Saturday, July 10, 2010

Testing the Simmons-Klosterman Hypothesis

The greatest development of the podcast era[1] has been that about twice a year Chuck Klosterman comes on Bill Simons podcast and I get to listen in as my two favorite cultural exegetes[2] (vintage X) discuss a wide range of topics that (with the exception of Reality Television) never fail to engage me. Simmons-Klosterman share the uncanny ability to bring unparalleled analytical analysis and carful thought to total trivialities that are, in fact, not remotely trivial. For example in the opening five minutes of this episode Chuck gives THE definitive answer about why the rock music of my childhood was so bad.

But my favorite moments in these podcasts are when Bill and Chuck talk about craft. They have both carefully projected images as shiftless Xers…but the secret that seeps out when you get to listen in on a casual conversation is that they both think very carefully about their craft…and work very hard. At one point in their first podcast (which does not appear to be extant) they argued that writers (including themselves) improve with age while musicians make their best contributions early in their career.

The great irony of this discussion is that I think that, while they both remain worth reading, I think both of these guys peaked in the early years of their careers. While all of his works are worth reading, Chuck’s fist widely published book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs was unquestionably his best. And Simmons early columns were so shockingly original that they created culture at an astonishing rate.

Anyway, I am fascinated by the creative process and am particularly fascinated by the contrast between momentary virtuosity and sustained excellence.[3] I consider engineers and scientists participants in the creative process (at least the ones I respect). But we unquestionably improve with time. You could plot the quality of an engineer’s work with time and apart for loss of interest or the cognative hardening that affects advanced life stages, it would plot as a steady increase. [4] So, I thought I’d test the Simmons-Klosterman Hypothesis with bands I have enjoyed in the last year or so.

My data set includes seven bands that fit the following criteria:

1. I have listened to most of their music to the extent that I have an opinion on it
2. They have 3 or (preferably more) albums spanning a decade
3. At least one of their albums was outstanding

Results

I’ll open with the Killers because Simmons has, himself, expressed an opinion on their trajectory:
“I don't want to say The Killers are going in the wrong direction, but their third album made their second album sound like a cross between "Born in the USA" and "Nevermind" ... and I'm currently using the second album's CD as a coaster for ginger ale.” –Bill Simmons

Well, I thought Hot Fuss was very good, but Sam’s Town is their finest work in my opinion. [5] I loved the concept and while none of the songs were as subversively original as “Mr Brightside” they were consistently excellent (and on themes I found more enobling). “When we Were Young” can still make me shudder from time to time. Then they fell off a cliff. The only memorable song on the overlong Sawdust is a remix of “Mr. Brightside”. Day and Age was a slight improvement due entirely to the comedic possibilities surrounding lines like ‘are we human or are we dancers’.

And this sets the template. It appears that several of the bands I like reverse the assumption of a sophomore slump. Instead we see a sophomore surge. A very good debut is followed by a phenomenal second album, after which, things fall off.


Paramore follows this trend precisely.

mewithoutYou also demonstrates this pattern, but their albums are all so good, that, while there is a relative tailing off between album 2 and 3, the latter albums are still exceptional.[6] In fact, Brother Sun Sister Moon, still cracks my all time top 10…but it is a ‘drop off’ from Catch for us the Foxes which is my favorite album of all time.

Sufjan is more like an engineer. His music starts good and just gets better. Avalanche cannot be considered a drop off because it was the compilation of the 21 tracks that were not good enough to make it on the 22 track Illinoise. It is a double length B side of a double length album and is still excellent. Sadly, it seems that Sufjan has gotten board with pumping out phenomenal albums. But I have to respect the impulse to not make music rather than putting out art that is less than he knows he is capable of just to make another paycheck.

Death Cab for Cutie is a special case. They do not have a transcendent album…but they also do not have a bad one. When Death Cab puts out an album you know what you are getting. [7] They are indistinguishable…but they are indistinguishably good.

The Decemberists started strong and peaked four albums in. Crane Wife would be a perfect album if it wasn’t for two conspicuously sub-par songs in the middle. But then The Hazard of Love did not live up. (Note: Hazard of Love is a serious piece of concept art. I have not really gotten into it since I got it for Christmas, but I have not really invested the work it probably deserves. While the album failed to make me want to do the work it is possible I just don’t ‘get it’ yet. And this band has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt).

