On Five Overrated Musical Acts

Why Your Favourite Band Sucks

The pantheon of rock is fickle.  Whereas earth-shattering geniuses such as Captain Beefheart, George Russell, and Lambchop — to name a few — skirt around the edges of cult appreciation, it seems some of the larger figures in the canon are hollow imposters, undeserving of their enshrinement in our collective consciousness.  [Translation: I am an elitist asshole who, looking down on the tastes of the masses, is now going to pretentiously argue that the following five figures are totally overrated].

1) Elvis Presley

Conventional Wisdom tells us that Elvis invented rock ‘n roll.  Someone should perhaps inform Conventional Wisdom of the musical stylings of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, and Lonnie Donegan.  Of course, Elvis is a huge figure in the history of 20th Century popular music and is genuinely influential, although, really, he’s only influential because he is considered influential.

Moreover, this influence is more the result of his good fortune – pretty much any decent looking white guy with a passable voice could have done what he did. Unlike singular talents such as Dylan, The Beatles, or Brian Wilson, Elvis more or less just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

As Sam Phillips famously said: “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”  See, Phillips correctly guessed that the rhythm and blues music of black juke joints had crossover appeal to white teenagers bored with the insipid, limpid crooning of Perry Como, Bing Crosby et al.  However, white audiences at the time found young, virile black men (or, in the case of Little Richard, young, virile, flamingly homosexual black men) somewhat threatening, so a Trojan horse was necessary; a reverse oreo, if you will.

Of course, as the various whitebread schmucks pretending to be from the streetz paraded for our enjoyment on network television attest (indeed, Elvis would do quite well on American Idol), such a creature is not a rare beast, and it was only a matter of time before one would wander into Phillips’ studio.  And it so happened that some redneck truck-driver did just that.  Again, Elvis didn’t do anything particularly innovative, he was just nice packaging.  He wasn’t the first “rock star”, just the first mass-marketed rock star, the Model T to Bill Haley’s Mercedes-Benz.

Still, it’s undeniable that Elvis released ten (45) sides of great rockabilly in 1954.  It’s also undeniable that he spent the next two decades releasing utter shit and starring in crap movies before wisely changing his artistic direction in 1977 when he transformed himself, phoenixlike, from a fat, old, washed-up hasbeen into an icon of decadent, corpulent excess.  Amazing what a heart attack on the toilet can do for your critical legacy.

2) The Sex Pistols

A prefabricated boy band put together by a fashion designer, the Sex Pistols compensated for their lack of discernable musical ability by being generally obnoxious and spitting on people.  Some people say they invented punk, which is a rather odd thing to say given that The Ramones had been around for a couple of years already at this point.  This is, of course, rather a moot point since it has been scientifically proven that Bob Dylan invented punk in 1965 (cf. “Tombstone Blues”).

Anyway, with singer John “Rotten” Lydon selected for his professed dislike of Pink Floyd and lack of dental hygiene, the Pistols broke into the global public consciousness with “God Save The Queen”, an earnest political anthem which offered the apparently controversial opinion that monarchical government is not as reflective of the people’s wishes and needs as a constitutional republic.  This demonstrates an extension of their earlier single’s advocation for the dissolution of  all hierarchical power structures in favour of an anarcho-syndicalist commune, which is to be achieved by such acts of radical civil disobedience as “giv[ing] a wrong time” and “stop[ping] a traffic line” culminating in a utopia in which the liberated individual is free to “get pissed, destroy”.  Ball’s in your court, Edmund Burke.  I would quote from the group’s other songs, but nobody has ever heard them.

A colleague of mine once opined that the Russian teen lesbian phenomenon t.A.T.u. are the real heirs to Rotten, Vicious et al’s legacy. He’s probably right.

3) Joy Division

A one hit wonder (admittedly “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is, not unlike “Boogie Nights”, a pretty good tune), Joy Division have become heroes for suburban bedwetters everywhere, largely on account of singer Ian Curtis’ flat monotone and berky dancing.   Actually, that’s a bit unfair.  They were a two-hit wonder: in addition to “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, Joy Division are also well known for Curtis’ pendulous interpretation of Iggy Pop’s The Idiot.

