Monday, December 19, 2005

Artistic City Limits

On All Things Considered this past Friday (Dec 16), NPR broadcasted this audio article about an upcoming appearance on Austin City Limits by Coldplay. The drift of the article seemed twofold: to complement Coldplay for their "savvy" decision to appear on ACL, to question ACL for asking Coldplay to perform. The article suggests that Coldplay’s appearance represents a watershed in ACL’s history and perhaps a permanent change in ACL’s musical mission.

I’ve never watched much ACL, though not by deliberate design. When I’ve seen it on while channel surfing I’ve stopped and watched, but the local PBS station in DC has either buried the show at three o’clock on a weekday morning or not bothered with showing it at all in the thirty or so years the show has been produced. I associate the show with music variously labeled alt-country and folk and alt-folk and rockabilly, and a glance back at the rosters of previous years’ guests fairly bears out that association. Lyle Lovett makes yearly appearances, and Richard Thompson and Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris and many others I would associate with these musicians have appeared.

But before Coldplay, ACL had invited Spoon and Franz Ferdinand and Rilo Kiley and (repeatedly) The Pixies and The Flaming Lips and Modest Mouse and Guided by Voices. Coldplay may have sold more records than these bands, but none of these bands could fairly be called alt-country or folk or alt-folk or rockabilly. If All Things Considered wanted to report on the beginning of a paradigm shift on ACL, they needed to have started at least a year or two earlier.

I’ve nothing for or against Coldplay, but the idea that their music is so significantly different from the music of all guests on thirty years of ACL is just silly. I happen to think that The Flaming Lips and Modest Mouse and Guided by Voices and certainly The Pixies make far more interesting music than Coldplay, but what Coldplay has done is sell more records than all of those bands combined. It’s not the uniqueness of Coldplay’s music that merits this story’s airing, it’s the bigness of Coldplay the record-selling juggernaut. The issue is not whether Coldplay’s music belongs on ACL, the issue is whether ACL should offer stage time to a band as already huge as Coldplay is. In other words, is ACL selling out?

The irony? Coldplay made its decision to appear on ACL - or at least it’s implied in the story - as a tactical move against their critics accusing Coldplay of selling out. By choosing to appear on a show that offers them a much smaller stage than they could command, Coldplay hopes to remain critical darlings, or if not critical darlings, at least stave off being stamped sellouts. Perhaps they’re trying to recover their artistic bonafides after allowing Starbucks to feature their last album on the register display of every Starbucks in the universe, up there next to Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crow and something called Michael Buble.

I am not decrying their decision regardless of whatever motivations they have, and they may very well be good and honest motives. I wouldn’t want to be called a sellout just because an album of mine sold more records than anyone anticipated and I became a much huger band than I could have dared imagine. Bands often do sellout, putting out lesser dreck than the music that made them famous and taking the money while the taking’s good, but just as often bands can put out music they seriously wrote, produced, and anguished over and still be called sellouts just because they made money. The old joke of my friends: that band was great until everyone else liked them, and then they sucked.

Which is not the band’s fault. It is a bit of a mobius curve though: in order to not seem to be sellouts, Coldplay claims artistic integrity by appearing on downsize ACL because Coldplay thinks it can sell more records in the future if people don’t think they’ve sold out now. It’s an anti-sellout sellout. Maybe it’s good for their own esteem, maybe it’s good for business, maybe it’s both.

As for Austin City Limits, buried at 3:00 in the weekday mornings in some major markets, not on at all in others, if putting on Coldplay is selling out and selling out is the price of survival, selling out is good business. Going broke is a poor reward for not selling out.


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