Why are popular bands not as good as not-so popular bands?
. . . Is a question I asked my social media friends the other day which led to a very interesting conversation.
There is a little lie that we tell ourselves which is that all of us have different ‘tastes’… we do… but also… we don’t.
I’m willing to bet that you’re a fan of Ice Cream. Even if you deny it now, I’m sure I could trick you into enjoying some at a later date when you’re off guard and not thinking about it. Make no mistake, I am not above doing that. I have friends with extreme lactose-intolerance issues who are willing to suffer the consequences for some delicious ice cream. (nom nom nom)
Of course people have different tastes for different things. It would be insane to suggest otherwise but it’s equally insane to deny that there are some things that aren’t pretty much universal.
I hate to be the one to tell you this but the science is pretty gosh-darn tiddily-tootin’ clear on this: We’re like 99.9999% identical. The differences we perceive aren’t as big as what we think they are which might be bit of a shock at first but it’s also kind of beautiful. We are all a lot more similar to each other than we think we are. You really aren’t as alone as it might feel sometimes.
So when I say, ‘Good’ I’m not talking about anything that’s exactly measurable like musicianship, or craft, or performance, or… ya know… shit that’s easy to measure. I’m talking about that impossible to explain “X-factor” that all of those timeless songs have in common.
Songs like “Imagine” by John Lennon
That song is seriously good. I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t like that song. It’s not complicated. It’s not novel. It’s not new. It’s not ‘hip’. It’s not simply nostalgia that makes people like it. It’s just a damn good song by a damn good songwriter. It’s got that magic that’s impossible to explain.
Some artists have it and others don’t. Most don’t in fact and it seems impossible to manufacture.
There are a lot of theories to try and explain what it is that gives some artists this magic; my least favorite being that suffering artists make good art. There is a case to be made for this like: Who can deny Van Gogh? Dexy’s Midnight Runners? Or John Lennon? I will concede it’s hard to not notice the correlation but there are also plenty of artists who didn’t struggle at all who are magnificently brilliant; but I’ll save that conversation for another day.
But just like anything there is a sliding scale of ‘X-Factor’-ness. Just like how, Gandolf has more magic than Merlin but neither have as much magic as the Genie from Aladdin. Just like everything there is never a this or a that but instead a this and a that and everything in between. Music is exactly the same.
Maybe I’m crazy and this ‘suffering artists make better art‘ is exactly what’s going on because it just seems to me that the artists that are less popular tend to be the ones who truly bring the goods. The less popular tend to have the bangers.
Consider The Beatles.
The Beatles are incredibly popular and it’s one of those rare times when their popularity seems to be explained by their songwriting genius. We are several generations in having their music with us and every generation embraces them just as the previous did. They’re the biggest band ever. Right? Wrong. Whose bigger than The Beatles? In terms of raw numbers/fans/listens/record sales it’s unquestionably Ariana Grande.
I hate to crap on any artist but when I heard she beat every Beatles billboard chart record, I had to hear what the fuss was all about and I was deeeply saddened when I listened to ‘her’ music. I put ‘her’ in quotations because she’s not an artist, she’s a model who can sing. Manufactured, lowest common denominator, largest possible audience stamped out music that’s easy to sell.
She’s an other-worldly attractive girl who sings about how badly she wants to sleep with you verses the Beatles who were incredibly attractive English boys who sang about how much they loved their girlfriends.
I guess it’s the same formula but maybe now it’s a little more to the point.
I seriously doubt if Ariana is going to move onto more mature and experimental music like how the Beatles did but lets be real. We don’t remember the Beatles for their early pop-(I’m sexy and I want to sleep with you)-records. We remember them for their later records. Songs like, ‘All you need is Love’, ‘Here Comes the Sun’ and ‘Let it be’. We remember them from when they grew up and got tired of being nothing more than popular and wanted to express themselves as artists and later as individuals.
I think Ariana’s perfectly content with just being popular.
You’re simply being dishonest if you say The Beatles have the same artistic integrity as Ariana Grande. I’m not saying that the Beatles are better than Ariana but… oh wait no that’s exactly what I’m saying. The Beatles are definitely wayyy more better-er than Ariana Grande. Hands down. No question. Case closed. End of conversation.
You’re allowed to like music that has less artistic integrity. Just saying.
I hate this: ‘We all just have different tastes‘ bullsh*t. If that’s true then why is anything popular? Ever? The two artists mentioned above were popular for the same reason. They’re sexy and sang songs about wanting to be with you. That’s always going to be the most popular thing in music. Guaren-f*cking-teed. It has very little to do with the quality of songwriting/performance ability/musicality/that magic X-Factor I was talking about before. It’s something every human being wants to hear from attractive people and… there is nothing wrong with that!
It’s called Escapism and many people think it’s why we are drawn to make art and music in the first place. It’s a safe place that feels good where an individual can pretend like the harsh realities of life’s endless disappointments don’t exist for a short while. It’s coming up for air instead of drowning in your sorrows. Of course cringy people can take it too far but by-in-large for most people, I think it’s healthy and even necessary. We’ve always done it. It’s part of what makes being a human special, and weird.
To drive my point home that less popular artists make better music I want to leave you with a band called The Kinks. They were around at the same time as the Beatles but never achieved the same level of success. You’re probably familiar with their early pop (I’m sexy and want to be with you) song “You Really Got Me” or the song I first of theirs I heard. “Lola“. I would argue that their songwriting trumps the Beatles’ best work and have more of that magic ‘X-Factor’.
The song I’d like to draw your attention to is Stranger from their 1970 release ‘Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Pt.1’.