Editor’s Note: Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here
Do you think it’s true that the more popular a band gets, the lousier their music gets? This has been weighing on my mind ever since The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons performed at the Grammys recently. I cringed through the whole performance — not because the music was bad (it was excellent), but because it would undoubtedly lead to more fame, more fans and generally suckier music. Am I right? Or am I just a music elitist?
You can be both right, and a music elitist. They are not mutually exclusive. If they were, the great Nick Hornby might not have a career, and the greatest music novel of all time, “High Fidelity,” would have never been written. But I’d suggest that what’s really eating at you is not that their music will start sucking, but rather that their fans will. The more people like them, the less exclusive the club. Next thing you know, you’re standing next to guys at concerts who acquired their musical taste from a Starbucks sampler and who are wearing pressed dad jeans. If that happens, you worry, what does it say about you?
To be sure, as your favored bands start coddling their new, expanding audience, there is the very real risk that they will start to suck, or even worse, become Train. Everyone likes to feel like they have a secret, and that their band is speaking solely to them. That’s certainly the way I felt in the mid-90s, when Hanson first hit the scene. It’s like they were singing MMMBop directly to me, before they amassed a large following, sold out and went all bougie, having “Hanson Day” declared in Tulsa by the governor, and even putting out a Christmas album. When your favorite band puts out a Christmas album, that usually means it’s time to find a new favorite band. The only surer sign of creative bankruptcy is if they make appearances with those twits from “Glee.”
Your faux snobbishness, of course, is less about the band than it is about you. (If you were a true snob, you’d like bands I’ve never heard of, not bands who are on regular rotation on XM’s The Loft). We sensitive singer-songwriter types prize the whole genre precisely because it rotates around faux-snobbery. The music is still accessible enough to actually like, instead of us having to pretend to like songs by bands like Tit Wrench, just because they’re obscure and their names make people wince. Yet we tell ourselves that our discoveries are too deep or not on-the-nose enough to succeed commercially. So when they do, it means we are no longer unique. We too are one of the mouth-breathing throngs. The kind of people who might buy a Lady Gaga CD at Wal-Mart, because they saw her hatch out of an egg or wear a meat suit on the TeeVee, or who think that Carrie Underwood is what country music is supposed to sound like.
Don’t fret over it though. The key to musical happiness is not to chase the new thing. Because these days, the new thing becomes the old thing before you’ve ever even heard of it. The beauty of leaving your twenties for your thirties and forties is that you no longer feel the pressure to stay caught up. At some point, you accept your taste as the calcified relic that it inevitably becomes (I like The Avett Brothers too, though I liked them better the first time around, as The Band). Occasionally, something new breaks into the rotation. But sit back, and listen to what you like, instead of what you think you should like. As Nick Hornby himself wrote, in his magnificent meditation on pop music, “Songbook”:
I’m prepared to forgive the bad stuff, because the best songs are simply beautiful, and beauty is a rare commodity, especially in pop music, so after a while, anything that stops you from embracing it comes to seem self-injurious. I can’t afford to be a pop snob anymore, and if there is a piece of music out there that has the ability to move me, then I want to hear it, no matter who’s made it. I used to have a reason not to like Little Feat (too polite, as far as I can recall, and maybe too musically precise) and Neil Young (overlong guitar solos) but no one can nurse those kinds of quirks in taste now. You’re either for music, or you’re against it, and being for it means embracing anyone who’s any good.
You might even enjoy conformity. And maybe after the Mumford & Sons concert, the sad man in the pressed dad jeans can take you out for a Starbucks Macchiato. If you’re honest with yourself, it probably beats going out for falafel with some anarchic poser in a keffiyeh after a Tit Wrench show.