What’s Your Thing?
If you’re a Canadian like me who grew up in the 2000’s (if not, here’s a link to what I’m talking about), you’ll remember a set of commercials by an organization called Concerned Children’s Advertisers that ran on Teletoon all the time. One of them featured a series of young boys indulging themselves in their youthful interests, which included music with a boy blasting his guitar out of his garage. The memorable tagline for the ad, spoken by one of the boys was “nobody’s good at everything, but everybody’s good at something. What’s your thing?”
That line, indelibly pressed into my childhood memories ties in directly to an aspect of the music world that I’ve been thinking about as of late. It’s not to do with positive, responsible messaging for kids (who needs that)? but rather with branding, marketing and the overall thing you or me or anybody as an artist or band brings to the table that becomes their calling card beyond the music. Any artist with their mallards acceptably in formation has a sense of this, but I felt like expanding on this for both the personal want to write about it and the additional aspects of musical identity that may not always be thoroughly considered.
Let’s take it back to the ‘80s, since I recently wrote about my favourite albums from that period and I’m still on a bit of a kick with that stuff. One thing that’s for sure when decoding the history of different genres that come and go and discerning originators from imitators, the pioneers of a village from its immigrants so to speak is that art cannot be separated from the context of its time. Had it not been for Reaganomics, yuppie culture and the culture war between the youth and the moral majority, you would not have had the decadence, bombast and crassness of L.A metal. Some of the Strip’s more significant acts that are embedded into the ears, hearts and iPhones of many are Mötley Crüe, Guns N’ Roses, Quiet Riot and the like. The “hair” era itself can be split into three parts; the first wave in ’83-’84, the second in ’86-’87, and the third in ’89-’90. Each of these key acts set the tone for their wave and the one after, though in the tiers below them there are a series of bands who either didn’t stick out or did but were washed ashore by grunge while bigger acts managed to survive.
What is it, truly, aside from songwriting skills or talent that separated the hall-of-famers from this lesser-acknowledged mass of bands? The difference, at least in this author’s opinion is authenticity and originality; on a macro level they had their own thing. By this I mean the various factors of a band’s brand that are either built in or accumulated over time, things that are just as if not more identifiable with a certain band than the music they put out. People don’t just remember Mötley for “Wild Side” and “Kickstart My Heart” or even their red-and-black leather getup, they remember them for the unrivalled amount of destruction and debauchery they engaged in that informs, contextualizes and rounds out everything else about them. Guns wasn’t too far off in the amount of carnage they left behind, but in their image and energy they tapped into a much seedier undercurrent that gave point and purpose to their disregard for the rules beyond just breaking stuff.
To tie it back to culture, such bands are more a product and reflection of the society of the time than those who are merely a continuation of a trend. Soon as the tone of the day is set by the leaders and pioneers of a particular moment in music (or any art form), the gold rush is on to milk it for all it’s worth. Hundreds, if not thousands of acts get the sound, look and attitude of the time down to a tee and market themselves aggressively believing the fruits of such down-to-the-letter replication will pay off. They’re not totally wrong in thinking this, and in the case of many-an-80’s band the record labels clustered in Los Angeles were all too happy to pick up swaths of these acts to rake in all the profit they could off a heavily demanded product.
Here though is where the wheat is split from the chaff and the truth comes out. You can have plenty of talent and not be able to make a hit record, or not really be that talented and make a hit (it is possible, console wizardry and outside help comes in here often). Beyond that though, you could make an earworm or two or three, but if you’re just shamelessly poppy and indistinguishable from the next band, as was the case back then and before and after, you’re just the latest iPhone model with the next model about to spring up around the corner: a product-of-the-day with a limited shelf life, doomed to eventual obsolescence. Any legacy you have is limited to being an artifact of that moment in time with little to no hope of longevity.
There’s no way you can have a thing by copying someone else’s thing to the letter; imitation is for finding one’s self within it instead of letting it define your existence. There are countless acts in the past and present that fit this description, and few in the general public remembers them past their prime for that exact reason. Everyone remembers Eddie Van Halen. How many of the one-dimensional shredders that followed in his footsteps do you remember? We all remember Bon Jovi. How many remember White Lion and Black N’ Blue? Take it to the ‘90s: We all remember Nirvana and Pearl Jam. How many in comparison remember Silverchair?
Every genre and subgenre has originators and imitators, leaders and followers, etc. Which would you rather be: An originator that gains recognition in the long haul, or an imitator that gets his 15 minutes and swiftly evaporates in the public consciousness once it’s over? It comes down to whether one prefers gratification in the long term or the short term. Almost every act that gets a record deal gets dropped, sometimes multiple times over; this includes originators. A&Rs don’t all hear the same thing and many of the most notable acts were overlooked and dropped multiple times before they got into the right situation to make things work. In the end though, sticking to their guns instead of moulding themselves to the flavour of the month paid off in spades.
The ultimate moral of the story is this: Those who make art from the heart and the soul are those whose influence will be the most long-lasting and pervasive; these are the people who will be remembered as of product of their time, and their work will be hailed as the most definitive expression of it. Those who imitate will be remembered solely as a product of the trend set by the originators, if they are remembered at all. Think hard about which one you want to be, then look deep inside and ask yourself this question: What’s your thing? Answer that, and everything else will become clear.