Musicians just want people to hear their music. But it’s rarely ever that simple. Musical culture dictates that all sorts of social constructs get laid over the top of who likes what, and which labels can be applied to which bands. If you can’t think of any examples off the top of your head, let me point you to a few of the players from the recent Grammy Awards ceremony, where we got to hear how fun.’s identity is the indie-bred late bloomer, Mumford & Sons’ is the bland but broadly appealing folk act, Justin Timberlake’s is the triple threat, Frank Ocean’s is the introverted virtuoso, and Katy Perry’s is something altogether different (Hint: It’s boobs. Katy Perry’s identity is boobs.) And those detailed identities are just specializations of broader categories: fun. is a rock band, Mumford & Sons is a folk band, Justin Timberlake is a pop artist, and Frank Ocean is an R&B artist. Importantly, as much as they probably think they did, these artists didn’t get to pick these identities for themselves. Not really. The identity that most people associate with a band is a listener’s construct. Music is a mirror and we brand our favorite artists the way that we see ourselves. Our least favorite artists get the same personalized treatment, just on the other end of the spectrum. Musicians, though, don’t necessarily see things the same way – they may not even agree with the labels that we, the unwashed masses, bestow upon them. And now, maybe more than ever, this disconnect is becoming a problem.
Music, it turns out, is a battleground for ownership and identity.
Because of the timing of my life, I’ve heard a lot about Green Day in my days on this planet. One of the principal arcs to their story of success (especially in their pre-Broadway period) was their ongoing battle to retain their “punk rock integrity,” while at the same time expanding their ever-growing commercial success. There are a lot of angles from which to view this particular development, but I’m going to speak about only two: 1) The desire of (former) fans of Green Day to strip the band of their “punk rock” label, and 2) The desire – at least for a while – of Green Day themselves to maintain it.
The obvious question in both cases is why? and the answer – which should come as no surprise, given the intro up there – is ownership and identity. Starting with the second point and working back to the first, Green Day wanted to maintain their label of “punk rock” because it was, simply, how they saw themselves. It was who they truly thought they were. For the sake of clarity, roll with me on this one: if you have blonde hair and dye it black, even though it now appears dark, you know that you’re truly a blonde. The blackness is just a façade; an appearance that you’re putting on. Green Day thought they were punk rock – it wasn’t artificial dye, it was their identity. They had spent their whole professional lives being punk rock, when suddenly they were successful – but to them the success was a front; the success was black hair dye. They knew that, in truth (and in spite of all appearances), they were still blondes. Sure, they could now toke from gold-plated bongs, but they felt that they were true punk rockers all the same. And if you doubt that Green Day really considered themselves to be punk rock for any amount of time after the release of, say, Dookie, I’ll point you to this: around the six-minute mark of this VH1 special, bassist Mike Dirnt says, with what appears to be honest emotion, that when the band released ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),’ – an acoustic single that drummed up a maelstrom of “they’re not punk rock!” criticism – Green Day felt that releasing an acoustic single was “probably the most punk thing we could have done.”
At the same time, Green Day’s initial fans (especially the 924 Gilman Street crowd that was oft discussed during Green Day’s first and primary ascension into the national spotlight) felt that punk rock was their thing, that it was their identity. And if it takes one to know one, then those kids could look in the mirror and know that Green Day was no longer one of them. The band had signed to a label, was on the radio, was experiencing legitimate gold-plated-bong fame. That was not punk rock. By all accounts, that was selling out. Why? Because punk rock – especially to a following like Gilman Street’s – is a counterculture in the truest sense; it’s a culture built to contradict what it sees as mainstream, and in the world of music, nothing is more mainstream than commercial success. And so, to the Gilman Street kids (and many more beyond the confines of southern California), Green Day couldn’t be punk rock, because to be punk rock is to be, quite literally, a loser. And in the game of music, Green Day had won.
So who’s wrong and who’s right? Where’s the disconnect? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s a problem of perspective. In some respects both sides are correct. Since they were now filling stadiums, Green Day couldn’t hope to fit in on Gilman Street; they couldn’t hope to be that kind of punk rock any more. But with mainstream culture expecting more material from Green Day that sounded like the mainstream’s conception of punk rock, Mike Dirnt’s point is somewhat validated – releasing an acoustic single was counter to that expectation. It was a punk rock gesture, yet the result – even more massive success for the band – was anything but. And it’s a trick that works only once. The end game here is that both sides of this debate are just trying to maintain ownership of an identity that they feel is theirs. It boils down to a matter of branding. Green Day wanted to be able to brand themselves as punk rock because that’s what they felt they were, and the punk rock kids couldn’t let Green Day wear the punk rock label because Green Day had become mainstream. And what would a punk rock kid rebel against if the biggest band in the world was a punk rock band?
