Totally True Tune Tales: All Hail Mediocrity

PRIVATE EYES!!!
THEY’RE WATCHING YOU!!!
THEY SEE YOUR EVERY MOVE!!!!!

This is a story of mediocrity. Of averageness, of blandness, and complacency.

Hall & Oates have over 14 albums released. Why are there so many Hall & Oates albums? How do they continue to sustain themselves? Hell, how did they even have so many hits in the early ’80s?

Hall & Oates have been around since the early ’70s and continue to release albums today. Even with their six number one singles, is there anyone who declares Hall & Oates to be the second coming of rock? Over three decades in the business and there’s nary a soul who will stick up for them. Even songs like “Say It Isn’t So” and “Sara Smile,” huge hits in their own right, are easily knocked apart by music critics for their haphazard pop style and blunders in songwriting that should have rightfully kicked them far from radio, popularity, and even a recording contract.

Two words for those who think of Hall & Oates: keyboard lines. Just when you find a strength in the lyrics or in some soulful hooks, they always managed to toss in some awfully dissonant and cheesy-as-hell keyboard line that reminded you, yes, you are listening to nothing better than Hall & Oates. Hall & Oates will never be better than this. There will be no transcendence of time because they locked their music into a kitschy era. It’s like Daryl and John absolutely fell in love with the idea of being average and worked hard to perfect it.

Hall & Oates was not the beginning of this trend. However, they might have been near the end.

Take REO Speedwagon as another example. Eighteen albums and counting, this wonderfully middle-of-the-road band continues to tour and delight county fairs across the country. Yes, anyone can name numerous hits, from “Take It On The Run” to “Keep On Loving You.” Are they a piece of rock history? Of course. But they never bothered to do anything stylish, innovative, or even halfway interesting. Yet they keep on ticking.

It’s amazing the amount of ’70s and early ’80s success REO Speedwagon managed to acquire. Truly, they did nothing but spew pop rock and power ballads that were easily confused with Boston, Foreigner, and countless other mediocre hard rock acts of their time. And much like those bands, they just kept going forever and ever. In today’s age, their contemporaries would be something like Hootie & the Blowfish; however, the audiences of present times may endure a smidgen of mediocrity, but are much happier to move on to the next big thing with no faithfulness to the average folks who filled in the gaps of their listening adventures with some sort of mental and artistic break from true entertainment.

We all watched videos in the ’80s of ZZ Top, and we loved them to pieces. Oh, the gimmick! The beards! And the irony that the one guy without a beard’s last name is Beard! The skanky chicks in their videos, graced with the keys to the ZZ Top roadster that were also the keys to their dreams. Really, without those videos, would ZZ Top have continued their years of bland musicianship? After releasing their first album in 1970, yes, they’re still around, 15 albums later. We can all name several of their songs, but I’m sure they’re pretty close to the bottom of the list when we think of influences.

Ted Nugent. Oh, he was a crazy wildman, and he made completely generic music. Sixteen albums to be exact, not counting Damn Yankees or other projects. We’ve all gotten the “Cat Scratch Fever,” danced the “Wango Tango,” and perhaps imbibed in a night or two of “Free-For-All.” But really, what legacy did the man leave the world of music? It’s a legacy of generic rock, led to the top of the charts due to antics and style rather than any sort of worthwhile musical contribution.

It’s pretty easy to pick on the ’70s in this regard. One might make a correlation that “stupid-rock” existed to balance out the pseudointellectualism of the singer-songwriter era; I mean, you can either bathe your brain in Carly Simon’s musings about clouds in her coffee or you can drink a beer and relax without using a single brain cell. However, what’s so mind-bending about this is how long these middle-of-the-road acts have managed to last. Their ’70s successes fed their bank accounts and built up enough of a blue collar fanbase that they have been able to sustain their careers to the present day. One may call it the opportunity of a lifetime; one looking at history as a whole might say it’s an era that won’t ever happen again due to the evolution of the industry.

When looking at the ’80s, you have your Hall & Oates at whom to easily point fingers. You have your ZZ Top videos. But for the most part, the end of that decade started to fuel musicians and bands who only managed to last due to a true musicianship standard. REM, John Mellencamp, Duran Duran, The Cure, Depeche Mode, Madonna, Prince, and U2 are a few of the handful of acts that still produce music today with any sort of continued respect in the music community. Many hitmakers like Air Supply and Loverboy long since bit the dust, and their mediocrity died with them. And as the decade waned, Poison and Warrant’s successes came and went. While the bands have attempted to stay afloat on touring circuits, neither is producing new music. They’re seen solely as a novelty throwback.

What precisely during that time convinced the American record-buying public to stop creating mediocre acts with incredible longevity? One point could be made that the music industry exploded with the success of MTV and people had more options to be choosy. There was a tremendous boom where talent rosters grew exponentially, labels were created and branched out, and more focus was devoted to creating new products for the public to buy. No longer was there a need to simply have an alternative sound to fill a gap; the new idea was to create Someone For Everyone, regardless of whether you latched onto Michael Jackson or if you wanted to seek out someone less plentiful in the marketplace. In essence, you no longer needed a lame injection of Foreigner to fill your desire for rock; you could turn to hundreds of bands with unique sounds tailored to your particular taste. And they weren’t buried or underground, either. These were the days when radio and television were playing anything and everything they could get their hands on.

However, the end of the ’80s marked the beginning of true marketing: sure, you had your Prince proteges throughout the decade that were created solely to profit due to the Purple One’s involvement, but this was still a relatively new concept. Madonna created her own marketing. Bands created a look to go with their sound because MTV was the main attraction, and the more attention paid to them, the better chances they had to make an impression. Labels began to notice, and when rock bands started coating themselves in Aqua Net and sequins, suddenly the pressure was on from The Man to tie into that marketable image. Like never before, music was less about the music and more about the cash.

And like never before, labels began to care less about creating long-lasting, even-profited moneymakers like REO Speedwagon and instead about gaining that quick buck.

Thus, as we hit the ’90s, we were subjected to no fewer than eight hundred billion hair bands. When this fad died, and Nirvana and Pearl Jam hit the spotlight, for the next three years if you were remotely near Seattle or wore a flannel shirt, you were handed a record contract. Image, image, image. Sell the fad and to hell with artistic integrity. Not only that, but once the fad started to wane, you were no longer wanted. Even those whose music was just as middle-of-the-road and cash-productive as Hall & Oates were tossed aside. It simply wasn’t worth the effort of the labels anymore when they could find a new, fresh-faced bunch of kids to thrust into the spotlight for an instant million sold.

We all know how the scene is today. If anyone thought what happened in the ’90s was awful, the ’00s have been utterly preposterous. Are there any mainstream bands these days that release more than three albums without being dropped from their label or breaking up? Everything is niche and it takes one hell of a devoted following to make any career last. Even still, many bands that were once mainstream that are now less than desirable yet still have their fanbase are shoved under the carpet, only existing to make a guaranteed profit for the label (see: Collective Soul, Goo Goo Dolls, The Chemical Brothers). Will they be the next ZZ Tops? Will their respective labels eventually decide even moderate sales isn’t enough for them, effectively killing any chance for longevity?

It’s almost enough to make you want to turn on “Maneater” and celebrate the days of multi-millionaire-producing keyboard-line madness, no?

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