Facing Mediocrity by John Ransom
(Andy Synn wrote the following opinion piece.)
By good fortune I’ve got a rare day off from work today, which means I’ve finally got a little bit of time to dedicate to writing about something that’s been on my mind quite a bit recently.
So bear with me, if you will, and have those flaming pitchforks at the ready, as I go off on one of my signature rants…
Now the topic I want to discuss here today isn’t a new one by any means. It’s been happening for as long as I can remember. But something happened recently that brought it to my attention once again.
You see, there’s long been this trend where certain writers/critics (and fans) seem to see any move towards mass-appeal mediocrity as a sign of so-called “maturity”.
I’m sure you know the type of things I mean, for example:
- bands shortening and simplifying all their songs to a straighforward verse-chorus structure (usually with a shoehorned in clean-sung chorus on every track) so they can maximise potential radio-play
- bands suddenly discovering their love of ballads (while still crowing in the press about how “dark” and “dangerous” they are)
- bands who previously had more serious and in-depth lyrics suddenly writing songs solely about “the fans”, etc
- and, of course, the dreaded “heartfelt” acoustic version of an already popular song designed to show their audience how “deep” they are…
It’s as if, in some people’s minds, the only way to be a “real” artist, or at least one worth talking about, is to find some way to appeal to the widest cross-section of people possible.
Of course, what this really does is promote an agenda of bland homogeneity both in the world of Pop music and in the bands from other genres who want to be more like Pop music.
Heck, studies have shown that as sales have increased, as shifting the greatest number of units per week has become the single most important thing in the modern music business, that the variety and diversity of the sounds we hear has actually decreased significantly, to the point where, more often than not, what you’re being sold is an algorithm, carefully formulated and rigidly designed, to appeal to the greatest number of consumers as possible. It’s pure Pavlovian commerce, whittled down to its most basic, artless form.
Lesley Oldaker: “The Non-Conformist
That being said, it would be very easy here to get too pretentious or too precious about all this, and I’m not trying to say that “all music these days sounds the same” or that “things were better in my day”.
The fact is that there’s always been great, artistically creative Pop music being made, and there’s still great, artistically creative Pop music being made now – much of which is still actively being seized upon by large numbers of listeners (take current anti-Pop starlet Billie Eilish, for example) despite, or more likely because of, the fact that it doesn’t fit as neatly into the processed, pre-packaged mould.
But, when it comes to Metal, when it comes to people saying they want bands to be more “mature”, to be more “accessible”, nine times out of ten what they’re really saying is they want them to change to fit this mould better… which, of course, makes me question what it is exactly that they like about Metal in the first place.
Case in point, a certain relatively well-known US band, whose album I reviewed last year, recently released an acoustic version of that record’s undeniably heartfelt, but also extremely hammy, ballad, resulting in a variety of responses ranging from incredulous confusion (one of my good friends remarked immediately on how ridiculously auto-tuned the vocals were) to fawning adulation, with several of the band’s fans immediately crying out for them to do a full acoustic album.
This immediately got me to wondering — if you claim to like a band, but only really like them when they don’t sound like themselves… do you really like that band at all? Or are you just looking for something else, but don’t really want to admit it?
The same (or similar) thought occurs to me whenever I see various Metal journalists and/or media figures spending more of their time online (particularly on Twitter) waxing lyrical about the virtues of Pop music, trying to convince their audience how “eclectic” their taste is, rather than, you know, actually promoting and supporting the music they claim to love.
Sometimes I wonder if they might not just be happier simply writing about Pop music for a Pop-focussed publication, instead of trying to get Metal-focussed magazines/sites to write about poppier and poppier bands?
Again, I don’t want anyone to think I’m intrinsically biased against Pop music, or melody, or bands who write catchy songs . Heck, you only have to look at some of the bands I’ve championed over the last few years – Brutus, Astronoid, Leprous, Klone, etc, all of whom could/should have been massive crossover hits given the right push from the right people – to see that’s not true.
Nor am I against bands adapting and changing their sound over time – for what it’s worth my favourite Paradise Lost album is Host – as long as it’s clearly motivated by personal and/or artistic concerns, and isn’t just another desperate, data-driven cash-grab.
Of course, this urge to get bands to “be more like Pop music”, to “mature” and be more accessible to the casual listener, has, in my opinion at least, an obvious cause when you think about it.
Let’s face it, growing up, many (if not most) of us were probably told that being into Metal was “just a phase”, that we’d “grow out of it” eventually, with the implicit suggestion that being into Metal was somehow childish, and only suitable for angsty/overgrown teenagers.
And, again, I think a lot of us, consciously or not, took this onboard on some level, which is why there’s often such an undercurrent of shame in a lot of Metal writing and/or fandom – we’ve been told for so long, by so many people, that it isn’t “serious” or “adult” music, that we’ve unconsciously developed a bit of a complex about it!
So it’s not surprising to me any more when, inevitably, a band produces a relatively mediocre, but undeniably accessible, new record, only to see it promoted and praised to high heaven as their best and most “mature” work yet.
