Photography by Heather Kaplan
Welcome to Answering Machine, a column where Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman will voice his opinion on the latest top headlines, which might include new music, various controversies, and publicized conflicts. He’s likened this to a Town Hall discussion of sorts, so please feel free to voice your own two cents below.
Nostalgia sells. We know that. It’s the bread, the butter, and the entire plate of the entertainment industry right now, which is why studios and labels alike are capitalizing on their intellectual properties and dusty catalogs to asinine measures. Mining the past is easy and fruitful, especially at a time when something new is considered a paramount risk. This doesn’t exactly translate to a fruitful pop culture landscape, but it keeps the dollars and cents coming in, and, well, it’s hard to argue against piles of cash.
Film’s relationship with nostalgia is a much larger problem, and something that likely won’t be quelled for a long time (at least not until the bubble bursts and spills out everywhere like a jar of ectoplasm), but with music, nostalgia is becoming a life raft that is quickly puffing out air — especially for rock ‘n’ roll. As Associate Editor Collin Brennan already detailed in his exhaustive cover story, the genre is enjoying a long, belated death as it sags into obsolescence. Not surprisingly, desperation has sunk in for many parties.
Case in point: full-album performances.
In the last few months, a number of bands have announced their plans to tour behind one of their landmark albums. Third Eye Blind are going to play Third Eye Blind in full for their 20th anniversary. Interpol will slink back to Turn On the Bright Lights for its 15th anniversary. Same with Coheed and Cambria for Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV. Even U2, who have long championed the future as opposed to the past, will dance with The Joshua Tree for its 30th anniversary across the world.
There’s nothing new about this trend: Weezer made a tour out of performing both The Blue Album and Pinkerton on back-to-back nights. Garbage dragged out their self-titled debut not too long ago. The Hold Steady blew out the 10 candles on Boys and Girls in America last year, as did Brand New with The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me. And then there’s the far more preferable pop-up album sets staged by live show juggernauts like Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Phish, The Flaming Lips, et al., who technically don’t count here because they’ve traditionally capitalized on spontaneity.
Now, I’m not going to deny that there’s a certain allure to hearing our favorite bands perform our favorite albums. Would I jump at the chance of seeing The Replacements perform Let It Be and Tim? Absolutely. Would I go nuts in the off chance that Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins decided to randomly perform all of Adore in full? Of course. But if I’m being totally honest, a part of me would also feel depressed, as if I’m looking at one big clock that says: That was then, this is now, and we’re going to die.
Okay, maybe that’s overkill — sorry, I tend to do that — but there’s some truth to it. After all, why else do we want these type of performances? It’s comfort food. It’s a safe bet. It’s an easy way to experience something we already enjoy. There’s no risk involved; it’s a guarantee to hear the songs you want to hear. Much of this plays into the OnDemand culture that has become commonplace in pop culture to both positive and negative results, but again, most of this boils down to pure nostalgia.
What good is that? If anything, it boxes in artists and turns shows into a regurgitated spectacle. It’s already bad enough that most rock acts, especially of the veteran kind, play the same boilerplate setlist night after night, but now it’s going to be an official tracklist that you have memorized note for note and word for word? There’s nothing exciting about that. It’s unimaginative and turns the performance into a traveling circus act, where each and every crowd is told to clap and laugh at the same moment.
Lame. Lame. Lame. Whatever happened to unpredictability? Are we that scared to enjoy a little mystery? Are we unable to walk around the corner ourselves, or do we need to be shepherded? Some might argue — and far more coherently than I could — that this has been the case with rock and roll for decades, that forgotten relics have done this sort of jig and dance for quite some time. They’re right, and I’ve seen a good many of them, but this practice never felt so ubiquitous.
Of course, there are exceptions to the full-album experience. A few actually warrant the medium, whether it’s conceptual spectacles like Roger Waters’ The Wall or debut performances of brand-new albums like when Bon Iver premiered 22, A Million at Eaux Claires last summer or when Wilco gave Star Wars a run-through less than 24 hours after its release at Pitchfork Music Festival in 2015. There’s a purpose and a reason to these shows that go well beyond nostalgia and that’s key.
Even so, there are ways to shake up these types of performances, and in most cases, bands should. Not every album is designed for the live setting, and if you’re talking about older LPs from decades ago, a great number of them were designed to be front-loaded at the request of the studios and labels, leaving a soggy end of deep cuts that will surely draw yawns from casual fans. Then again, that latter issue is why so many acts find themselves doing these cash grabs in the first place and continue to do them.
For many, these performances become a trap in the sense that these acts come off looking as if they have nothing new to say. Granted, that’s not always the truth, but that’s more or less the message these type of tours send out. So, when they do go off to tour behind something new — which, these days, has become far more lucrative than the album release itself — their standard tours may seem inessential to fans who previously saw them playing songs they already love. It’s lazy, but it’s expected.
Perhaps the late Freddie Mercury said it best when he argued, “A concert is not a live rendition of our album. It’s a theatrical event.” In other words, don’t rest on your laurels. Do something with them. If you’re going to parade around something that’s 10 or 20 or 30 years old, maybe try to subvert our expectations. There might be some backlash from the casual cows looking to watch and graze at their Favorite Song, but you’ll be appreciated for it in the long run. And you’ll enjoy it.
So will the real fans.