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Tired of the Hype, But That's All There Is

Next month, Houston gets to be a cool kid. But only for a week.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and

everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the

worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

William Butler Yeats was not writing about today's music industry when he penned those immortal lines in the aftermath of the Great War, but he could have been. Quite simply, the biz is a thing that has fallen apart, and the center no ­longer exists.

Where once there was order — bands built followings in local scenes, got signed, made it on the radio by hook or by crook, toured hard and, with luck, made it to the top — there is now, what exactly?

Blog bedlam. An echo chamber of the ill-informed. Innocence drowned in perpetually raging rapids of flavor-of-the-week whitewater that too often leaves little but sneering cynicism in its wake. Small wonder that so many of the best have lost their fervor; too often, the best bands are ignored, and the most ardent fans have been deceived ten times too many.

And even as I type, the floodgates creak open for another mighty tide of propaganda. The rumble-buzz from the bee-loud hive mind is already rattling the teacups in our cupboards. Everybody! South By Southwest season is at hand: Clap your hands and say hype!

Which band of scruffy suburban liberal arts majors with yelpy voices and guitars (angular, of course) will be this month's perpetual savior of rock and roll? Which duo of face-painted Warhol toadies will fill dance floors as never before with their delightfully decadent disco/funk-infused electro-pop? (Answers: Vampire Weekend and MGMT, respectively.)

How many of these acts will we still be listening to two, three, five months hence? For every legit quality band like Arctic Monkeys or Arcade Fire, there are three moldy headstones for forgotten groups like the Datsuns, White Whale, Bound Stems, Tapes 'N Tapes and Wolf Parade. They were born to be hyped and hyped to die.

In a piece in last year's Oxford American music issue, essayist Bill Wasik (the flash-mob inventing swami of all phenomena hipster and viral) nailed it. He quoted a blogger, in a hurry to scoop Pitchfork's review of a now-forgotten 2006 blog band called Annuals, thusly: "Get ready to get sick of hearing about this band."

Such is life in an era in which music is increasingly less about actual sounds than it is about being in the inner sanctum of Those Who Heard Them Before You. Granted, it has ever been such — going back to the 1960s in music (and before that in other arts) — every once-­underground, later-ubiquitous entity has its "I liked them before they sold out" contingent. But the Internet and the attendant utter diminishment of recorded music's monetary value have exacerbated this exponentially. Through time-stamped blogs, it is now possible to prove that you were there first. And now that all recorded music is free to everyone, its only real worth is as a fashion ­accessory.

Or maybe it is more like addiction. Wasik also interviewed John Richards, one of the most prominent DJs on Seattle radio/Internet indie rock behemoth KEXP. Richards likened himself to a cred junkie. "A big deal with us is discovery," he said. "And you're discovering not just a song; you're discovering a band. When you're just discovering a second album, there's not as much hype involved."

Richards's example was the Pixies' Surfer Rosa, which he said changed his life. But then every subsequent Pixies failed to deliver the same euphoria. "You take the drug, you never get that high again, you know?" he said, echoing the forever everywhere coalition of speed freaks, crackheads and junkies.

For any given band, the high only lasts for one album, one tour stop in each town. This can be a retroactive process. Let's say you were at a Wolf Parade show in early 2005. You were neither impressed nor turned off by the band — you just stood there, occasionally nipping off a Lone Star. But then months later, Pitchfork gives the band's record a 9.2. You hear that, I dunno, Brian Eno or John Cale has sung their praises. Suddenly that humdrum night is transformed in your memory into a magical evening.

So you go to the same band's next show, and everything is all wrong. Richards spoke to Wasik about how it went for him with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

"But the second [show]," he said, "well, now it sold out early, and it's at a bigger club. And I'm not that guy anymore. I'm not the guy discovering them. I'm just a guy who is with everybody else who also knows who they are." [Italics original.]

Sheez, all this is starting to remind me of baseball card collecting. Pre-1981, it was exciting. You set enough of your allowance aside to buy a few packs of Topps, hoping that one of them would have that rookie card of Rickey Henderson or Fernando Valenzuela in it. You wanted to be that guy, you see, the one who was there before everyone else.

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