Who Was Jill Scott?

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The Onion A.V. Club is out with another one of its entertaining lists, this one a bit more "pox on all you critics' houses" than usual.

Year-end best-of lists are as much about looking forward to the years ahead as back on the year that was. What from a given year will rank up there with classics past? What albums showed the way for future artists? But history has a way of forgetting the lauded albums that proved to be dead-ends or false starts.

Cue 11 "Oh, yeah! That!" moments, mementos of briefly-hot albums of the 1990s and 2000s that are, in all likelihood, gathering lint underneath your couch right now. Travis, Jill Scott, Urge Overkill—it's a bloodbath.

The A.V. writers have good explanations for why the hot albums (and artists) never lived up to their initial promise. They don't explore the more interesting question of why certain albums and artists live on forever in "best of" lists, or why some of them experience mini-resurgences in the lists at seemingly random moments. I think the reasons owe more to markets than to critical tastes. One factor: Labels do a lot of legwork when reissuing albums, and can stoke a revival by sending a new version of an album to a critic's desk every five or so years. Include greatest hits and box sets in that calculation and you've got critics writing new appraisals of the work of the Velvet Underground or the Rolling Stones or Elvis Costello every few years.

Another factor: Song placement in movies and TV shows has more to do with the longevity of songs and artists than I think critics are willing to admit. Usage in any movie (it doesn't necessarily have to be a good one) elevates the song, keeps the label interested in promoting the artist, and moves copies of the album it appeared on.

NEXT: Does Punishing Pot Smokers Save the Children?

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  1. I hear the sound of thousands of hipsters crying out, and then silence…

  2. “I think the reasons owe more to markets than to critical tastes.”

    I disagree. I think musicians are too worried about the markets and not enough about their sound. IMHO. Urge Overkill went from being relevant to something (Chicago scene, Steve Albini, noise rock) to being just another rock product (most famous song is a cover, major-label bad blood, alienation of fans). I’m sure I’ll get flamed for this, but they went from relevant to nothing just as they were brought to the big market. This is directly relatable to Cory Doctorow’s “Bitchun Business Plan” post.

  3. With the exception of doomsayers, critics have the worst record for choosing what is good and what will endure.

    e.g. Greene, Elizabethan critic, declared Ben Jonson the best playwright of his time. Most of us had to endure a reading or performance of “Volpone” in our high school or university years, but who can remember anything else he wrote?

  4. My ex would cry to see the Jill Scott record on this list.

    I know that the A.V. Club stops its list at 2000, but Trail of Dead’s Source Tags and Codes (2002) seems headed for some future version. I still like it a lot, but the utter weakness of ToD’s output since then seems to have soured critics on the band’s stronger material.

  5. I think a lot of bands with big debut albums are brought down by the pressure to make a quick follow up to capitalize on the success. A band forms and spends a few years getting better and writing material until they finally get signed and make a major label record. That first record is the result of years worth of songwriting. The debut record is really good as a result. Then after the record is a hit, the record company immediately sends them back into the studio for a follow-up. The second record is the result of months not years of work. Now of course some people really are geniuses and come right back with something even better. Most bands, however, are not and their second effort is lousy and they fade into obscurity.

    As far as critics go; you don’t get anywhere as a critic by pointing out the obvious. I can’t even count the number of times I have heard a professional music critic give an interview and list his personal top 10 of the year and have never heard of even one band on the list. I think music critics make such an effort to be contrarian and obtuse and to avoid making popular choices that they wind up liking stuff that isn’t really that good. For example, the big Shelby Lynn record just wasn’t that good. If a big name Nashville performer had made that record, it would have been panned as dry Nashville pop. But since it was by an unknown artist that critics could feel cool about liking, it was a big deal. The problem is that over time, if the music isn’t very good people are not going to listen to it and critics of course have to move on to new obscure artists to be relevant.

  6. Oh, and I advise Lamar to check out Exit the Dragon for evidence that UO were not completely dried up by the time they signed their major-label contract. (Admittedly, I don’t know much about what critics had to say in reaction to that record.)

  7. “That first record is the result of years worth of songwriting.”

    Excellent point, John. Only, with a lot of acts (not always), it is the album prior to their major label debut that is the result of the years and years of hard work. It seems that A&R people want an act to be established before they discover them. Can’t have it both ways, though.

  8. I have said this on another thread today, but money corrupts the art. If not every time, that is still a good approximation. So an artist releases a good debut and then is never as nearly as good after.

