It’s sickening how much success can rely on promotion of an image. Case in point: Lady Gaga is a household name, and everyone knows she’s a musician, but few people could name an actual song of hers (although a lot of people will make jokes about disco sticks). But—and here’s the disgusting part—it really doesn’t matter that she can’t produce memorable music. It matters that she wore an entire rib festival on the red carpet, just like it matters that she can smother herself in more sequins than the entire cast of Disney on Ice.
It matters that she makes it on “E! News”; it means she’ll make it on the Billboard Top 200, actual musicianship or talent be damned. The masses want to eat celebrity.
This isn’t an entirely new thing, but it does seem to be getting worse. While some classic bands have incorporated ridiculous styles into their on-stage personas (KISS, Devo, anyone?) the good ones made sure it functioned as an embellishment for their stage act, not something that overshadowed their actual product.
Here’s a decent example of a stage act done right. Remember when Red Hot Chili Peppers wore socks over their junk? Sure, it was scandalous and it could have easily been concocted as a ploy for media attention, but it ultimately didn’t consume their music. As a result when someone brings up the Chili Peppers, you’re more likely to recall a song or album than you are nude men misusing footwear. And that’s the whole point; who cares that Dinosaur Jr. is full of average-looking, middle-aged men? You can’t see J Mascis slowly balding through your headphones. As long as they’re killing it, people will tune in.
Gaga is an popular target for this sort of criticism, but this sort of unfortunate behavior is on the rise all over popular music. Taylor Swift isn’t sold on her music as much as she is on her purity and “All-American Girl” image. This is even happening to musicians good enough to survive without the hype. Kanye West has repeatedly used overly publicized outbursts to draw attention to his music, music good enough to make it without constant appeals to his ridiculous Ninja Turtle brand of totally radical ‘tude.
This is becoming a problem even within the indie scene, which is arguably supposed to be about accepting music for music’s sake regardless of image, hype or mainstream acceptance.
The biggest offender right now probably is Die Antwoord, a band whose entire career revolves around a sense of cultivated irony and whose records make for better drink coasters than they do anything else. But people are eating it up; they toured with the hugely popular and actually talented M.I.A. last year. The bands played back-to-back shows.
Things are continuing to get worse, but they can get better if music lovers band together in one simple pact: If a song is good, listen to it; if it blows, throw that sucker in the trash. Don’t use a TV or an Internet connection to enjoy a record.