Finally, Modest Mouse is the quintessential late bloomer. This first couple albums are pretty brutal. But he tinkered with his sound and themes in Good News for People Who Love Bad News and the results were fantastic. Long time fans saw it as a sell out, but count me in the camp that considers it his greatest work. He kept the pieces in place for We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank and the quality remained high.

Discussion

No definitive trend emerged. I had long held that a bands best album (or a writer’s best book) was usually their first, because they worked on it for a decade, and then were pressured to produce a follow up in a tenth of that time. But it seems like the second or third album is the sweet spot. The band is still raw and hungry enough to resonate but has learned the lessons of the early work.

Post Script: The KLOV-ification of Christian Music

I found my mistaken hypothesis (that bands peaked with their first album) interesting and gave some thought to its genesis. I believe I have identified the culprit: the most promising bands of the late 1990’s Christian Music scene.

I spent the 1990’s listening exclusively[8] to Christian music[9]…and I wasn’t even interesting enough to listen to Five Iron Frenzy or The Choir.[10] So you have to believe me when I tell you that you cannot understate the sub-genre renaissance represented by 1995-1997. Not only did DC Talk put out an album you could listen to without embarrassed smirking[11], but three new bands came on the scene that seemed to actually be doing art. We thought we were witnessing Vienna at the turn of the nineteenth century or Motown at the beginning of the last one. Jars even got some mainstream attention for their driving ‘Flood’ which was excellent but wasn’t even the second best song on the album.

But here are their subsequent time series[12]:

All three bands quickly traded in their gritty, driving, and/or experimental flavors for bland easy listening. We never got another ‘Consuming Fire,’ ‘Bus Driver,’ or ‘Liquid.’[13] We never even got another ‘Flood.’ And I blame KLOVE. KLOVE was the Walmartification of Christian music.[14]

With the exception of ‘Flood’ the bands weren’t quite good enough to get mainstream play[15] the only way they could get exposure is through the historically tepid ‘contemporary’[16] Christian radio stations that market themselves as ‘safe for the whole family[17].’ It might just be me, but it does not seem like ‘safe for the whole family’ is the head space in which great art thrives.[18]

So instead of a sophomore surge, these promising young bands quickly gave us, what I will call ‘music for vacuuming.’ Our best chance at resonating with Xers turned their talents to the middle age house wives that drive Christian radio giving. And it seems like the powers that be have actually convinced the artists that it is for the better. Amanda and I went to a concert a couple years ago where Aaron Tate joked that they had tried to destroy every copy of their first album out of embarrassment. The only song that gets play from those three seminal works is the tepid ‘Love Song for a Savior’ that might not even exceed the median quality of the album it appeared on, but is sufficiently tepid for the airwaves.

Anyway, because the first three bands I cared about as an adult followed this trajectory, it became my default hypothesis. Bands come on the scene with the pent up creativity of hungry decades, and then follow up with lesser works.[19] But I have come to believe that this is not so much a general insight on the creative process but an artifact of the structure of late 90’s Christian music.

This post was written while listening to We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank by Modest Mouse

