Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Image Of Modern Rock Musicians

I've been on a bit of an ebay kick of late as I try to get rid of some of the relics of my youth that my father dumped on me as he's been re-doing his house. A Dimebag Darrell Pantera guitar pick, a Soulfly pick, a Sepultura drumstick, a signed Drowning Pool CD, the 1997 Kill Rock Stars 7" vinyl record collection-you know, stuff that I once thought was pretty cool but now just goes into boxes and takes up space I don't have (although I can't hide my glee at getting my entire vinyl record collection back). All these things are just sitting on or next to my desk, and among them is a poster for the band Slipknot that I somehow ended up with. I keep looking over at it and thinking two things;

1) About the time I encountered Slipknot. It was Ozzfest, I think 2001 but I could be off a year in either direction, in Dallas. Anyway I was working for Drowning Pool at the time and was backstage with T-bone as we're moving around some equipment and just taking in the sights. This shitty nu-metal band called Slipknot had broken that summer, they were the next big thing. They were also playing before Drowning Pool. So as their set ends, they leave the stage and walk by me. I give the little silent nod meant to signify, "hey man, nice set" that you give to any band. To which one of the masked members shouts, quite loudly, "hey! we're not signing autographs!" as the band literally pushes it's way past me. I couldn't have picked the members of this band out of a lineup, and they had the self-importance to think that I had any interest in all in their autograph. It spoke volumes about them.

2) How do people fall for their act? I mean their entire act is about image. They join the long line of metal bands since KISS that's increasingly pushed the envelope to try and portray an "evil" image to sell records. Which then leads me to the broader idea of image in rock music, something I've pondered quite a bit over the years and thought I'd write about here.

You see, every artist has an image. As my homeboy Mr. Advertising, or any business student would tell you, creating an image is part of creating a brand. And creating a brand is paramount to successfully selling anything. Be it an automobile, toothpaste, or music the people in the suits strive to create a brand for their product, helping to ensure it's longevity and profitability. Perfecting this technique is what allows them to give the world the New Kids On The Block, Spice Girls, Brittany Spears, and more recently the Jonas Brothers. Those are the extreme example, as they're musicians (and I use that term loosely) put together with the sole intent of creating an image they can parlay into a brand and into millions of dollars. But you see while every artist has an image, what I always wonder is how often that image is authentic and how often it's been contrived by the men in the suits.

I think a great case in point for this, is the Sex Pistols. When they formed in 1975 as a part of the UK punk scene, what were their intentions? Were they really punks, decrying the establishment...were they sincere to their image, and to that of '70s punk? Did they really believe it? Or was their formation and subsequent fame nothing but a means to a paycheck. Maybe they were originally true to their image and the spectre of fame and fortune just proved to be too much? Regardless, 30 years later when they refuse to attend their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because it's a "piss stain," it's really hard to give them any credibility whatsoever when they've whored themselves out to do five reunion tours so they can pay the bills. The punk ethos has always been opposed to success, and while apparently Rancid has been able to navigate the dichotomy between the two (being punk and somewhat popular), Green Day was never so lucky. When Green Day hit it big, the punk community turned their collective backs on them.

That said, Green Day hasn't abandoned their image. With American Idiot and their subsequent political records and songs, Green Day has maintained a punk image, albeit in the mainstream. What I always wonder, is how much of that is being created and encourage by agents, labels, and A&R reps and how much of it is organic.

The one that always gets me, is Nirvana. It's not secret to anyone that's known me for a while that I was a huge Nirvana fan in my youth, and still am to some degree. Much like most of the early '90s bands, their image was as uncaring, as being about the music. It's an off-shoot of the punk ethos, just without the political bent, and it's the antithesis of the '80s glam rock image which was about not caring and doing things to excess while at the same time caring about your hair, makeup, and making the show a spectacle. Throughout their career, in interviews and in press releases, Nirvana was marketed as just that-a grunge band that didn't care about anything but the music, there was no elaborate shows, no high fashion, no over-production. With slight twists, most of the early '90s grunge bands fall into that image. Sure Pearl Jam had a little more of a political aspect to them (see: the Ticketmaster Anti-Trust Lawsuit) and Soundgarden a little bit of an arena-rock feel, but as a whole the group shared a similar image.

And it's the fact that they shared it, and just how it was the opposite of the '80s Glam Metal thing, that's always had me wondering-was it organic or was it something contrived by the suits? The music is good, so I guess on one hand it's pretty irrelevant, but it's still something I wonder. It's the same way I wonder who was the first gangster rapper and how many of the subsequent ones were organic and how many were failing rappers that realized if they jumped on the bandwagon and adopted the gangster image they could sell records and make a nice living, much the same way Pantera went from glam to metal and Diamond Darrel became Dimebag Darrell.

A part of me wants to believe that all artists (excluding the NKOTB's and Spice Girls of the world) are organically who they were when they start, and that when and if they reach fame and fortune they will continue to be who they were before. I think we all want to believe that. But then I think about the Marilyn Mansons and Slipknots of the world, and realize that it's just not the case. Nobody puts on "scary" masks and decides to adopt generic faux-metal/hardcore as their sound because they're true to the music, they do it to make a buck. If disco had been the counter-culture trend, I imagine Slipknot would be a disco act with a less threatening name. And I guess in the end that's ok, so long as we all realize it, the sad part is all the naive high school kids that buy it hook, line, and sinker and really believe that these guys care about the music. And then I think back to Rage Against The Machine, and how much I loved them in high school, and wonder if I'm just that naive kid having grown up a bit.

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