ARTS COLUMN MIT’s Spring Weekend

Or, How the Boy Bands Killed Mainstream Rock

Filling out this year’s spring weekend poll, I was, yet again, disappointed with the selection. The class of 2010 has yet to see a rock band that writes new music. The Ying Yang Twins in 2007: no need to comment; Third Eye Blind in 2008: unoriginal power-rock; Ben Folds played in 2009: at least we hired a decent musician that year, but if it weren’t for copying Jeff Buckley, who somehow copied Elliott Smith, Ben Folds would still be opening for no-name bands in the East Village.

Sadly, it looks to me like this devolution towards the lowest common denominator in our spring weekend selections — derivative, three chord songs typified by bands like Third Eye Blind — is not the student body’s, or even the event’s organizers’, fault. Starting in the eighties but accelerating in the nineties, our generation witnessed the marginalization of progressive, mainstream rock. The murderers of popular rock? Boy bands.

Blaming the “commercialization” of rock music seems to me to be a meaningless, petty argument. Music has been commercialized since the Enlightenment. Haydn had a patron. Mozart starved because he wouldn’t sell out, and Beethoven made it because his music was so epically powerful that he changed what audiences were demanding. Great artists don’t need to compromise and weaken their art in order to achieve commercial success. By offering consumers something they didn’t even know they wanted, artists can create popular masterpieces. There is no reverse correlation between popularity and greatness in music — at least, there shouldn’t be.

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, rock was marketed on two tightly bound platforms: “rock as music” and “rock as product.” In the sixties and seventies, popular bands made music for young people that was both original and commercial; everyone loves Abbey Road (1969). The Beatles followed Beethoven — they changed the paradigm of their era’s music and offered listeners a new experience. To differentiate themselves from The Beatles, subsequent bands needed to add something to their image in order to survive. No one was as good as they were, so competitors needed to offer a slightly different product. For example, both The ‘Stones and The Beatles started in the “Swinging London” movement of the sixties playing astonishingly similar music. As they both hit it big, they diverged. The Beatles started making more experimental, avante garde music, and The Rolling Stones owned the “bad boy” image that made Jagger a sex symbol. Both were great bands, and both made excellent, progressive music, but they did it with different “music as product” platforms.

This is where our story gets interesting. Many bands in the seventies and eighties started selling their music more as product and less as music. Bands like The Clash, The Ramones, and the punk movement in general sold music as little pieces of tangible rebellion. Hate your parents? Buy London Calling (1979). Your girlfriend is an uptight, pro-establishment square? Listen to the Sex Pistols. These bands marketed their sound, giving the punk generation a soundtrack, and bought bright pink limousines with the proceeds. They started the devolution by prying “rock as music” away from “rock as product.” In many ways, the lack of musical progress portrayed by these bands was, in itself, experimental and new, but that didn’t change the impact.

Building on the success of these artists’ abilities to sell their images to the world, the bandwagon grew. Performers like Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and Madonna popularized their music by creating commercially incredible backbones of multi-media performance. Their music, while in many cases incredible (Thriller really is an amazing album, and I frequently listen to Hunky Dory), was almost completely disconnected from their performance product. People didn’t buy Madonna albums because of her musical talent, they bought them out of some weird compulsion consisting of 4 parts aspiration, 3 parts amazement, and 1 part disgust.

Inadvertently, these incredible entertainers opened the door for purely performance value bands such as *NSYNC. Some brilliant music executive realized the drivers of Madonna’s sales, and decided to compete in that market. The “boy bands,” and their similarly untalented heirs, never pretended to produce appreciable music. Their songs were not meant to be enjoyed while prone on your bed, staring at the ceiling. Instead, their artistic habitat consisted of groups of high school girls crowding around someone’s new pair of bright yellow jellies. These CDs were marketed as product to a young audience that didn’t know any better ­­­— us! By destroying the once immutable relationship between rock as music and rock as product, these bands eliminated what used to be the thriving genre of popular, accessible, original rock music, replacing it with machine-made beats and dance videos.

While there is nothing wrong with loving repetitive, simplistic music for dancing, or even enjoying it for it’s easily accessible rhythms, the advent of music as pure product de-intellectualized the entire realm of popular music. Perhaps consumers lost their interest in rock as an art form, or perhaps they simply started preferring the less challenging appeal of the “new pop.” For whatever reason, the effects spread throughout the industry. In addition to the divergence of “rock” as different from pop music, the rock fork was forced to a lower common denominator as well. Bands like Metallica (who I think are secretly talented, and try very hard to keep this information from their consumer-base) had to conform to the relentlessly boring, unimaginative styles of Pearl Jam and similarly hellish “power rock” bands, or lose their customers. Smart, once popular bands like REM fell off the radar screen. In desperation, we harnessed our hopes to Green Day, and U2, but as time progressed, they appeared to conform as well. (Maybe they just got old and no longer felt compelled to drag the musical world forward.) Regardless of the reasons, some clever record-label executive changed rock music forever the first time he realized that five guys in jeans could dance in unison.

Let’s go to the evidence: MIT offers an excellent case study as its spring weekend bands are voted on by majority rule. (We think. Ignoring the selection-process, which clearly needs to be changed.) In the last three years of the sixties, MIT hosted Janis Joplin, Chuck Berry, Jefferson Airplane and The Beach Boys. In the seventies, Chuck Berry and the then-young Aerosmith. The eighties saw some smaller, once-hip bands along with big names like REM and The Ramones. The nineties, probably our best decade, had The Violent Femmes, the shockingly popular Belly, and Sonic Youth. The most recent decade has seen only one good band: Cake, in 2006.

While this seems a little “if this, then that,” the surge in popularity of the boy bands through the nineties destroyed the mainstream appreciation of rock music in our generation. The dumbed-down version of pop music stands only to remind us what previous generations had, and we have somehow lost. Few current bands create great music while realizing mainstream appeal: Radiohead, The Shins, The Strokes, Cake, and maybe Spoon. Vote for these bands for Spring Weekend in the years to come. Don’t let our children fall victim to the same fate that the rationally-acting music industry foisted on us in response to our disinterest. Fight back. (And if you are in charge of picking Spring Weekend acts, give us a little more credit. We might not be hip NYU students, but we can appreciate good bands.)