    I get the feeling that in the 60s, 70s and 80s, the artists called the shots more, so artists could put together a whole string of great records. By the 90s, that wasn’t going to happen.

    Kurt Cobain got so depressed he let his guard down. Other artists, like Ween, just go back down to the minors (and out of the critics top 10 lists). Still others just try to play along and start sucking (eg, Urge Overkill, the White Stripes, Husker Du, REM, Frank Black).

    Commercial music will be good again when ppl recognize the problem is the suits and beancounters having input on the creative side. That thing Weigs is suggesting about getting music in tv and movies is more the problem than the solution (although it is telling that advertisers will take things like Trio and Nick Drake over more modern music). I mean The Apples (In Stereo) had a string of brilliant albums, and then they get on the target Store ads, and now they seem to be gone.

    As a modern listener with an attentive ear, the real solution is free music:

    http://www.farceswannamo.com

    Its not corrupted, so it is good.

    With Urge Overkill, there were about 3 full great albums between the early, not-ready-for-primetime Albini days and the disaster that was Saturation. that was a considerable amount of great tuneage and it is sad, and surprising that Urge Overkill so quickly became the joke they did. It just took one major label record to do the trick.

  9. “I have said this on another thread today, but money corrupts the art. If not every time, that is still a good approximation. So an artist releases a good debut and then is never as nearly as good after.”

    Certainly, that is true to some degree. But not all of that is the suits. It is not always the suits fault that success goes to some people’s heads. Also there is no accounting for art. Just becuase you do one great record doesn’t mean you are a great artist. Sometimes it is just kismit. Some artists just have one great record in them and that is it.

    Your idea of free music is a good one though. If artists made their money performing and were never under any pressure to sell records, most of them would probably be a lot better off in the long run.

  10. “I have said this on another thread today, but money corrupts the art. If not every time, that is still a good approximation.”

    Keeerrrappp.

    Every bad artist there ever was has blamed the public for not appreciating his ‘important’ work. [and rewarding him financially.]

    Are the server squirrels back in control? I’m having trouble posting.

  11. “Its not corrupted, so it is good.”

    does not compute, buddy.

    there are plenty of indie acts that suck HRRRD.

    (i.e. all electroclash EVAR)

  12. About the greatest-of-all-time lists – those factors David came up with sound perfectly likely to me, but I also think that genuine changes in taste do enter into it, and are themselves the result of the conventional wisdom regarding what does and doesn’t constitute great, timeless music coming, over time, to seem stifling. Maybe you could call it “the return of the repressed.” As in, toward the end of a period when cacophonous music is in vogue, smooth music starts to sound more interesting, or after a long period of pretentious music, direct, good-timey, unstudied music starts to sound like the way to go, etc. And that doesn’t just apply to contemporary musicians, it also inspires reappraisals of old material. Isn’t that sort of what that first “Nuggets” compilation did? Music that had been thought of as the silly, primitive, disposable music of a dopier age suddenly seemed valuable and instructive? Of course, that compilation was put together for commercial use, so I suppose it was a market thing, but it’s also my understanding that it was meant to realize a critic’s vision. The idea that those lists shouldn’t change over time is pretty goofy, but understandable given that they usually claim definitive status, as if the best album (or whatever) ranking had finally been done to perfection.

  13. Sam Franklin: I promise you that I am both (1) as musically free as they come, and (2) not really all that talented. But we agree on how musicians should make money. In the end, whether a person likes a band or not is purely subjective, but if there is some integrity in the process of making the music, it can be seen as good, regardless of whether anybody likes it or not. At least, that’s what I got from Rush’s whole schtick. Obviously, if record sales are your measure of ‘good’ you disagree with me. John, I agree with everything you’re saying. It must be kismit!

  14. I have said this on another thread today, but money corrupts the art.

    Ugh. Somebody was bound to throw this idiotic chestnut into the mix.

    I can’t speak for other “art,” but in the rock world — on which you’ve chosen to focus — it is this very mindset that has corrupted things. Folk and punk, with their intellectual preening and “commercialism sucks” mentalities, were the two worst things ever to happen to rock ‘n’ roll.

    See also: “In Praise of Commercial Culture,” Tyler Cowen.

  15. Yeah, if only Dylan and the Ramones put out music as good as the Backstreet Boys.

  16. Tom: Rock itself is a bastardization of country, blues and folk ya big black pot calling’ kettle.

    I’ll let other people make their judgments about whether Cowen has ever actually listened to a song in his life. Also note: he writes in reaction to government subsidization of art, yet nobody here is proposing that.

