I was listening to Alt-Nation on Sirius XM last night and was struck by the lack of distinction between the artists that were played. While I highly enjoy Neon Tree’s “People Talk”, Grouplove’s “Tongue Tied” and Bombay Bicycle Club’s “Shuffle” among others, the artists and the songs are pretty interchangeable. Each one of those songs is a mix of dance-rock, with a highly memorable chorus. But there’s nothing from any of those bands that makes them distinct from one another.
Pop Artists on the other-hand, have managed to create larger than life personas, which have only added to their mass appeal. Lady Gaga? An eccentric and wildly dressed champion of the misunderstood. Nicki Minaj? An insanely talented, genre-bending lunatic (and I mean that in a good way.) Bruno Mars? A throw-back to Soul, with James Brown-style dance-moves. Adele? A woman with a bruised heart, and super-charged voice.
While each of these artists have memorable songs that sell and are heard everywhere, the image they’ve cultivated for themselves helps identify them from others. While having a hit song helps sustain an artist, the best ones have something extra that the audience can latch onto. Rihanna has sold a lot of records, but the fact that she rose above a very public incident, probably adds to her appeal.
If you think about it, many of your favorite artists aren’t just your favorite artists because they make great songs (though that is a huge part of it.) They have something identifiable about them, which you like. The identity of the people behind the music who makes the makes you want to listen even more. It makes the artist relatable. The Ramones weren’t just a punk-band, Instead, they were saviors of rock and roll, who played music that was purposely stupid and fun. The Rolling Stones were the original bad-boys of rock, who took cues from various forms of American Music and made it their own. Kurt Cobain was was full of rage, yet his music extremely catchy. James Brown was the “hardest working man in show business” and of one of popular music’s most dynamic performers. Bob Dylan has had so many different personas (folk icon, cynical hipster, the wounded soul on Blood on the Tracks and Desire, Born-Again Christian, etc) it’s probably one of the reasons why he has such a loyal following.
As far as rock goes, there’s really only two (current) artists that I can think of that have some sort of image (The Black Keys and Jack White) that sets them apart. Of course, both artists model their music on the blues, so perhaps that’s telling. The industry would have you believe that illegal downloading is the only problem why people don’t buy music. I’m not sure. People will buy and invest in artists that have a history, or a story to sell. The current pop-artists have that, which is one reason why Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry are selling lots of records. Current rock and roll? Not so much. I’m not suggesting that image is everything, but it certainly holds a lot of value. And if you don’t believe me, it certainly worked for Malcom McLaren.