_______________
[1] Here I am talking about podcasts proper, not the explosion of outstanding, free, MP3 content. A close second is the Economist podcast.
[2] I talked about my affection for these guys in one of my favorite posts.
[3] Sometimes, when I write fiction, I write a sentence and then sit back and say “I can do this.” But then it is a week before I write another…meanwhile there is a 500 page Updike novel in my backpack that conspicuously lacks a single pedestrian sentence. Last week some golfer I have never heard of hit a single round all time low score…something Tiger et al have never done. When interviewed he said the reason that Tiger et al were great and he was just good is that he has amazing days and bad days…they consistently have great days. Consistency seems to be the currency of greatness…unless you are Nirvana…then you just have to write the single greatest song of a generation and the rest of discography gets a mulligan.
[4] An interesting counter-example to this appears to be Mathematicians. Apparently if you haven’t made your mathematical contribution by 25 you resign yourself to mediocrity.
[5] He wrote this right after their 4th album, so I am going to chalk it up to a mistake…I think he is saying that Sawdust was terrible and Day and Age was worse.
[6] I have written about this before and they will eventually get their own post, but part of this sustained greatness is a complete reinvention of their sound for each album.
[7] Good lyrics, a great but familiar sound, some compelling story telling and mopy themes…essentially country music for hipsters.
[8] Someone at the time told me that I was being ‘too Christian’ by limiting my artistic appreciation to a sub-culture. The irony was that I wasn’t being Christian enough.
[9] Whether ‘Christian music’ is a helpful or even a meaningful label will eventually be another post if I can edit it to the point of less-than-disturbingly-bitter.
[10] In a related note, I did not have much interest in music in the late 1990’s. And, yes, I know that that means I missed grunge in real time, the quintessential artistic voice of my generation…please don’t rub it in.
[11] Seriously, Jesus Freak was a water to wine (2 buck chuck, but wine none the less) transformation that could be cited as evidence for a all powerful and benevolent creator. I know this sounds silly, but going from being as bad as they were and then suddenly listenable still strikes me a requiring divine intervention.
[12] It is worth noting that I probably grade Christian music on a curve. These bands’ good albums probably get overrated because they were getting compared to Carmen, Sandi Patti and DCT’s early work at the time. But the latter albums are probably not as bad as I am remembering. The grades are likely the residual physic effects of my disappointment.
[13] In their recent album, Jars included a song ‘O God’, which was a refreshingly honest song about the hiddeness of God that had a distinctively ‘Worlds Apart’ feel to it…the primary reason this album didn’t suck.
[14] Over the course of the 1990’s and 2000’s the localized Christian radio stations that offered mostly radio preachers, children’s shows, goofy reenactments and hymns were gradually replaced by and expanding juggernaut, KLOVE, that offered exclusively musical content. This played out like the premier of V. At first the V’s appeared to be benevolent allies, but soon the dark side emerged. Having a single centralized entity determining national radio play acts as quality control on the industry but it also militates against niche (the force that has driven the greatest era of musical creativity since Motown and Vienna) and results in a bland, lowest common denominator selection process.
[15] And, it is possible that they suffered from anti-religious bias…but Christians have hidden bad art behind that boogieman for so long that I hesitate to invoke it, even in part.
[16] I love Driscoll’s thoughts on the Christian use of the word ‘contemporary.’ He likes to say that ‘Most contemporary services wouldn’t even be contemporary for 1984.’
[17] Actually, this is the tag line for KLOVE’s commercial competitor, but they both say the same sorts of things, and seem to share play lists.
[18] My friend Dan actually objects to this idea more broadly suggesting that there may not be a more alien idea to the teachings of Jesus than the pursuit of personal safety.
[19] As a side note, Switchfoot’s time series looks much more like those previously documented. Their best album was their second, the 1999 New Way to be Human (which would not get a sniff of KLOVE play time) and subsequent work did not fall of quite as precipitously.

6 comments:

stanford said...

As if this post did not have enough parenthetical thoughts, I had a fun related story. We went to Northern NY a couple weeks ago and were thrilled to find that our home town has a fantastic alternative radio station out of Kingston. (Don’t get me started on the fact that Watertown has good alternative radio and Sacramento does not.) Anyway, Amanda listened to it for a week before I got to town and when she picked me up from the airport she informed me that she was now a Pearl Jam fan. Her reason? “They sound just like Third Day.” I had to break it to her that the causality in that relationship might be inverted.

Joel Wilcox said...

This is quite an interesting post for me for several reasons. As far as writing goes, which you mentioned at the beginning, I've written about such things on my blog before. Actually, I wrote about it at 2:00 a.m. last night, the time when I'm most creative and possibly also the most insecure. Consistency is difficult to achieve, which is why I think many artists run for quantity in the initial creative process and cull the results afterwards. Photographers are notable for this--their ratio of snaps to saves tends to be about 40/1.

