Successful According to Whom?
Jerry Lucky Commentary September 2010
Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2010 All Rights Reserved
While re-reading Tim Morse’s wonderful book Yes Stories I was struck by a comment he quotes from Bill Bruford who in 1994
said something to the effect, that Yes music had experienced a long slow decline during the seventies with the sole exception being
“Owner of a Lonely Heart.” And he buttressed that comment by saying that good things can’t go on forever. Bruford was never afraid to
speak his mind! But that got me thinking - a long slow decline - according to whom? And what do you mean by long slow decline?
And perhaps more to the point…how are you measuring this supposed decline?
This is something that shows up with critics and even fans where they compare one era of a band to the next and are generally quite prepared to proclaim a band’s heyday as sometime in the dim dark recesses of the past. How often have we read that they’ve carried on “past their prime” or that “their better days are behind them.” How casually we make such bold defining observations as if we’ve some how become prescient and can see everything the band has done, is doing and will do.
So you know how my mind works right? I ask the obvious question; is this fair? Usually it seems to me people who make these kind of observations are too consumed with proclaiming the band’s “better days” based on when they first discovered them because of the emotional charge they got from the band at the time. But this doesn’t really have anything whatsoever to do with the band’s actual musical prowess. It’s more an observation of the listener’s state of mind at the time.
Who says that an artist’s creative prowess must consistently go in only one direction? And if it’s perceived by some to be going in another direction…is that the fault of the artist or merely a reflection of public taste? Musical or creative inspiration is never linear. It ebbs and flows…it changes…it’s affected by the goings on of the moment. As a listener we tend to see the musical performance in more a straight line while I believe the artist’s view is more organic. The listener is deeply affected by the other things they hear or are told to listen to while the artist’s creative world tends to be more insular. For the listener it’s more a comment on fashion. For the artist the emotional quotient is considerably higher and more deeply involving.
Later on the same page of Yes Stories Morse quotes Geoff Downes talking about how having a big hit can have the reverse effect on an artist’s career in that everything is then measured against that hit. It sets up a false standard by which we hold up an artist’s work. Downes calls ‘having a hit’ a double edged sword. And certainly that came into play when Yes had a big hit with Owner of a Lonely Heart, or when Genesis starting having hits after Mama. Suddenly everyone is measuring your performance against that hit song. And I believe this is a false standard of measurement. Are you less of an artist when you don’t have a hit? Have you lost your skills? Again I ask, against what standard are measuring these outcomes? False ones I propose.
The very notion that artistic success and I emphasize I’m talking about ‘artistic success’ should be measured by money, or sales, or a number on the chart is hopelessly flawed. It’s only by these wacky rules do we say that someone who only sells one-million copies of a disc that follows up a five million seller is somehow failing. They sold ONE MILLION discs how can that be failing.
But we see this kind of mixed up thinking everywhere. Take a look at the stock market sometime where a company’s posted profits are down from their projections and as a result their share price goes down as people sell it off. Are they nuts? The company is making a profit! But somehow it’s not ENOUGH of a profit so the value of the stock goes down.
This mentality is woefully misguided. Furthermore it has no place in the artistic realm in that places an unrealistic mode of measurement on the musical artist; one that they’ll never live up to. At least that’s what I think.