Monday, April 11, 2011

The Once and Future Kings

At some point during my high school years (although I’m not exactly sure when) the general area in which I lived opened its first Chipotle Mexican Grill. And for whatever reason, this pseudo fast food restaurant quickly became a cool and trendy place for high school kids to eat and hang out. If you spent Friday evenings of your 9th and 10th grade year having your parents drop you off and pick you up from this Chipotle, you were probably part of the cool crowd. I don’t know that there is a specific reason to point at as to why this was the case, but through the eyes of middle-class teenage kids on the west side of Cincinnati, there was something groovy about chilling at Chipotle. For a while at least.

Chipotle remains a popular hangout/eatery among teens in the area, but now in a slightly different way. (There is certainly some assuming on my part here: I no longer reside in Cincy full-time and avoid living my life as an homage to Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed and Confused, but from what I’ve gathered, my assumption is a fairly safe one.) Initially, Chipotle was the cool hangout place because it was new and exciting. You were going to Chipotle when no one else was. It was unique. It was “indie”. It was cool because you and your cool friends made it cool. This inherently changed when the trendy act of going to Chipotle essentially transformed into Chipotle itself becoming a trendy location. Everyone now knows about Chipotle, and everyone goes. It’s still a popular place for kids to congregate, but not so much for those that identify or align themselves with the original cool kids – the ones that made the restaurant the “place to be”. By becoming hip – or mainstream, if you will – that specific Chipotle actually became un-cool among the faction of innovative, unique, and original cool kids. To this particular youth subset, the allure had worn off. Interestingly enough, a lot of things in our society function in this way. The Chipotle Mexican Grill in the general area of my Midwestern, suburban homeland is just one example. Kings of Leon happens to be another.

Kings of Leon is an alternative, garage-y, Southern Rock band that started in Nashville, Tennessee. The band’s career arc is also similar to my hometown Chipotle, or anything else that went from being popular in an indie sort of way to poplar in a mainstream sort of way. The group originated in 1999, but didn’t release their first LP until four years later. They wallowed in relative anonymity for nearly a decade, with their first three albums charting no higher than Gold in the U.S., achieving any amount of notable popularity only in the United Kingdom. It wasn’t until their fourth album, Only by the Night, that the band started to take off in America. Thanks to the immediate popularity of singles “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody”, the band hit the big-time, finally securing “mainstream” status. The album went platinum. They started headlining concerts. And just as quickly, they started alienating their initial and most devoted American fan base.

Come Around Sundown is the Kings of Leon’s fifth and most recent album. Overall, it’s pretty good, and maybe really good. You could argue it was just as high-quality (if not better) than Only by the Night. And yet, the fact that the band had become so popular among general music fans almost completely alienated the original, core supporters of the band in this country. Part of it probably stemmed from the fact that “Use Somebody” was played on the radio every nine minutes. But the majority of this reaction came about simply because, once everyone thought the Kings of Leon were cool, those that were already in that boat suddenly found liking the band to be un-cool. It’s a really interesting dynamic, and Kings of Leon is not the first band to experience it. And I suppose that’s what makes Radiohead even more interesting, because somehow, they’ve avoided experiencing it all together.

The group formed in England in 1985. They have since released eight LP albums and a handful of EPs and “Live” recordings. And despite the fact that they have already sold more albums than Kings of Leon could sell in two lifetimes, and the fact that Radiohead has evolved into one of the most critically revered rock groups of all time, Thom Yorke and company have managed to retain “indie” status and avoid the recoil of mainstream acceptance. As accomplished of a band as Radiohead is, today’s American popular music fans would most likely give more high-grade status to Kings of Leon. KoL gets songs on the radio. KoL does a promotional concert for college basketball’s Final Four. KoL dates super models. And when you’re watching a movie 20 years from now, you’re much more likely to hear “Sex on Fire” than you are to hear “Codex”.

What Radiohead has accomplished is unprecedented. Velvet Underground would probably be the best comparison, but only in terms of following and status, because it didn’t have the longevity that Radiohead has already accrued. By abandoning the big-name labels and having a sound quirky and experimental enough that it is slightly unappealing to a fair amount of conventional music fans, Radiohead has simultaneously gained critical acclaim, coupled only with mainstream acknowledgement. They are successful, but not to the degree that it drives people away…which as a statement is of course illogical, and yet somehow makes perfect sense.

Popularity in the American music scene is one of the most perplexing and ironic relationships in existence. Mainstream success is something pretty much every band and musician aspires toward. They want the Rolling Stone covers. They want Grammys. They want to sell out arenas as the headliners. They want to do radio interviews with Ryan Seacrest. But when it comes to rock bands – the majority of which have to start small, pay their dues, and work their way up – it is almost inevitable that with popularity will come some amount of scorn among the original supporters. Making it big isn’t without consequence. Sure, the conundrum can be avoided by transcendent greatness (i.e., everyone likes the Beatles), but how many transcendent bands are there? Plus, there is evidence that reaching a certain level of success can lead to bands breaking up (i.e., the Beatles, Van Halen, The Police) or even being completely and literally destroyed (i.e., Nirvana). It’s concurrently the most desired and feared aspect of rock music.

(P.S. – I still blame Yoko...and Courtney Love.)

This is what makes Radiohead so unique. Most people know the band’s name. Most people are aware of the band’s front man, Thome Yorke. Most people have probably heard “Creep” (even if they don’t know Radiohead sings it) or recognize the album cover of Ok Computer. But through it all, the band has kept its triumphs low key. They’ve kept the early and original fans intact. They avoided becoming mainstream yuppies, despite their record sales being mainstream-esque. They retained an “indie” status, despite Kid A being named the greatest album of the ‘00s by Rolling Stone. Somehow, Radiohead became the anomalous exception to the ironic pitfalls of American pop music. It’s like their sex is on fire.

That Chipotle back in Western Hills became so popular that a second one was recently built about five minutes away from the original. Needless to say, the restaurant chain is doing just fine in my neck of the woods. And yet, there will always be that distinct faction of people that remember when it used to be cool (in their opinion) to go to Chipotle, simply because it was unique and original and new. The food is still the same. The overall experience is still the same. It’s just the people’s perceptions that have changed. The Kings of Leon can relate to this. The music is still essentially the same. The experience of them as a band is essentially the same. But there are those whose perception has completely transformed, if only because their original thoughts suddenly had company.

It’s surprising that Radiohead has managed to avoid all of this. To be honest, the feat is worthy of more attention than it actually receives. I’m sure the band doesn’t mind though. The lack of awareness helps to deflect popularity, you know, lest they become unpopular.

Thanks for reading

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The American public loves to be a part of a celebrity's burgeoning success... but then we can't stand them when they achieve it!