  17. May I suggest simple regression to the mean as a reason why the follow-up album does not do as well as the breakthrough? There are hundreds of mediocre bands out there. By luck, a few of them must make a good song or album in a given year. They then return to mediocrity. You don’t notice the rest who were mediocre the whole time.

    Then you can start adding reasons why things completely crashed after that point. For a moment, they thought they were big time, and revised their expectations and self-images upwards. Then reality re-asserted itself. *crash*

  18. Money does not corrupt art, it drives its production. That does not mean that music calculated to sell the most copies is the best. It means that the musicians who are the most successful and influential find ways to move product. Dylan, the Beatles, Chuck Berry, Prince, Michael Jackson – all shameless self-promoters.

  19. Rock itself is a bastardization of country, blues and folk ya big black pot calling’ kettle.

    We all know the Rock Roots 101 stuff. I guess I needed to be clear that I’m referring to the Greenwich Village strain of folk that infiltrated rock in the ’60s. And yes, that means I’m talking about Dylan too.

    (Cowen) writes in reaction to government subsidization of art, yet nobody here is proposing that.

    Actually, Cowen writes in reaction to elitism. Which is what people such as Sam Franklin display when they talk about “money corrupting art.”

    May I suggest simple regression to the mean as a reason why the follow-up album does not do as well as the breakthrough?

    Well, the cliche in the record business is that an artist has his whole life to write his first record, and about three months to write the next one.

  20. Ummm — Urge Overkill’s “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” was in Pulp Fiction.

  21. “Its not corrupted, so it is good.”

    does not compute, buddy.

    Admittedly that part was mere puff and blow ( I hope you get to do that even if you are “selling” for free).

    However, I think a lot of people assume that “free” means sucky. I don’t thin thats neccessarily the case and I have got the chops to back it up. So maybe 9 out of 10 free band suck — the percentage for music-you-pay-for is even worse.

    Also the outliers are more scattered in the free music acts category, so the genuises, when you can find them, are even more genius-y.

  22. Popular shit today comes from performers who’s looks are their most important attributes. No wonder they have no staying power. True musical talent is rare, while pretty faces can be found in every town in America.

  23. Actually, Cowen writes in reaction to elitism. Which is what people such as Sam Franklin display when they talk about “money corrupting art.”

    Huh? What I meant by corruption here was what I explained:

    Commercial music will be good again when ppl recognize the problem is the suits and beancounters having input on the creative side.

    How you get elitism out of a statement like that is beyond me.

  24. “Which is what people such as Sam Franklin display when they talk about ‘money corrupting art.'”

    I don’t see it as elitism. In fact, it stands to reason that taking the money out of art would tend to take the elitism out of art. It can be argued persuasively both ways, to be sure. It’s just that I get a little tremolo in my voice whenever I hear somebody defend the commercial/pro A&R model over the independent self-release model, and call the latter elitist.

    “Money does not corrupt art, it drives its production.”

    If art is a “selective recreation of reality according to the artist’s metaphysical value judgements,” then money obviously skews these judgments (assuming you believe in free market ideas such as money as an incentive). In contrast, if art is a vehicle for conveying moral ideas (Tolstoy), then money seems to have de-artified music in general (even considering that negative moral ideas are still moral ideas). The focus is the money, not the conveyance of ideas. The money drives the production of the money making product. Very little art going on there, and perhaps this is why the industry is unstable.

  25. Commercial music will be good again when ppl recognize the problem is the suits and beancounters having input on the creative side.

    While I tend to agree that corporate suits like bland music with broad appeal, one has to wonder how bands like U2 and REM who surely have total control over the process manage to suck so hard now.

  26. Lamar,

    Nearly every artist is trying to make a living off their art. The outsider artists who aren’t trying to quit their day jobs count for naught.

  27. how bands like U2 and REM who surely have total control over the process manage to suck so hard now

    They have internalized the process of thinking about profit maximization while writing, recording and arranging. They probably don’t even know it.

    I don’t know if I can agree that they both suck hard now — maybe pleasantly mediocre is a better description. That U2 song with the oil wells at dawn was good.

  28. “The outsider artists who aren’t trying to quit their day jobs count for naught.”

    I ascribe to the Ayn Rand and Leo Tolstoy definitions of art, neither of which say anything about certain classes of artists counting for naught.

  29. Nearly every artist is trying to make a living off their art. The outsider artists who aren’t trying to quit their day jobs count for naught.