And then Green Day said, “fuck it,” and began making rock-operas.
Green Day’s struggle with their punk rock identity was resolved when Green Day decided that they were perfectly happy to leave punk behind them and focus on winning Tony Awards. But this kind of struggle for identity is common in music, and many bands don’t come out as well as Green Day did – for example, Reel Big Fish.
In the mid-to-late ’90s, America collectively lost its mind for a hot second and ska became a part of the mainstream. And then, faster than you can say “The Mighty Mighty Bosstones,” the fad had passed, and ska receded back to its normative state as a niche genre. One of the biggest hits of this brief stylistic boom was Reel Big Fish’s ‘Sell Out,’ a song about…well…let’s just say that the Gilman Street crowd probably didn’t approve. The song was released on Reel Big Fish’s 1996 record, Turn the Radio Off, and by the time the band was in the studio for their follow-up record (1998’s Why Do They Rock So Hard?), they had clearly built up some hard feelings about the “fan” reaction to their success.
Part of the beauty of third-wave ska is that its fondness for self-deprecation, over-the-top humor, and general wackiness, allows for occasional moments of piercing honesty. Whatever pretension exists in the genre is buried beneath 17 layers of shtick, so that a band like Reel Big Fish can include a few songs with serious lyrical tone on a 16 track record without really offending anyone or dampening the otherwise upbeat mood, since those serious tracks will be surrounded by songs about stealing your friend’s girl (by killing him), fighting jerks in a mosh pit, and how that one guy in the band is just kind of a big dork. So Reel Big Fish did just that. A few additional songs touch lightly on the topic, but two successive songs (‘Down in Flames‘ and ‘We Care‘) on Why Do They Rock So Hard? deal explicitly with the difficulties that commercial success had wedged between the band and some of their fans.
It’s not pretty. As you can tell from the lyrics (found here and here, respectively), Reel Big Fish appear to have taken some heat from a portion of their fans for the success of ‘Sell Out’ and the resulting concern that the band presents is an understandable one. How can you call yourself a fan of a band and then be upset when they succeed? And realistically (as Reel Big Fish notes), there’s no going back. Once you’ve made it, once you’ve been doomed to some success, you can never go back to how it was before. The Gilman Street kids and their ilk won’t take you back, because “washed up” is not “punk rock,” and today’s hipsters won’t take you in because there’s nothing individualistic about loving a band that was big and came crashing down (unless maybe it’s done ironically…more on this later). As RBF vocalist Aaron Barrett sings in ‘Down in Flames,’
“When this blows over and the mainstream coughs up another shell, will you let us back in your underground? Well, I guess that’s a no and it’s just as well ’cause you never supported us; all you wanted was to see us fail.”
The truth is that it’s not a matter of how a fan can feel that way. Inevitably many will. It’s a matter of why they feel that way. Why can someone who likes something be so aggrieved when others enjoy it too? Why is that when a band grows out of a counterculture and into the mainstream its interests are suddenly diametrically opposed to those of its old fans? The reality is that for some fans, ownership and identity can be more important than the music itself (this may be subconscious, but that doesn’t make it any less true). But that mindset doesn’t make sense to most musicians, for whom the sharing of music is – inherently – the end goal. As Barrett says in ‘We Care,’
“Thanks for calling us sell outs and not taking a joke, talkin’ shit, and coverin’ us with spit. We’re so glad to know you care. We care. And we’re sorry that so many people got to enjoy our music by hearing us on the radio.”
It’s simple: musicians just want people to hear their music. For all the posturing and all the labels and identities that bands take onto themselves (like Green Day with punk rock), that simple statement is the true identity of just about every musician. They just want people to hear their music. But, as we’ve seen, fans don’t necessarily want the same thing.
The band-listener relationship often implies some sense of ownership on behalf of the listener, in the same way that sports fans feel ownership of their hometown teams. And many listeners don’t want bands to be successful because they feel that an increased number of listeners (bandwagon fans in the sports analogy) would lessen their ownership stake. As Tom Bissell notes, to be a fan is to be involved in a complicated relationship: “To be a fan of something is to demand of it things you have no right to demand, and when this thing you love feels so personal on the one hand yet is so obviously mass entertainment on the other … You know what? It’s so unbelievably confusing sometimes.” He’s right on all accounts (especially the one about this being confusing); if you’re a fan of something, it can be difficult to address the fact that your personal relationship with the material isn’t exclusive. And so maybe it follows that, for some listeners, when a band you love is heard by too many people, you feel the same intimate jealousy you might feel if you saw your girlfriend kissing some other guy. The problem is that your favourite band is a bit of a slut – their entire existence is based around kissing as many guys as possible…kind of.
