Why Do Great Bands Get Shittier as They Get Older? It's Pretty Simple
A piece on Noisey today asks why so many bands that were great when young and hungry became so mind-bogglingly mediocre as they grew famous, rich, and old. Here's why:
Weezer in 1996: Young and -- crucially -- dumb.
Because young people tend to be the only ones stupid, brave, and poor enough to make good pop music.
Seriously. Pop -- including rock, hip-hop, and "pop" as we know it -- relies largely on the naivet√©, lack of forethought, arrogance, narcissism, and inherent recklessness of youth. Not all of it, but most. And as people get older, they tend to lose their nerve and/or will to potentially embarrass themselves publicly by saying true, interesting things. (The crazy-geniuses don't, of course, but most of our pop/rock/hip-hop stars aren't crazy geniuses.)
Look at Weezer's first two albums, which the Noisey author uses as an example, rightly, of the band's early greatness. You know why Weezer was great? Because Rivers Cuomo was so heartsick, stupid, and hungry to be famous that he didn't keep himself from shouting things that a grown-up would never say out loud, at least not while sober. Think of "Across the Sea," from Pinkerton -- a love song so earnest it bleeds, beautifully, as it plays. This is where Cuomo confesses to sniffing and licking the envelopes of his crush's love letters, where in a mid-song breakdown he admits that he shaved his head at 10 to be a monk and grapples with his mama issues and pleads, continues pleading, in the most self-absorbed, preadolescent way "Why are you so far away from me?"
Now, you or I would never moan such a thing publicly -- and neither, a few years after the song came out, would Cuomo, who admitted to being so embarrassed by the naked emotionalism of Pinkerton that he had to stop being in this band for a while. Of course, that same naked emotionalism is exactly why many of us love Pinkerton and early Weezer so dearly. After Pinkerton, Weezer was never really the same. Cuomo's songs were guarded, not naked. And that's why we many of us haven't really cared about a Weezer album in 10 years.
Then there's money, or creative "success" more generally. It breeds complacency. You want to think otherwise, but it's kind like gravity; it just happens. Let's stick with Weezer for an example here. Cuomo went from being a total fucking nobody -- telling everyone in his class at Santa Monica College that he was going to be famous, and showing them copies of the Blue Album when the band first released it -- to being on MTV, winning awards, making money. Once that happens, there's no going back. No matter how big your creative ambitions, you've made the leap. You're Rivers Cuomo, not nobody. And, perhaps unfortunately, that affects how you make music. You now want to continue your success, you want to please your fans, you want more awards and more money and more envelopes from lovely ladies across the sea. So you start doing what you think they want -- even if it's just subconsciously. You have something to lose now, something big, whereas before you didn't. This massive change in you how regard yourself unavoidably alters your creative output.
It's not just young pop stars who suffer from the paradox of success -- it's all artists. David Foster Wallace writes about this in "The Nature of the Fun":
... You're no longer writing just to get yourself off, which -- since any kind of masturbation is lonely and hollow -- is probably good. But what replaces the onanistic motive? You've found you very much enjoy having your writing liked by people, and you find you're extremely keen to have people like the new stuff you're doing. The motive of pure personal fun starts to get supplanted by the motive of being liked, of having pretty people you don't know like you and admire you and think you're a good writer.... You discover a tricky thing about fiction writing [or pop music]: a certain amount of vanity is necessary to be able to do it at all, but any vanity about that certain amount is lethal.
How lethal? In addition to being mortified by Pinkerton's emotionalism, Cuomo was also deeply pained at its lack of commercial success. Next to the brighter, happier Blue Album, Pinkerton was a flop, and a huge bruise to his (now-inflated) ego. So what happened? When Cuomo came back, he started writing songs that he thought people would like. It sort of worked on the Green Album, but it failed miserably after that, when Cuomo lost the chutzpah to be sincere (or, by growing up, lost interesting subjects to be sincere about) and deluded himself into thinking fans wanted an album called Raditude.
Is there a way out of this trap? Some artists manage to avoid stagnating as they get older, though most (the Noisey piece mentions Green Day and Metallica) do not. One way out is by not having your pop music based on youthful indiscretion in the first place, which is sort of a Springsteen situation. (Maybe Arcade Fire can pull that off, too?) Or you could just pretend you're still a randy 22-year-old up through your forties and fifties, which worked for the Rolling Stones and Madonna and a few other people. Another option is being so bunkered into your creative vision that notions of "youth" don't really apply, so, like Lou Reed or David Bowie or Kanye West, you just continue on your massive head-trip and keep making Art, and it keeps being pretty wild, and you ultimately don't care about its commercial success that much.
There are other ways out, too. But there's a simple reason lots of pop/rock/rap stars get famous in their late teens or twenties and are no longer so by their thirties or forties. And why even those artists who succeed and keep playing tend to peter out, artistically, by album four or five: The game favors youth, and once you've had big success, you're on your way to losing what drove you to it in the first place.