    Charles Ives never quit his day job, and yet he’s the most important (maybe the only important) American composer.

    As an “outsider artist” musician myself, I applaud anyone who can make a living by making music, but almost inevitably one ends up doing the bidding of the folks who put forward the money. From a business perspective, that’s just fine, but from an artistic perspective…

  30. I ascribe to my view of art. “Count for naught” may sound a little harsh. I mean to say that if you don’t put your work in front of people, which means entering the marketplace, you are essentially masturbating. Masturbation may be sex by some standards but it is not sex by others. Art that is not produced for commerce on some level, be it even busking, is just self-love.

  31. Art that is not produced for commerce on some level, be it even busking, is just self-love.

    Disagree strongly, but it’s a matter of perspective, I guess. Art exists for its own sake.

  32. I started thinking about Henry Darger. I would make the case that his work was not art until it surfaced in public. Are my dreams art? If I wrote them into a narrative in my journal, is that art? Not until they enter the public sphere and are deemed art.

    All right, let me have it.

  33. Jeez, arguing about music is so pointless.

    “Kiss rocks man!”
    “No they don’t! They suck! Toscanini rocks!”
    “Nuh-uh!”
    “Yuh-huh!

    Music is beauty when you feel it’s so. Commercial success is often based on a lemming effect but that doesn’t mean the teeny-boppers pleasure is any less real.
    If you like some music then groove on it and throw the artist a few bucks so they can find some more joyful sounds. This method leaves some singing in subways and others wallowing in wealth. It’s never the money that screws things up, though, it’s people, always people.

  34. To get off music for two seconds, I think everyone will agree that what Michaelangelo did in the Sistine Chapel was art (maybe even Art). He did it for money.

  35. To get off music for two seconds, I think everyone will agree that what Michaelangelo did in the Sistine Chapel was art (maybe even Art). He did it for money.

    How much creative input did he allow into his work from his cfo? Did the amount of money he made depend on how much the cfo liked the painting?

    Money doesn’t have to corrupt. It only corrupts if and when the artist allows it to become teleological. In the case of late 80s thru present major label music (and most non-major label music) that means always. Not so with music before that. Maybe it is not so with painting even now — I mean here is a good one who hasn’t sold out:

    http://www.cafepress.com/eclecticmelsky

  36. The first sign that you’re about to hear bad rock is when you hear the perfomer(s) described as artist(s). Lee Ving was in Clue: The Movie and played Angela’s boyfriend in a few episodes of Who’s the Boss, a resume that any serious rock artist would sneer at.

    But then that serious rock artist couldn’t even lay a glove on the rockitude of “Fear: The Record”.

    Rock and roll is the easiest type of music to review. If the song makes you want to grab a blunt object and start busting the place up, it’s probably a pretty good song.

  37. George: The Agony and the Ecstacy (imperfect, but well researched) tells us that Michelangelo loathed the commercial aspect of his work. Good try, though.

    Highnumber: Can’t account for Ives? Easier to ignore a powerful counterexample? According to your definition of art, ringtones are art. Right?

  38. I had not attempted to define art. I was ascribing a quality to it. If you are pressing me to define art, I will adapt that famous definition of pornography: I cannot define it, but I know it when I see or hear it.
    Regarding Ives, while he may have kept his day job, his work was available to the public.
    Regarding ringtones, just because something is in the marketplace does not make it art.

  39. I don’t know a single musician who doesn’t play shows or push their recording, so your definition is really quite useless.

    BTW: the famous “definition” of porn is “famous” as a symbol judicial overreaching, irrationality and subjectivism in the law, not a good trait.

  40. Lamar,

    In the beginning, I was trying to point out that art and commerce are intimately connected. Artists are salesmen, too. I think you are agreeing with me, no?

    Using that definition of porn as law = bad use, using it for defining your personal tastes = perfect use.

  41. “In the beginning, I was trying to point out that art and commerce are intimately connected.”

    We agree on this. We part ways on whether money positively affects the quality of art. We know it increases the quantity.

  42. There are hundreds of mediocre bands out there

    Hundreds? Try millions.

  43. “In the beginning, I was trying to point out that art and commerce are intimately connected.”

    We agree on this. We part ways on whether money positively affects the quality of art. We know it increases the quantity.

    I would go a step further and say that money can help art if it is applied correctly. My criticism is that the money used to be applied correctly to rock music, and then started being applied incorrectly to rock music. but, you know, I said that above, and then repeated the point in bold italics. Not much more you can do than that.