So why are we talking about this? Hasn’t this been an issue since music began? Weren’t there groups of people in powdered wigs saying “Mozart’s ‘Exsultate, jubilate’ is way more honest than ‘The Magic Flute'”? Well, the problem is that the battle between music fans and artists is heading in a new and dangerous direction. While it has always been true that some listeners want bands to be successful only when that success adheres to the listener’s own personal agenda of ownership and identity, it seems to be especially prominent with today’s predominant counterculture: hipsterism.
A lot has been said elsewhere (no, seriously, a lot) about the cultural movement that is hipsterism. A large portion of that dialogue has been foolish, while some of it has been valuable. Often enough both of those extremes take place in the same article (this very post may be one such example). The general consensus, which many of those aforelinked authors seem to struggle with, I believe to be accurate: Hipsterism is built upon reaction to a more widely accepted mainstream. Of course I accept this consensus; this is the definition of a counterculture. It’s the rest of hipsterism’s definition that is a bit trickier to navigate.
The form of reaction to the mainstream applied by the hipster is most commonly labelled as “irony.” Since that word has come to mean many things in our society, and has therefore become difficult to isolate, let me suggest an alternate description. If punk rock was built upon an inversion of mainstream culture (the glorification of the “loser” as opposed to the “winner”) then hipsterism is built upon a perversion of mainstream culture (a smirk in place of a smile). Hipsterism doesn’t seek to rebel against the mainstream, it seeks to manipulate it in unusual or unexpected ways.
Hipsterism, like punk rock – like all countercultures, actually – desires ownership of identity. But with hipsterism, the scope has changed. Let me describe a scene for you: standing in line at a foodcart in downtown Portland (where else?), something, or rather someone, caught my eye. As I looked up, an individual rode past me on a unicycle. Wearing a kilt. And playing a bagpipe. And wearing a Darth Vader mask. (For those of you who see a logistical problem here, note that this individual had fed the bagpipe’s mouthpiece through what must have been a custom-made hole in Vader’s proverbial grill.) There is, obviously, a lot going on here. This is not “normal” behavior. But it’s certainly not anarchical either. The unicycle is just a perversion of the bicycle; the kilt and bagpipe, though fairly uncommon, are only made perverse by their combination with the Vader helmet (which I think we can safely assume was concealing a beard). This person went to great lengths to not be a bicyclist, to not be a traditional piper, and to not be a common Star Wars cosplayer. They were avoiding those established communities but stealing elements from them in an attempt to create some amalgamation that would be completely unique. And this, I think, is the key to the counterculture of hipsterism. Hipsters aren’t holding onto a group-identity formed by some grand movement, they are each trying to create an utterly original identity that belongs to no one but themselves. Hipsterism is the total embrace of the individual. It is, I think, this aspect that gives so many who would discuss hipsterism such trouble. Hipsters aren’t a unified mass, they’re the diverse wearers of a diasporic title – and this is the very reason that so many people that are labeled as hipsters by outsiders refuse to self-identify with the term.
Because anyone and anything can (quickly) be hipsterized, and can be hipsterized either partially or fully, hipsterism is a counterculture that has permeated and incorporated the mainstream in a remarkably expansive fashion. Of course, this seems to contradict the entire idea of a counterculture, that is, until you remember where the lines are drawn. The idea of hipsterism is not really about the big, bold lines that define a group, it’s about the small scratch marks that define individuals. The person on the unicycle may have been a Scottish Jedi, but it’s just as likely that they were a South African photographer that had never heard of Anakin Skywalker. When taken out of their natural contexts and combined with no discernible rationale, the elements of that outfit lose meaning, except as descriptors of the individual wearing them. When combined, those items no longer imply membership to the groups that they traditionally belong to, instead becoming nothing more than pieces of identity for the one person bearing them. Hipsterism, unlike many of the countercultures that have come before it, is not about finding meaning in something else, it’s about stripping something else of meaning so that you can make it yours. So while punk rockers could look at Green Day and say, “You’re no longer one of us,” there is no comparable defining demarcation for hipsterism and music. I can point to NOFX as the biggest punk rock band of my life (though certainly the Gilman Street kids would disavow the use of that label here), but when I seek to identify a hipster music icon, I’m unsure if I should point at every single band in existence or if I should point at no band at all. Everything is equal fodder for hipsterization.
