Or, Spitting Out the Kool-Aid
The musical theme for me this week has been the tension between giving the audience what they want and evolving as an artist.
My favorite band released a new album on Tuesday. For purposes of this essay, the fact that they are an independent band and have been since the late 1990s – AKA long before it was the cool thing to do, or an acceptable thing to do, much less the most logical thing to do – needs to be said up front. For 15 years they have answered to no one but themselves, and their fans, when it comes to the direction of their music. They have been my favorite band since high school, and for their first several albums (five, to be exact), for me, they could do no wrong. Every song, or very nearly every song, was golden.
The last three (and now four) releases have been spottier, a lot of songs I either didn’t like or didn’t deeply connect with and a few gems that gave me hope for future albums. The album this week didn’t even have the gems, just songs that I didn’t find bad but also didn’t find…inspiring. They didn’t speak to me, nor did I find them objectively great even if not my preference.
I found myself wishing, for the fourth record in a row, that they would go back to their alt-country/desert rock roots and stop writing adult top 40 pop songs with the vaguest of twang to the guitar. It’s not so much a protest of their changing the style so much as judging that their change was a poor choice, aesthetically, and they would probably do better – or at least please my taste better – by writing mediocre songs in the genre where they started instead of mediocre songs in a different one. I appreciate the experimentation, the desire to do something to keep the songwriting and sound fresh…what I don’t appreciate is continuing to try the same experiment over and over when it didn’t really work the first time. At some point I have to attribute it to a new sound for the band, and one that I don’t care for.
Experimentation and change is always a risk for an artist, no matter what type of art they create. When it’s executed well, it breathes new life into your fandom and brings in new fans. It revitalizes your own interest in art and creating, because new horizons offer new challenges, and without challenges there is nothing to strive toward in the act of creation. And there is definitely a trap to be found in staying in the same mode, doing exactly the same thing, over and over again. At some point you become a parody of yourself, because you have said every profound or even mildly insightful thing that you can, and all is left is regurgitation and imitation of your younger, rawer self.
The flip side of experimentation, however, is that it doesn’t always work, and when it doesn’t, your audience may be upset that you changed the formula. Some people will appreciate the attempt to experiment, but others will just be upset by it. And if you experiment and fail too many times in a row, you begin to lose your audience.
I think what really drives away an audience, though, is if, in the process of your experimentation, you lose the qualities that drew them to your work in the first place. A writer, for example, whose fans love her for deep character work can change genres every book so long as she maintains the same type of characterization. A musician whose songs echo the empty desert highways can change the subject all he wants as long as that echo is there in the sound of the music, while one who writes songs about the absurdity of life can change the sound every album as long as the lyrical “voice” remains the same.
It’s a delicate balance, a fine line to walk between delivering what the audience really wants and what they only think they want. I wonder how many artists actually understand what their audience loves about them? And how many members of a fandom really understand what it is that draws them to a particular artist’s work?
As a writer working in one of the most formulaic of genres, I worry sometimes about writing the same thing over and over – the same conflict, perhaps, or maybe the same characters, all while believing each story is unique. I have seen too many writers start off with a string of strong books and then slowly wilt into fainter and fainter copies of themselves as they continue to just do more of the same, with less conviction each time. Will I recognize when I need to experiment? When I do experiment, will I successfully carry over the elements that define my work at its core? Will I be able later, after experimenting and evolving, to revisit the style of my early works and reconnect with it in a deeper way as an older, more seasoned creator?
The one thing that is simultaneously most relieving and most frightening about being self-published is that I don’t have to worry about an editor turning down my request to experiment when I feel that itch to change…but the onus of executing it well will be entirely on me. I won’t have to answer to anyone’s instincts or tastes but my own – but as my band proved to me this week, sometimes that’s not a good thing.
I know for me, as a fan, the worst part about a disappointing new release is the dashed hope for something that would be as special to me as that artist’s earlier works – the works that made me fall in love with them. This is true of the above-mentioned novelists who, instead of getting better, get worse, and it’s true of movie directors as well as musicians. It’s the tyranny of being in someone’s first tier of artists: the expectations are high.
Perhaps youth and insouciance are the key to creating works that do not disappoint, because you can create without fear of rejection or letting someone down. You have no audience to lose, so you have no chains on yourself. When you feel the weight of expectations, you second-guess yourself or lock yourself into the same old creative habits and patterns. It’s why, in the end, the only audience I can care about, when I am inside my creative sphere, is myself. I have to please my own aesthetic and believe that if I do, it will please other people’s, as well. But the only one I can consider is my own.
If that is, indeed, what my band did on this release, then perhaps we have reached a parting of the ways, of sorts, where the band they used to be is my favorite, not the band they are today. Or perhaps this was just another experiment, a path untravelled that will eventually reconnect with the path of my aesthetics. Time will tell. I have not given up on them yet…but I miss the glory days of my youth, when receiving the new CD in the mail still guaranteed an afternoon of gleeful bliss as I wrapped myself in new songs that meant as much to me as the old ones had. Now it represents a painful hope that I have less and less expectation of having met. Perhaps that is the most tragic part of all.