Monday, June 2, 2008

No one likes a sober rocker: Why AA will kill your career faster than dying

Posted By on Mon, Jun 2, 2008 at 4:42 PM

I have an idea, a hypothesis that needs to be tested if possible.

First, however, let me take you back to high school math class to explain my theory. I am proposing that music quality and sobriety are inversely related. Let's make an equation (ripping off ideas much?), shall we?

If y = awesome quotient of music and x = level of sobriety, then y = -m(x) + c

It's all coming back, isn't it? All those painfully long math classes in rooms that were never quite the right temperature, and one of your classmates (never could be sure which one) smelled totally nasty. But there was nothing you could do because you were stuck in class until the bell (truly the saving grace of high school) released you from your too cold/too hot, smells-to-high-heaven torture room. Or maybe you liked math.

Anyway, the theory I'm throwing around essentially says that the more a musical artist abstains from drugs and alcohol, the worse the music is. Of course, there are exceptions, but on the whole, musicians are better when they are wasted and left for gone at rock bottom — tortured.

A lot of artists (the shitty ones) will claim that drugs and alcohol make them more creative by expanding their minds. Not true. To those of you that make such claims, get sober for a week, look at the giant turds you're churning out and get back to me.

EDITOR'S NOTE: In light of this week's CL cover story on Atlanta blues man Sean Costello, 1979-2008, we want to acknowledge the ill-timing and insensitivity of this post, which was written in a humorous light. The author, Cameron Hubbard, had no prior knowledge of the upcoming cover story. We apologize for offending anyone.

However, drugs and alcohol do have a tendency to push people to their lowest, darkest and rawest moments, which often makes for heart-wrenching music that, while sometimes laughable, usually reflects the listener's own insecurities. Those deep connections are what make music such an explosive medium — one that can cause emotions to swell until you are so full of life that you simply must do something. Or perhaps I'm just a sucker for confessionals.

If raw emotion doesn't do it for you, then let's go for pure rock ’n' roll. Trashing hotel rooms, smashing guitars, doin' it with groupies ... all those kinds of man-sweat-infused, bad boy behaviors are made far more plausible with the help of some drugs or alcohol (or, for maximum badassness, both!). I mean, really, who trashes a hotel room after only drinking cranberry juice (even Cranergy can't make it cooler)? No one, that's who. No one cool anyway.

Let's look at some examples.

Exhibit A: The Strokes

Whoa, right? I'd totally forgotten about them too. It's like they fell off the map or something. Actually, what they did was make a pretty terrible album called First Impressions of Earth. OK, no, I didn't actually buy the album, but I did hear it. Simply put, it sounds watered down — like a Strokes cover band released an album.

First Impressions of Earth isn't exactly a bad album; it's just incredibly mediocre, especially for a band capable of much more impressive songs. After all, they had the so-hip-it-hurts kids dancing at their shows back when it was much cooler to stand still, arms crossed, looking vaguely angry.

The appeal of the Strokes was the sort of hard, fast and dirty quality of their music. Songs like "Last Nite" or "Barely Legal" have a back alley sex shop aura about them — the kinds of songs you drink cheap beer with until 5 a.m.. When you clean that up, well, it's just not very good, and it's definitely not fun.

Side-by-side song comparison

Earlier: "Barely Legal" (MTV Live)

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Later: "Heart in a Cage"

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Exhibit B: Bright Eyes

Go ahead, laugh, but Conor Oberst (the main man behind Bright Eyes) has written some genuinely wonderful songs in the 15 years he's spent making music (yes, he's 28, and yes, that means he's been recording songs since he was 13).

Let's be honest though ... Cassadaga kind of blows. I don't even want to imagine the aural assault that'll be on his upcoming solo album. Besides, when did Bright Eyes stop being an essentially solo act*? And is he kidding with those song titles?

You see, somewhere between the double release of I'm Wide Awake, it's Morning/ Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and Cassadaga, Oberst sobered up. In fact, that's sort of what Cassadaga is about: his journey towards a more sober lifestyle (though not totally cleaned up, thank God).

Over the course of that detox journey, the music just lost something: the unnameable quality that makes people fall in love with songs and artists. Musically, it doesn't sound so different, and the lyrics are still pretty confessional and overwrought. The problem is that Oberst crossed the very fine line (one he'd been toeing all along) between self-loathing and self-indulgent. The songs became mere memories of hard times instead of captured moments of frailty and raw emotion.

Side-by-side song comparison

Earlier: "Poison Oak"

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Later: "Soul Singer in a Session Band"

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Now, I'd like to say I understand that it is in an artist's (a person's) overall best interest to get sober. After all, drugs and alcohol will eventually kill you ... or, in the case of Keith Richards, mummify you while you're still alive.

If, however, you want to continue being either a) a badass rock dude(tte), or b) a heartbreakingly honest songwriter; drink up, alienate people and be a general prick. It's guaranteed** to make you awesome. Well, it'll make you think you're awesome anyway.

*Yes, I know all about Mike Mogis and what not, but Oberst is the driving force behind the group, and he is the most well-known face/name by far.

**Guarantee depends on existing amount of awesomeness, level of musical talent and current fame.

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