The Seven Mythological Steps from the Cool Musical Alternative to the Careerist Mainstream: A theory suggested by Guy Oddy
Every musician craves the cool and the kudos of outsider status: a place that lies many miles beyond the confines of the mainstream. However, it’s not a place from which anyone might easily pay their bills or that can be relied upon to provide a warm bed at night and three meals a day. Hence, there are conversely plenty of poverty-stricken outsiders who would kill their grandmothers for the riches that they imagine mainstream sales of singles, albums, high-priced concert tickets, merchandise and the accompanying media coverage would offer up.
Some outsiders do eventually manage to assimilate into the mainstream without “selling out” (whatever that means these days) and by maintaining their original cool. Nick Cave, Amy Winehouse and, to some extent, Lou Reed spring to mind as examples of musicians who managed this without becoming bland and middle of the road and by even expanding the mainstream itself to take on board a wider range of sounds and textures. Others, however, have at one time shone brightly in the firmament, only to crash and burn into an unattractive shade of beige that has no wish to push boundaries but is merely content to soundtrack supermarket advertisements while watching the money roll in. Eric Clapton, Diplo and Snoop Dogg, I’m watching you here on your journeys from cool young things to bland, business people with a comfortable semi-retirement hanging out with other pointless celebrities.
For most artists that start as outsiders but finally end up firmly in the middle of the road, there seems to be a seven- step mythological journey that takes them to their final destination. Some even manage to make it a return trip but that’s extremely rare, yet not impossible, as Johnny Cash proved. The steps of this trip may be labelled: outsider, backlash, dilution, resurrection, nostalgia, national treasure and, finally, mainstream. Of course, there are artists will sidestep some of these stages but there are plenty who go the whole way and take in all the scenery. Others, however, will be more than happy to put on the brakes early and Iggy Pop is one that seems more than comfortable as a living national treasure with no ambition to take that final step.
This journey, from cool young thing to jaded wash-out inevitably begins when an artist first drives their flag into the ground by composing and performing great tunes that are a reaction to a mainstream sound that has become stale and boring. Such a state of affairs may have occurred over time or through commercial influence and interference. But when the squares are in control, there are many young musicians who righteously decide that something better change. At this point, our young rebels may pique some interest and gain traction with a small but rapidly expanding crowd and supporting media curiosity. Alternatively, the artist may prove to be a flash in the pan and soon disappear back to where he or she originated before getting the opportunity to properly reveal their talent: a victim to the whims of taste and fashion.
That said, by initially standing in opposition to the mainstream, an artist may very well soon invoke a backlash in a way that was experienced by the Jesus and Mary Chain, Sex Pistols and plenty of others. The mainstream does not like to be challenged and the people who are making substantial amounts of money from it will not be especially enthusiastic about some young upstarts messing things up for them, especially when they are performing edgy songs like “Anarchy in the UK” or “Some Candy Talking”. As with the Mary Chain and the Pistols, this may result in viciously negative media coverage, radio bans, performance cancellations by venues, music production problems and possibly being dropped by their record company. It may even result in being declared “wreckers of civilisation” by a Tory MP, as happened to the members of Throbbing Gristle. Clearly, the Sex Pistols and others made this wave of opposition work in their favour, especially if their management was smart or lucky enough to grasp the opportunity. For others, it’s been the kiss of death to their music careers.
If they manage to ride out such a backlash, many artists react by diluting their sound and chasing the money with wild abandon. The Rolling Stones of the mid-1970s comes to mind here, when they all but dumped their beloved rhythm and blues in favour of disco (“Miss You”), cheesy ballads (“Angie”) and complete twaddle (“It’s Only Rock’n’Roll (But I Like It)”). This may not do their image many favours but many musicians manage to comfort themselves in the knowledge that it is also where the long-anticipated riches can rain down in unimaginable quantities. Nevertheless, it’s also a position that can be difficult to maintain, as other young guns may soon appear to knock the now-superstars off their new perch.
Indeed, the appearance of a new alternative to these former rebels can lead to their own disappearance. This may be temporary, through tax exile, solo careers or over-indulgence in mend bending and physically debilitating chemicals. Alternatively, it may end up being permanent. However, such a bump in the road can also be due to worn out creative muscles and the artistic oxygen provided by kicking back against a mainstream which has now disappeared itself. In fact, there are plenty of artists who end up playing long seasons in Las Vegas or perhaps Butlins, when their original fans may reasonably assume that they have actually thrown in the towel to become gasfitters, bar staff or retail assistants in a high street store in Dagenham.
This may not be the end though. If they are lucky, some artists can resurrect their careers from the doldrums due to such random influences as a film or TV advertising soundtrack or some other stroke of unexpected luck. Randy Newman and Bryan Adams can both thank their lucky stars that whoever was choosing the soundtracks to Toy Story (1995) and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) had them in mind. Similarly, Iggy Pop can be seriously grateful to this effect, as his inclusion on the “Trainspotting” (1996) soundtrack powered one of his numerous career resuscitations. Others, like John Lydon have even dived into TV adverts, reality television and presenting wildlife documentaries to get things back on track. It certainly helped to create a general feeling of nostalgia in some media circles and audiences for the former Johnny Rotten and a third or even forth wind to his music career.
The nostalgia effect, however, can be tricky and very short lived. But, if they play their cards right, artists can potentially shift their career up a gear, to be regarded as a National Treasure. This is a game that Tom Jones played with gusto when he revived his career through a Prince cover version and soon became a media darling, when his name had not so long before, been the punchline to numerous jokes.
Maintaining this role can lead to total assimilation into the national culture and a long-term invitation to the mainstream. But this too is a role that may soon sour. Tunes, old and (sometimes) new, may appear to be permanent residents of pub juke boxes throughout the land, TV advertising jingle income may be never ending and an annual tour of arenas in the lead-up to Christmas may generate a king’s ransom every year. However, climbing on stage for an ever-aging audience of greying and pot-bellied fans may also become a soulless job just like any other, even if it is somewhat more lucrative than working behind the counter in Starbucks.
In fact, it’s a sure bet that when such an artist is asked by Graham Norton or whoever currently presents the One Show about their favourite times in a long music-making career, he or she will inevitably hark back to the good old days of travelling around the country from tiny venue to pub back room, in a rusty van with no cash for anything more than a bag of chips and maybe a packet of cigarettes. They will then return home to their large house in the Home Counties in a car worth more than the total budget of their first UK tour.
Guy Oddy has been a regular “new music” album and (in non-Covid times) gig reviewer for theartsdesk.com since 2013. He is also a Development Officer at Birmingham’s Town Hall Symphony Hall, raising money for community, education and capital projects from grant-making trusts and foundations. Guy first had a music review published while he was a student at Manchester Polytechnic, when Spacemen 3 visited the Hacienda in 1989 to lay down their trippy psychedelia for an appreciative but not especially large audience. Since then, he has written for a number of publications (some of which have long-since disappeared), including Pulp, Beat Mag and The i newspaper. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org