R.E.M. did once they crossed over commercially.

Yes, the irrelevancy charge is directed at artists who have broken through with some commercial success, been exalted, and then put out at least two straight crap records at which point the self-appointed watchdogs declare they’ve stayed past their welcome.

Then there’s the disproportionate amount of scrutiny directed at artists that dare to suggest that rock ‘n’ roll has some higher meaning. As a result, bands like the Who, the Clash, Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., U2 and Rage Against the Machine have all been judged by a higher set of standards. Ever outspoken and idealists to the core, the Clash vowed to walk it like they talked it, but their slightest misstep brought out cries of: “Hypocrisy!” For years, the Who stood alone on the front line asking more from rock ‘n’ roll and from themselves than anyone, but as soon as they signed on with Schlitz beer to sponsor their 1982 farewell tour, the firing squad took aim. And why is it that the only way Rage Against the Machine can prove its sincerity is if they donate all of its money to charity?

Meanwhile, bands like My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Blink 182, Jimmy Eat World, and Pennywise (I could go on) pump out inoffensive, interchangeable product and no one bothers debating their relevancy. The Offspring, Nickelback, Foo Fighters, Coldplay and Linkin Park seemingly release the same records over and over, and it doesn’t inspire the type of venomous derision leveled at bands like U2 or Rage Against the Machine.

What’s the lesson here? Don’t stand for anything? Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve? Don’t take risks? Don’t challenge yourself, your audience or the status quo? Because to do so only makes you the target of the great levelers of the world who stand for absolutely nothing but the minute anyone who holds any set of beliefs stumbles along the way, they’re eviscerated.

Like the Who, U2 was always motivated by an underlying terror over becoming irrelevant. “It’s stasis that kills you off in the end, not ambition,” Bono has said. And yet, U2’s greatest crime has always been its willingness to admit its unbridled ambitions. “I do feel we are meant to be one of the great groups,” Bono said on U2’s first U.S. tour in 1981. That kind of drive sounded quaint until U2 actually became the biggest band in the world.

But then what? Artists who attain commercial success start to not only get judged like but start to act like they’re releasing a Hollywood blockbuster. Sales numbers become the sole judge for gauging success. Experimentation is sacrificed for the safe, tried and true. Chasing numbers instead of chasing the muse. The next one has to be bigger than the last. See: U2’s Popmart tour debacle.

It’s easy to blame “the man” and the expectations from the big bad major labels, but it’s as much a self-imposed creative shackling. It’s a kind of self-consciousness that short-circuits one’s natural evolution to the point of self-analysis-paralysis.

Look at Michael Jackson who consistently sold millions after Thriller, but those subsequent sales numbers paled by comparison. Not coincidentally, his records, videos and live performances just kept getting more desperate and grandiose in scope while the innovation and intimacy that was the cornerstone of Off the Wall and Thriller went missing on later releases like Dangerous and Invincible. Tellingly, MTV approached him at the time of Invincible about an Unplugged appearance reasoning that giving an intimate performance would be refreshing after the scandals and personal dramas of the past several years, but he didn’t want any of that. He became consumed with the presumption that grandiosity was the tonic, and he never let us in close again, did he?

After U2 reinvented itself (and resuscitated its career after the debacle of Rattle and Hum with Achtung Baby and the ensuing innovative Zoo TV tour, they were badly shaken by the commercial failure of 1997’s Pop. Their next two records, 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, while commercially successful, were conservative, close to the vest ventures and devoid of any experimentation.To their credit, they followed that up with 2009’s No Line on the Horizon which was, at least by comparison experimental, but flopped commercially. What’s troubling is that U2 has now disowned that record and talk from their camp suggests they believe they need to score big with their next record or they will become fully irrelevant.

“We’ve dodged and we’ve dived and made some great work along the way and occasional faux pas,” Bono went on to say in Toronto. “But this moment where we’re at, to me, feels really close to the edge of irrelevance. We can be successful, we can play big music in big places, but whether we can play small music, for radio or clubs, remains to be seen. And we have to get to that place again, if we are to survive.”

But how many artists that have broken through commercially even think about challenging themselves and evolving? There’s a reason the Clash were called “the only band that matters.” Few bands ever evolved, expanded and crossed genres with such stunning results as the Clash. Yes, there’s Radiohead, but they haven’t been interested in being the biggest band in the world since they knocked on the door with 1997’s OK Computer.

The better question is how many bands are allowed to have a career these days? How many are afforded the luxury of going through growing pains like R.E.M. and U2 did earlier in their careers. In today’s environment, U2 and R.E.M. probably would have been dropped from their respective labels before each broke through commercially on their fifth record. These days in order to have a sustainable career, it’s too risky to put innovation and experimentation at a premium. Bands aren’t given enough margin for error. One bomb and you’re on the chopping block.

Sure, bands like Radiohead, Coldplay, Green Day and Red Hot Chili Peppers have had a career, but all were given the chance to develop and build a core following before the music industry was revolutionized. Since then, the more inherently adventurous album format has been rendered moot. The singles oriented market we have now has narrowed the creative scope and records are now mere collections of songs targeted for radio, commercials, TV or movie placement or for download.

What will become of bands like MGMT and Airborne Toxic Event, two great bands who had hits on their debut records and followed them up with strong but less successful offerings? Will they and bands like The Strokes, Arcade Fire and Kings of Leon be given the chance to suffer growing pains? If they stumble commercially, will they abandon experimentation for what’s safe and recognizable?

It got to be too much for R.E.M. who this year released its swan song, Collapse into Now and didn’t even bother with a farewell tour. Their last five records have been such a disappointment even their hardcore fans stopped listening. It’s the perils of having such a strong body of work in your canon to live up to. Michael Stipe explained R.E.M.’s breakup only like this: “The skill in attending a party is knowing when it’s time to leave.” Most of their long-time fans were relieved not unlike a sports fan when their favorite fading star finally hangs ‘em up. Watching your favorite band become irrelevant is kind of like watching Michael Jordan unable to elevate high enough to dunk in his final year in the NBA.

What we’ve seen the last ten years is an amalgamation of the record industry’s malaise with pop media’s obsession with tearing down anyone who climbs too high. Who dares to fly the flag for rock ‘n’ roll? Who dares to wear their heart on their sleeve? Why bother? It’s too much risk for not enough reward. Safer to pump out the tried and true and be spared the added scrutiny.

My guess is we’ve seen the last of the Great Rock Spokesman like Townshend or Joe Strummer. U2 may be the last great band to insist rock has some greater meaning. Personally, I think it’s a far more interesting world with U2, the Clash, Pete Townshend and Rage Against the Machine in all their bluster and wayward idealism. Because we’re at a point now where it feels like anyone who reaches a modicum of success is so fearful of failure all we get is a steady diet of bland soup churned out by inoffensive and interchangeable bands. Has rock ‘n’ roll reached a point where its stars operate solely to maintain status? Sad.

I quote Paul Weller and the Jam: “I’m going underground.”