By Wil Forbis
June 1st, 2010
When I was a na´ve young man with dreams of rock 'n roll stardom --- as opposed to the dejected, embittered, emotionally-juvenile-yet-physically-soon-to-be-middle-aged man I am now --- I was a great consumer of rock 'n roll biographies. I would scour the shelves at the Seattle Public Library for tomes like "12 Days on the Road: The Sex Pistols in America," "A Saucerful of Secrets" (about the early career of Pink Floyd) and Bill Wyman's "Stone Alone." This was partly because such books made good reading --- they were chock full of the main interests of young men: sex with beautiful strangers, being worshiped by the inferior masses, sneering at anyone who ever doubted you. But I also parsed these pages seeking knowledge. I was aspiring to become a rock 'n roll success story and it only made sense to peruse the words of those who had achieved this goal. Perhaps by studying their path I could find the steps to stardom.
I was wholly disappointed. Not only did these books fail to explain why these musicians succeeded where so many failed, they weren't even interested in asking the questions. (I've come across a few recent exceptions. In "Everything I'm Cracked up to Be" flash-in-the-pan grunge star Jen Trynin does an admirable job of analyzing the market forces that plucked her from obscurity during the post-Nevermind era. And in "Slash," the former Guns 'n Roses guitarist uses simple prose to describe the moment he observed the performance of a young Motley Crue and thought, "I could do that.")
Despite the the failure of these books to educate me, the fundamental question I was seeking to answer --- "how does one create a successful music act?" --- continued to rattle in my brain. And via my years of performing in bands, watching other bands perform, and watching how bands evolve in the eye of pop culture, I feel like I've come up with something of an answer. I call it "The Bucket List."
Let me explain. When I was the aforementioned wide-eyed young man, I had a rather na´ve belief that music was simply about music. If you could write good songs and play them well, your path was secured. I haven't totally dismissed this idea --- I still think there are bands that managed to make it solely on their golden ear (early 90s psychedelic pop sensations Jellyfish come to mind) --- but they are the exception not the rule. What I see now is that songwriting and performance are merely one in a series of attributes that define a successful act. And each of these attributes can be thought of as a bucket; it can be empty, partly full or completely full. Successful bands manage, through both accident and design, to fill the buckets in such a way that they have the right combination of attributes.
What are the buckets? Glad you asked.
This is, simply put, a mastery of the art of performance. Some performers are so physically attractive that you'd happily watch them sing the phonebook. Others demand attention with wild stage shows replete with giant inflated mascots and shock and awe explosive displays. Still others employ outlandish fashion. (One of the defining traits of rock music has been an embrace of sexual freedom and a twisting of gender norms; musicians often flaunt their disregard for convention by dressing as prostitutes, transsexuals, cross-dressers or by not dressing at all.) Examples: Kiss, Garth Brooks, every glam band ever, Prince, Parliament Funkadelic
This refers to mastery of a musical instrument or the human voice. Audiences will flock to particular bands if one or all members of that act have an impressive command of their instrument. Examples: Stanley Jordan, Paganini, Eddie Van Halen, Ralph Stanley, John Coltrane
Songwriting might be thought of as "compositional virtuosity." At the end of the day, the result of the music making process is the song, whether it be a three-minute pop ditty or a 40 minute sonata. Some individuals and groups excel at this art form, others are painfully bad. Examples: The Beatles (we can stop here.)
This is a tricky one; what makes a form of music authentic is the subject of endless, heated debate. I think we can agree that each of the cultures and subcultures that exist within human society have their own myths and traditions. Authentic music captures, conveys and carries forth these myths and traditions. (For example, country musicians still sing about the nomadic, traveling vagabond even though such persons are nearly extinct in this modern era of the information superhighway.) Additionally, music fans across the spectrum are generally suspicious of the influence of corporations and thus music that arises out of a grassroots environment is usually considered more authentic. Examples: Hank Williams, Bruce Springsteen, Slayer
At a certain point, everyone's ears want to hear something unexpected and new. Eddie Van Halen reinvented guitar playing with his two hand tapping technique. John Coltrane gave jazz a kick in the pants with his "Giant Steps" chord progression. Peter Gabriel and David Byrne's infusion of world music expanded listeners' musical horizons.
Innovation can be a double-edged sword however. For every adventurous fan you attract, you risk alienating someone with more conservative tastes.
Certain musicians find success utilizing skills that are fundamentally removed from raw musicianship. The ability to form poetry out of words or create ballads that capture the nuance of the human experience is sometimes all that's needed to attract an audience. Examples: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, all (good) rap
- Emotional Depth
This attribute is even vaguer than authenticity. Some acts simply have a mysterious, ethereal way of connecting with their audiences, an ability to broadcast the depths of their soul at an almost telepathic level. This emotional resonance is really the ultimate goal of music. Examples: Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Iris DeMent, Miles Davis
Is this a complete list of the buckets? Probably not, and I may add new ones to this article as they strike me. But hopefully it's enough to prompt some thought.
There's a couple of additional points to make:
1.) It's not necessary, or even beneficial, to fill up all the buckets. Indeed, some of them are directly at odds with each other --- authenticity and spectacle for example. Rather it's about achieving a balance between all the buckets. Johnny Cash had a certain down-home country authenticity, but he also had a modern, rock 'n roll sense of performance. Most of the buckets for KISS would be empty (Songwriting? For every "Rock and Roll All Nite", they had a dozen "Plaster Casters.") but their bucket for spectacle was overflowing.
2.) I think the Bucket List works whether applied to grandiose notions of success (e.g. being signed to a major label and marrying a lingerie model) or more timeless notions of being able to walk into a town, set up your guitar on a street corner and draw a crowd.
And there you have it: the magic of music broken down to a cold, heartless one-dimensional matrix of data points. Yay!
Next month: why do we listen to the music that we do?
What do you think? Leave your comments on the Guestbook!
Wil Forbis is a
well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending
chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the
world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy,
he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.