The point I’m trying to get across is that punk rockers could share bands with other punk rockers and this would not hurt the credibility or (more importantly) the viability of those bands. Punk rock was a community and the people involved with it weren’t afraid to be lumped together and labelled because they knew that they were, as a group, different from the culture outside of punk rock; they could share this music without compromising their own identities or the identity of the music itself. But we’ve established that hipsterism isn’t about groups, it’s about individuals. In order to appropriately brand your self-sized counterculture, you have to keep what makes you different apart from others. And if a part of what makes you different is music, then you can’t share it and risk having someone else appropriate your unique style. This personal trade embargo is a problem for music as a whole.
There will always be struggling musicians and commercially successful musicians. That dichotomy isn’t going anywhere, and in reality, it hasn’t changed all that much with the rise of hipsterism (or the Internet, or any number of factors that you might care to reference). What I think has changed – and since I don’t have the boundless figures that it would take to verify this, I’m stating this strictly as a matter of opinion – is that the life expectancy of bands has decreased, even though the number of accessible bands has dramatically increased. Bands fly onto the scene with an album or two and then disappear as listeners get distracted by ten or twelve other bands, each of which offers fresher – and more unique and obscure – material to subsidize in the name of self. The idea of hipsterism (as we’ve been looking at it here) dictates that one would share music with others only in so far as the sharing would show that you – the sharer – are different from them – the share-ee; then you withhold the rest. You build a tower of self at the cost of the community forum. But, as I’ve mentioned before, music is built on communities. Communities provide the fuel (social and monetary support) that allows bands to keep operating and making music. Without these communities – and without their support – bands, no matter how good, can exist only so long as they are self motivated and self fuelled. I can already hear the retorts: Well if they’re not self motivated enough to keep going, then they can just unplug their mics already; it’s supposed to be about the music, man. Right. It is. And a car is about getting from one place to another. But it still won’t run without fuel.
So what does it all mean? Well, like a hipster itself, this article might mean any number of things (or perversions thereof). Clearly, it is a dangerous (or at least unstable) gambit to construct a personal identity highly dependent upon the ever changing status of others – it is inherently risky to define an identity by what it is not. But this happens all the time. This is the nature of hipsterism, the nature of punk rock, and it is in many ways the nature of adolescence itself. The unfortunate truth is that this mindset of listener-ownership and identity-warfare isn’t going anywhere; it was here before punk rock and it will be here long after hipsterism. The danger that I see is that hipsterism – with its focus on the (selfish) individual rather than the (supportive) community – may be stifling artistic growth. It’s a short-sighted movement with little regard for its lasting consequences. There’s a reason that it took the three guys in fun., the only significant indie band to grow out of the underground and into the mainstream in recent years, a dozen years of building a following (and a notable change in their sound) to “make it big.” In the current musical climate, bands rarely have the opportunity to grow for that long or gain that much steam. Rather than choose a side in their rebellion, hipsters have forgone choice altogether, and this apathy – insofar as it takes the place of committed support – is deadly for music.
But the silver lining is that all these blanket cultural statements and proclamations don’t apply to every individual. Not everyone who invests in music – including a huge portion of the punk rockers and hipsters that I’ve been using as my negative examples – requires ownership of a band’s identity to feel cool. For some people, it really is just about supporting the musicians that they like. And luckily, bands know this too, and they’re grateful. After airing their complaints in ‘We Care,’ Aaron Barrett and Reel Big Fish noted that,
“I’m not talking about everybody. I’m sorry to waste a song and your time like this. We’re so lucky to have you there. We care. And I know that some of you get it and you’re not ashamed to admit that you’re still with us after all. We love you.”
Green Day certainly cared (for a while) about being punk rock, just like Reel Big Fish cared about fitting in with their ska fans; they absolutely cared about the way those listener-enforced identities were applied, but those were ultimately secondary concerns. The primary concern was and is simple: musicians just want people to hear their music. It’s us listeners that complicate things. We apply labels to bands, we tie our identities to certain musicians, and we claim ownership over the art of others, to the detriment of all. We get so worked up with all the social ramifications of liking this or hating that, that having an actual, consistent opinion has become an anachronism. This is stupid – musicians just want people to hear their music. And all that other stuff? The labelling the identifying, and the sense of ownership? Really, it’s just kind of bullshit that the rest of us made up. So, let’s not be afraid to share. Whether you’re cracking open a Coors or a PBR, let’s not be afraid to talk about what we’re listening to.