These tuneless manc wasters beautifully illustrate the strange phenomenon by which audiences confuse being miserable with being deep (Leonard Cohen might perhaps be to blame for this).  Apparently sitting around staring at your fuzzy navel feeling sorry for yourself – an activity primarily undertaken by white, middle class, bourgeois types (cf. Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, etc) — is mistaken for philosophical complexity.  Depressing = poetry.  Happy = fluff.  Got it?

An illustration with the lyrics to Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” will explain this.  Here are the “deep” originals:

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything
What have I become?
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end

Fuck man, this guy is, like, deep.  He really feels my pain and listening to him whinge is an instant of cathartic pathos.  Now, let’s take this poetry and simply madlib in some happier terms.

I tickled myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the joy
The only thing that’s real
The needle repairs a hole
The old familiar thing
Try to tidy it all away
But I remember everything
What have I become?
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know
Is coming round for tea this afternoon.

All of sudden, sixteen-year-olds with too much eye makeup and scars on their arms will not find this “expressive of the inner pain of growing up in the affluent West”.  Tell you what, when the Nigerian army invades your house and defenestrates your mother, then you can whine about how unjust the world is.

4) Michael Jackson

See “On Michael Jackson”.

5) Oasis

Starting out as a tribute to noted Beatles and Coca-Cola jingle cover band, No Way Sis, Oasis eventually became Britain’s answer to Matchbox 20, albeit with slightly more distorted guitars and unibrows.  They accomplished this mostly by loudly telling everyone how good they were — a clever strategy which dispenses with the difficulties of actually making interesting music.  Now recently broken up (for now at least), Oasis represent everything that’s wrong with modern so-called rock ‘n roll.

Endlessly recycling the same old song forms by mindlessly churning through fully strummed, straight major and minor chords while the lead guitar runs through ordinary blues scales, Oasis’ idea of experimentation is adding the occasional minor 7th or playing along to a drum loop.   Apparently unaware that music has progressed since 1968, they even think sitars add a dimension of exotic psychedelia rather than being a lazy shorthand for trite orientalism.  Still, former drummer Alan White was quite competent, but then again, when you play the exact same fucking beat for every goddamn song, you’re bound to get pretty good at it.

While rearranging traditional forms is the backbone of popular music (indeed, the Bickerstaff-approved group, Magnolia Electric Co., has made excellent record after excellent record based on the same country-rock blueprint laid down in the late 60’s), Oasis compounded their musical banality with pretentious pseudo-profound lyrics (though Magnolia Electric Co.’s Jason Molina is occasionally guilty of the same ponderous misery as discussed in #3, he at least is able to mine the floating pool of traditional bluesisms for some nice phrases: “I talked to the wolf on the mountain, I talked to the mule in the mine”; “I’ve been as lonesome as the world’s first ghost”; “Stay with me now, ol’ crimson pal, burn like this we’ll even outlive the dark and come after the blues”).  Noel, on the other hand, operates from the school of hasty, vaguely paradoxical clichés masquerading as super-serious lyrical musings. Throwing a dart at random Oasis songs, I offer this evidence from “Gas Panic”:

What tongueless ghost of sin crept through my curtains?

Sailing on a sea of sweat on a stormy night.

I think he don’t got a name, but I can’t be certain

And in me he starts to confide.

Ugh.  I once said some mean things about Stereolab‘s sometimes hamhanded lyrics.  I take it all back.

Perhaps if Oasis had broken up after Be Here Now, they’d’ve been alright.  After all, their first two records had some decent tracks on them and Be Here Now had a certain perverse charm in its ridiculous, over the top bombast.  But no, Oasis elected to go the route of Elvis Presley and The Rolling Stones by spending the last decade descending into self-parody.

With original members leaving, Oasis quickly became a retirement home for other British dadrock refugees (who the fuck is Andy Bell?).  They even answered the accusations of aping the Beatles by hiring Ringo’s son, Zak Starkey, to drum for them (Alan White apparently got tired of playing the same monotonous, loping beat all the time).

