I’m spending my Saturday night sitting at home, drinking diet Dr. Pepper and watching Norah Jones on PBS. Yes, I am a fan or Norah Jones. I think she’s actually just a solid composer and performer who has been able to avoid the conventional story arc of being attractive and talented. She can actually sing without the assistance of auto-tune or over-production, she can actually play keyboards and guitar really well, and her band are very obviously hired guns but rather than work hard to make her sound, I have a feeling she makes the hired band really sound good, if not they all perfectly complement each other and adapt well to each others’ styles. It’s a live performance from 2012, her backup band look like they’ve been stealing from Wilco’s closet, but watching this made me realize something most important about Norah Jones’ avoidance of the conventional pop-star story arc: she’s yet to peak and drop.
Earlier in the night I watched Get Him to the Greek for, surprisingly, only the second time (the first time was in theatres shortly after its release). For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a film about a rock star (portrayed by Russell Brand) experiencing his own post-peak drop while a record label employee (Jonah Hill) attempts to escort the drunken, drug-filled, lonely, and depressed rock star to a comeback concert. Though it plays on a lot of rock’n’roll lifestyle stereotypes, I think there’s something to be said for Brand’s character’s situation in the film. After gaining a cult following being the degenerate and debaucherous rock star that people could only imagine actually existing during the 70s and 80s, Brand’s character releases his “slump” record: one that experiments with world music and but comes off as an attempt to show a charity-focused side to a performer obviously only obsessed with his own public image and self-indulgent lifestyle. Of course, by the end of the movie, we realize that Brand’s character is more complex than his drug use and public persona and all the actually wants is a really good friend.
While watching this, I realized that there is something very familiar about the peak and drop that so many popular and contemporary artists experience during their careers. Be it the Offspring strangely experimenting with hip-hop (while poorly trying to parody the suburban lifestyle that has adopted the urban gangster culture), Metallica putting out relatively safe biker-rock records, or even something as simple as Kiss taking off the makeup, everyone has an artist whose career they followed and there is one moment leaving us yelling out, “What were they thinking?”
Chuck Klosterman has a similar argument in his book Eating the Dinosaur, but Klosterman obsessively dissects a single example of the peak-and-drop: Nirvana’s In Utero. Before we go any further, let me clear something as so we can understand some of my frame of reference as I approach this. There were only two good parts of Nirvana: Dave Grohl and Kris Novoselic. Those two were possibly the most solid rhythm section that came out of the 90s. Unfortunately, everything else about Nirvana feels like a constant argument attempting to legitimize itself. For Klosterman, In Utero is what he repeatedly described as “guilt rock.” Essentially, Klosterman is saying that in an attempt to reassert Nirvana’s own legitimacy, every choice behind In Utero (from selecting Shellac and Big Black legend Steve Albini to produce it to the choice of guitar tone and song structure) was solely to make In Utero as unlistenable and inaccessible as possible.
Klosterman’s second and third books, Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs and Killing Yourself to Live, are a huge reason why I write the way I do. The accessible language and diction coupled with the choice of topics surrounding popular culture Klosterman often uses in his essays and non-fiction shaped much of my own writing style. Killing Yourself to Live especially has a harsh honesty that most writers strive to achieve, but mostly still wind up trying to hide behind their work rather than display themselves in their work. Klosterman was especially good at creating narratives throughout his essays and arguments as well, increasing the accessibility of his work and making his ideas relatable on many different levels. Both of these books boosted Klosterman’s reputation as a solid non-fiction writer. As I’ve tried reading his later books, I have to wonder if he’s experiencing his own peak-and-drop.
I haven’t read any of his fiction yet, and admittedly I’ve yet to read his newest book I Wear the Black Hat (which looks at how people often relate to villains better than heroes), but while trying to read IV (which is more a collection of observant magazine articles) and especially Eating the Dinosaur, the deep personal points or relation to the topics he writes about is almost gone. In fact, he almost comes off arrogant because he writes his point of view so far above the topics he looks at. Klosterman has starting writing as though he were Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre where the premise in his topics are meant to be modern, but the thoughts and arguments are too obscure for the topics he’s writing about. Admittedly, Klosterman’s cult readership is only expanding the more he writes, he must be doing something right. But none of his books since Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs and Killing Yourself to Live have received any of the same media attention or critical acclaim.
But who am I to talk about media attention and critical acclaim? If I were to pick a Nirvana record as my favourite, I would pick In Utero.
Klosterman’s diction has increased, he’s formatting his books in new ways, and he thinks about the world in different ways than he did a decade ago. That’s actually a good thing. Because if we’re not complaining about how different Americana sounds from Smash or how much slower Reload is from Ride the Lightning, then we’re complaining about how every Nickelback record sounds the exact same. I think the only real happy music fans are fans of the Mars Volta or TV on the Radio, because they expect each record and each side project to sound to different and that everything they do is artistically minded and a little off the wall. But, at the same time, if they record something that sounds like an earlier record, then they’re being “self-referential” and totally “post-modern.” Two terms that bands like the Mars Volta and TV on the Radio and their fans would be very comfortable with.
This then begs a bigger question: is the artist’s creative process or the output and the product attached more important? When Paul Simon made the Graceland album, people were pissed at the process, saying that Simon should have avoided what was a still apartheid enforcing South Africa. But the very same people criticizing his process couldn’t help but say that Graceland was the best thing he did since parting ways with Art Garfunkel. I read Eating the Dinosaur and understand how much work Klosterman put into his analysis and arguments. I understand how much time Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus spend on thinking about literally everything and how hard it is to cram that much thought into books. I’m just having difficulty reading them.
I’m sure somewhere there is a magical land where the process of growing and experimentation collides with an output and product that doesn’t alienate established audiences. Even small deviations from set forms can cause fans to turn their backs. Hardcore band Strife experienced this with its last record before their recent reunion, Angermeans. Strife’s influences from non-hardcore bands like Sepultura and Helmet were obviously showing. The backlash from the militant straight edge communities that Strife helped build through the 90s instantly disowned the band. Was Strife ever really that dissimilar from Sepultura and Helmet to begin with? I don’t think so. But I also haven’t been straight edge in almost a decade.
Do I fully get why artists overstay their welcome? No. But it’s an interesting trope that has arisen over the years. Especially recently there seems to be more and more stories of artists who try something different and fail. What we keep forgetting is that failure isn’t a bad thing. It just means you put yourself out there and tried. Not everyone will like everything a hundred per cent of the time. But at least you tried.