  44. Somebody in the hot nurse post said people should just lighten the hell up. While I stand behind my posts 100%, I’ll concede that the “art” of music might not be where it is today if it weren’t for the “companies.” It might be better, but there’s a good possibility that it’s doing just fine. I still think the post-merger/big 5 economic model is unsustainable, but this shouldn’t be read as an across the board indictment of money in music. Of course, I usually get paid in hamburgers and beer, so I don’t know much about it. And I promise I started to write this post before I saw your last one.

  45. For example, the big Shelby Lynn record just wasn’t that good. – John

    Now, that is a pure example of de gustibus. I Am Shelby Lynn was a fine addition to my CD stack, and when I caught her live at Summerfest awhile ago she woulda blown the roof off the dump, except that it’s an an open-air venue. But IASL doesn’t quite come up to the level of several other contemporary female country-ish efforts. Kelly Willis’ What I Deserve jumps immediately to mind, as do Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels On A Gravel Road and Emmylou’s Red Dirt Girl.

    Let’s not forget that part of the critic’s job description is pointing out underappreciated treasures and leading edges of new trends. How can you be seen as a prophet if you never dub some new or overlooked act The Next Big Thing? The ugly opposite side of this coin are the obligatory accusations that bands have peaked, stalled or sold-out.

    Kevin

  46. If the market were an indicator of merit, there would be no critics.

  47. What I said was that money does not corrupt art, it drives its production. I watched a play recently, Caravaggio. It addressed the question of compromising one’s vision for popular acceptance. Great production, good play. While Caravaggio did try to paint in a lighter, happier style because people loved it, he could not maintain that style since it was not of his nature. He tried to be corrupted, but could not take it. I don’t know a heck of a lot about the real Caravaggio, so I cannot say if his art suffered, or if he was the only one to suffer.
    Perhaps we could say that, like nearly human endeavor, capital drives art and capital can corrupt it.

  48. capital drives art and capital can corrupt it.

    That may be true. However, since I started my hobby of being a recording artist in 1990, the amount of capital I need to record good songs and to make them available to the whole world has gone way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way down. (Check out my website if you don’t believe me.)

    because of this change, among other reasons, the role of capital in the life of a recording artist should change. my desired change is that the bean counters stay out of the creative process. if online distribution doesn’t cost much, then the bean counters can content themselves by signed many, many more acts than they used to and releasing many, many more records (at least on line) than they used to. If each act requires much less capital investment than it used to, then it would make sense for this to happen. Of course, that is exactly what is not happening (yet).

  49. If each act requires much less capital investment than it used to, then it would make sense for this to happen. Of course, that is exactly what is not happening (yet).

    Greetings from another home recordist. Check out my link for some of my music. Anyway, the fly in the ointment is not production or distribution, but promotion–the third type of service provided by labels. You still can’t “go wide” to radio and major media without the backing (and influence) of a major label, and even small labels are good at targeting niche media. Being signed is still de facto evidence of “credibiltity.”

  50. “Being signed is still de facto evidence of ‘credibiltity.'”

    If someone wants to “make it big” they should pay off the radio stations like the labels do. Buy a commercial on MTV. Pay for “product placement” in a movie. This is stuff the independent artist will never be able to afford. The labels will stay around.

  51. If someone wants to “make it big” they should pay off the radio stations like the labels do. Buy a commercial on MTV. Pay for “product placement” in a movie. This is stuff the independent artist will never be able to afford. The labels will stay around.

    And if someone wants to “hear better music” they should not delegate the formation of their tastes radio stations paid off by the labels. they should not pay attention to a commercial on MTV. They should actively guard against buying records by virtue of “product placement” in a movie. This is stuff the independent listener can to afford and should. The labels will stay around to serve the lazy, but that doesn’t mean you, the listener, needs to be lazy.

    The first step is, of course:

    http://www.farceswannamo.com

    Chris O: I will try to remember to check out your stuff. I remember back when soundclick was new there was an artist on there called Chris Fitts that was excellent. I hope your free stuff is as good as Fitts.

  52. Yeah, most people would be surprised at how little money a band makes when it “makes it big” and has some retread video on TV. Though I wonder, if your band has no talent, and the record label is fully responsible for marketing your face and ass as sexy, why shouldn’t they get the money? It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even listen to a new song unless I’ve heard it before….or something like that.

  53. If only one million of you smart and lovely Reasonoids buy just one of my tracks at iTunes, I can retire! Won’t you help?

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