I should also note that I do the same. My blog is a creative sketchpad for me, and I try to update once a week or two weeks to keep myself in practice. I only truly could tell you anything substantial about ten-ish of over 100 posts that had actual content. You're not consistent either, but you actually post very few truly lame posts.

As for the music business, I hate KLOVE with a burning passion. They, like Clear Channel, are destroying the last vestiges of what was good in radio in the years before I was even born. Their claim is that their music is just like everyone else's (deluded at best, and probably not something one should aspire to) but "safe" (definitely not something one should aspire to, especially a follower of someone as subversive as Christ.)

I pretty much don't listen to Christian music, although, oddly enough, I did like Jars of Clay's second album, though mostly for "Frail," which was a truly interesting song.

My genre of choice is progressive rock (paint "geek" on my forehead) but I do like indie, too, enough that I'd like to get into it more. I'll probably try taking some of your recommendations from this post and others.

Long comment, sorry. I'm a windy writer sometimes.

Joel Wilcox said...

Oh, and shameless self-promotion: My blog's at http://joeltwilcox.wordpress.com. Don't know if you're looking for new blogs to read, but drop on by if you have the chance.

Joel said...

I only listen regularly to two of the bands on your list, The Killers and Death Cab for Cutie, but I agree with you on both. I never really thought of plotting music this way, but am wondering where and with what bands our opinions would really diverge.

It's possible that they never would, since we're both really smart and therefore our opinions are very reliable, but one never knows. ;)

Great post.

Matthew Pearson said...

Great post. A couple of things came to mind when reading about the trajectory of quality in music. I think that your assumptions about the sophomore slump may be influenced as much by the ubiquity of this perception as much as christian music of the mid-90s. And I can think of 3 reasons, one of which you alluded to, for this perception, two of which are related to the actual quality of the music, and one to its perception only.

First, sophomore slumps may just be mean reversion. Debut albums tend to be really good because they are the debuts that you actually heard of. Plenty of bands produce mediocre music before some great stuff actually gets them the record deal.

Second, the issue of the influence of the producers and distributors may be a wider phenomenon than just KLOVE. If a great record shows promise of commercial success, it may be that the record companies take more interest in and put more pressure on the band to produce music with broader appeal. Before a record appears on the charts, the record company has the incentive to encourage the band to produce music that will be most successful to a narrow, core audience, but with the first hint of radio airplay or commercial success, the company's incentives change; they will profit most if the band records stuff with broad appeal at the expense of core audience appeal.

Third, there is the widely-held view among these core audiences that the above practice is more common than it actually is. That is, as a band's appeal broadens, the "identity value" (ie, the value I receive from using this band to shape or broadcast my personal social/cultural identity) of that band is diminished, sort of like currency inflation. If everyone likes Death Cab, I'm no longer as cool as I used to be for liking them. I need an excuse to stop wearing my death cab t-shirt and get a new favorite band. I could react to their commercial success by saying "yes, I've known that they were good, and I'm glad that top-40 listeners finally know the joy that I do of listening to them. I'm so glad they were plucked from obscurity." Or I could call them sell-outs and claim that they were ruined by the greedy capitalist record companies to whom they have sold their souls for the almighty dollar. The latter resolves the cognitive dissonance between the fact that I used to be a fan, but being a fan now no longer makes me cool. For identity value, I need to like bands that are hugely popular within a narrow subculture, but unheard of everywhere else. I need a little bit of conformity within my social group, but a lot of individuality to distinguish myself from everyone else outside of my social group.

So I think that if a debut album is good enough to break into the mainstream, people (especially cool people, extra-especially professional cool people like Klosterman) have an incentive or bias against liking follow-ups because they do so at the expense of their cultural relevance.

It was a joke with me among college buddies to respond to questions about *any* band with, "yeah, I liked their old stuff, but they kinda sold out," especially when it did not apply at all. It was just so cliché, I thought it was funny.

stanford said...

Joel W. I loved the description of the post script as Keirkegaardian. Classic!

Joel K. Hilarious. I actually am interested in what you listen to.

Matthew, It sure is fun to know an economist. i love the idea of the diminishing value of an identity factor as it gains popularity. I also think you are right about 'debuts' not actually being debuts but the first album we have heard of.

Thanks for the thoughts.