At this point, atavistic Britpoppers will declare that Oasis were hugely influential kingpins of 90’s British rock.  No, they weren’t; or at least not as much as their fans (and the fawning British music press) would have us believe.  The British groups from the 90’s that have cast the largest shadow in contemporary music have had little to do with Oasis’ staid brand of tradrock: people like the Super Furry Animals, the Beta Band, Mogwai, even Belle & Sebastian all created interesting music that remains current today (and Oasis could’ve learned something from the Beta Band regarding call it quits while you’re ahead).  It’s a grim irony that Oasis’ hated rivals, Blur, who, despite being “shite” (source: S. Braithwaite), are still somewhat relevant.

Feel free to add your own overrated artists, or, conversely, tell me what a sanctimonious prick I am in the comments below.

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~ by Isaac Bickerstaff on August 29, 2009.

9 Responses to “On Five Overrated Musical Acts”

  1. I stopped listening to Oasis after Be Here Now. I reviewed it for the university paper at the time and reached a conclusion not unlike your own. Change or become irrelevant, I declared! then, they fell off my cultural map. I assumed they had broken up but I guess they continued to churn out more of the same.

    I haven’t listened to their two first albums in a while but I suspect they don’t hold up, although I was (I will admit) a big fan at the time.

  2. While I would disagree that bands have to necessarily change to remain relevant, Oasis definitely jumped the shark after Be Here Now. Still, the first two albums remain pretty solid. Hmm. That could be a typo: I may have meant: “Still, the first two albums remain pretty stolid.”

    Anyway, as much as I may not like to admit it, Liam Gallagher is damn good singer (albeit with limitations) and I’ve always felt he could possibly put out an interesting solo album. After all, one of the few Liam-penned tracks in Oasis’ oeuvre contains this poetic gem addressed to his toddling step-son:

    “Live for your toys / Even though they make noise / Have you ever played with plasticine / Or even tried a trampoline?”

    ^ Fuckin’ top-shelf lyrical prowess, that.

    • I didn’t mean to imply all bands must necessarily change to stay relevant (although I am happy to say most bands probably will likely need to evolve to stay relevant). Oasis, however, did need to evolve. They had a sound well-suited to a time and a place and the times they were a-changing.

      Noel’s unwillingness to change was made all the more perplexing because of his satisfying collaborations with the Chemical Brothers…

  3. Top Five overrated (present day):
    1. Bob Dylan – can’t sing, looks stupid, more than likely shits his pants daily.
    2. Metallica – their best album came out when slow dance parties were the rage and the best source of a soda (circa 1992).
    3. REM – They have some good stuff, just please go away now.
    4. Dave Matthews Band – The best thing they ever dropped was their own excrement out of their moving tour bus.
    5. RedHotChiliPeppers/Pearl Jam/Rage Against the Machine – Stupid/Toast/Hypers.

    • Anyone who says Bob Dylan is overrated is either intentionally trying to be provocative or really hasn’t listened to much music (Dylan’s or anyone else’s).

  4. The reverse Oreo – awesome. But you’re flat out wrong about Joy Division. Clearly you’ve never listened to side 2 of Closer.

  5. Thanks for the comments.

    Yes, perhaps I should give Joy Division more of a chance, but I still think they illustrate the whole depressing lyrics = (perceivedly) deep lyrics phenomenon.

    Milo – I fixed your link.

  6. This is so fucking ignorant. I would go into some tedious numbered list of reasons why, but I’m not interested in replies from barely literate nineteen-year-olds who recently discovered sarcasm, so what’s the point?

    Have fun pining over your Elliott Sm—er, Jason Molina MP3s, you snotty little hipsters. “Too soon, man, he was taken too soon!” Can’t wait for pop culture to get over you trendy douchebags in a month or two. Don’t forget to dig the heels of your Keds into the ground when it happens, kiddos. Tell ’em they can have those Vip and Yorks… from your cold dead hands!

    • Thank you for your input on this five year old post on a somewhat moribund blog. It has been noted in our files. Unfortunately, I no longer have any Keds, Vip [sic?], and/or Yorks. They were stolen by irate Sex Pistols fans who disapproved of my hipsterish love of Pink Floyd. Perhaps you have some in your thrift store? Please advise re: shipping.

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