Because, for many of the reasons I’ve laid out above, a lot of people still see any release that appeals to the masses (or the mass-market) as a way of “legitimising” their musical tastes… even though they really don’t have to.
There are a lot of other angles to explore here, obviously (I could write a whole extra piece on why the differentiation between music genres is, in my opinion, a double-edged sword, promoting internal creativity within the style(s), while also fostering stupid, tribal divisions between them) but I suppose it’s about time to wrap things up with some sort of conclusion.
If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this column it’s this – we need to stop looking to others for approval and affirmation of our tastes. Metal can be just as moving, just as emotional, just as “mature”, as any other genre, and we need to start celebrating this fact, not praising bands who’re so desperate for success that they’re willing to sound just like everybody else.
That’s not to say that we can’t learn things from other genres – far from it, in fact – but this idea that the only way for Metal to evolve, to be “successful”, is by sacrificing its core identity needs to stop.
Let me leave you then with an album that is definitely the most mature, the most meaningful and well-realised collection of music, which this band have ever put out, while also being perhaps their most moving and most accessible effort to date.
It’s a perfect example of how, just as mediocrity is not the same as maturity, maturity doesn’t have to mean mediocrity either.
Alright, I give. What’s the 2019 song that got turned acoustic? I’m drawing a total blank here.
Otherwise I think this is dead on. I remember finding it really strange how everyone immediately jumped to declare Baroness’ Gold and Grey their most mature album yet and to discuss how they’ve finally transcended metal. The reviews were basically a checklist of the points you’ve made here. (I think the album’s pretty good fwiw but c’mon, y’all)
i remember nitwits telling me how they “used to like heavy metal but grew out of it”. I lose respect rapidly for anyone who says that. Yes there used to be a strong message that metal was for teenagers and as adults we should move on to something more mature. Llike what? radio pop music garbage? or maybe classic rock? ugh.
I am about to be 64 years old. I have gotten that ‘what’s the old guy doing here’ look at some concerts. My reply to that is ‘Who do think was at those Black Sabbath and Deep Purple concerts in the 70’s ‘.
There is no need to ‘grow up’ musically. We like what we like. In fact, my taste tends toward even heaver music nowadays.
Oh yeah…nothing wrong with some classic rock. It’s not all Boston or Journey. Put on your headphones, turn up the volume and listen to ‘Land of 1000 nights’ by Mahogany Rush.
As someone who also used to get the “what’s the old guy doing here” look at shows (back when there were shows), and has steadily trended toward heavier and heavier music as the years have passed, I feel the same way. I also did a double-take when I saw that Deep Purple are releasing a new album. 🙂
When I hear the word “mature” used, I think of a contemplative or introspective style, maybe with some polished sound. When I hear “mature” I think of Iron Maiden’s “A matter of life and death” for example. I don’t think at all of the albums that followed (which would be the definition of mature used by the media according to the article).
If some people use mature in other way I think it is a grave misuse of the word.
But what do I know? English isn’t my native tongue
Not related – or then maybe it is: I like that Lesley Oldaker painting very much, i.e. its message “Do your thing, man- go your on way!”
I really like it a lot too. And if you want to see more of her work, here are some links:
Thanks for the links! Here’s one of my favorites: https://www.deviantart.com/lesley-oldaker/art/Just-Looking-140x140cm-oil-on-canvas-2014-465591713
Love that one!
Great write up, Andy. I believe it’s fair for any musician to choose the path of broad appeal if their intention is to achieve massive commercial success; however, that should not be the bellwether of maturity. If anything, it’s misunderstanding or misapplication of language and a shifting scale of meaning.
If I state a band is maturing, at least for me, that means the band’s soundscape is growing beyond previous endeavors because the individual musicians comprising the outfit are improving their musical repertoire (i.e playing different scales/time signatures, employing complex voicings, etc.) and that does not equate to mediocrity which would imply an adherence to tried and true formulas — the status quo.
The long and short of it: I’d assert that these voices within the metal scene — or greater musical community in general — are misusing maturity to signify success because it’s less harsh than saying a band has sold out. Musicians with mass appeal, for the most part, have figured out ways to accrue profit with the least effort involved and selling out is fine if that is the goal; one can be artistic whilst achieving financial success — they’re not totally incongruous from one another — but calling derivative shit mature is disingenuous toward musicians who are not financially motivated and are creating art because their craft gives them, and their fans, purpose and meaning
And I fucked up my html tags. Oh well. For those who took the time to read — thanks!
I fixed it for you. 🙂
Thanks, Islander. I haven’t fucked with html tags since high school and I’m woefully out of touch with it. Appreciate the help!
My mom used to ask me that dreaded question of “when I would grow out of it”. My reply then, and now to anyone who asks, has always been the same: shortly after I grow out of breathing. \m/
Cannibal Corpse’s Eaten Back to Life is now 30 years old… Our genre of music isn’t a fad, isn’t going away anytime soon and IMHO, the scene hasn’t been more ALIVE!! (Pun intended)
I started listening to Metal 37 years ago and am not about to stop! If anything, the whole genre has more to offer now than ever before!
Metal is our roots, the same as what jazz is to jazz aficionados.