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Watch Them Eat Their Own

March 9 2005 02:17 AM ET (Permalink) (Comment)

Well, according to their website, the Get Up Kids are calling it a day.

It's funny - I really enjoyed the hell out of Guilt Show. At the same time, it was amazing to watch the blitzkreig of horribly negative reviews. I can only assume that those who listed the band as one of their heroes / role models, who didn't "get" On a Wire, who have now moved past "pop"-influenced rock, simply didn't want to hear it for what it was: a great pop record. It didn't change their world, they couldn't identify with it as they did with Four Minute Mile because the writers are now adults and associate TGUK with their teenage years, whatever.

And Cave In is on indefinite hiatus. You know, when I first heard Antenna, I thought it was brilliant. I still think it's brilliant. But the kids who first loved Cave In as the metal-core band they once were couldn't wrap their heads around a space-rock near-mainstream record with hooks. The band "sold out". The kids who knew Cave In "way back when" were now in a position to have their voices heard, and they made their pronouncements as loud as possible. As a reaction, the band took to calling the record "not what they wanted" and started pining for their metal-core roots. Give a major label any reason to think the album isn't going to work, and they'll do their best to not put any support behind it. The album failed, RCA dropped them, and the band has essentially said that they're done.

You know what gets me? As someone who's been around long enough to see indie acts succeed and fail, to watch "emo" go from indie artistry to major label schtick, it's frustrating to watch the same story over and over again.

The worst of all was Jawbreaker. When Dear You came out, it was reviled by their die-hard fans and the indie scene, who saw the band as complete and total sell-outs for daring to release a record that was characterized as being part-Nirvana and part-Green Day. Nobody wanted to hear the album for what it was; they simply heard it for what it wasn't: another harshly recorded album with deep lyrical intent. The noise was so loud that DGC panicked and yanked the album off the shelves. For years, anyone wanting the album had to either luck out and snag a leftover promo copy or buy it from Canada.

Any time an indie act reaches some kind of success, they have to deal with the same issues: whether or not they can sustain themselves on an indie, and whether or not they will survive if they make the leap to a major.

Jawbox signed to Atlantic, and quickly discovered that their brand of dissonant indie rock wasn't something that the majors could get behind. Pre-Nirvana, in an industry where Sonic Youth selling a few thousand albums was a "success", maybe it would have worked. But Atlantic had no idea what to do with Jawbox. In the years that followed, I heard more than one indie band say that they didn't want to sign to a major because of what Atlantic "did to Jawbox". For a while, particularly in the late 90s emo scene, signing to a major was nearly unthinkable.

Honestly, I feel like that's the entire story of the late 90s emo scene. By design, the scene was based on independent ideals. But the music itself had such obvious mainstream appeal that it was inevitable the majors would come calling. The only band that survived the period was the one band that didn't have to worry about those issues, as they had pretty much always been on a major: Jimmy Eat World.

Case in point: Texas Is the Reason. Signed to Interscope, finished their 1997 American tour, went to Europe, came back, broke up. I caught one of those last shows on the American tour, and was absolutely stunned when the news came out.

One of the problems as the emo scene matured was that it seemed like bands didn't know what to do if and when they got attention. While I was in Hartford, we played consecutive shows with a band called Sarge. I hadn't heard of them previously, but what I heard from all corners was that they'd gotten a great write-up in Rolling Stone and seemed to be expecting the majors to come calling. And they didn't. And it seemed like they couldn't figure out why. It wasn't too long after that I heard they broke up. How long can you last when you want to move up from the JV but the Varsity doesn't want you? And how do you turn back to the rest of the JV when they know you don't want to be there?

And some bands just didn't know how to handle the situation. Back in 1999, with the return of Sunny Day Real Estate, the band decided it was time to try and move up from Sub Pop to a major. I got an email from an industry friend (the only one I've ever had, honestly) asking me if I was familiar with the band. She went on to regale me of stories about how the band had screwed around with practically every major in Los Angeles and had alienated so many people that she couldn't fathom any of them actually signing them. It basically came down to the old-school battles of indie vs major, and how those convictions affected their decisions. They eventually signed with neo-indie Time Bomb Recordings (owned by BMG), which itself later dissolved in sea of bad investment ideas, basically taking the band with it.

At the same time, the indie kids didn't entirely know what to do with Sunny Day Real Estate's new direction. I loved The Rising Tide, but one friend was telling me that he felt like an outcast for liking it amongst his peers in the indie scene. Some felt it was a disaster because it wasn't "emo", others decided it was "too 'emo'". Most just felt it was wrong, and paled to their other albums. SDRE wasn't allowed to change directions like that. They went "prog" and it was a "bad idea".

I still loved the emo scene in 2000, but, having returned to my isolated confines back home, I was insulated from the backlash. That meant that I was able to enjoy it for what it was without all of the drama. And, holy crap, was there drama. Everything being relayed back to me from the indie scene was the same: "emo is done". It got so bad that most "emo" bands were intentionally trying to change their sound so as not to be lumped in as "emo".

After loving Junk and This Afternoon's Malady, I was eager to see where Jejune was heading. Suddenly, they announced that they were dissolving. Upon buying their posthumous disc, the full story was obvious. They'd tried to go neo-pop and couldn't survive the process. And the wake was ridiculous. Some applauded their effort to ditch emo, the rest derided how horrible the neo-pop stuff sounded. Lose-lose.

The Promise Ring's situation wasn't pretty. Well, then again, their attention came in the form of Teen People, who cited the Promise Ring as the next big thing of this "new genre" called "emo". How do you survive the indie scene when youth magazines think you're the next big thing? You don't. The band imploded, the remants recorded an album that proved they weren't "emo", and then finally called it a day.

What does it do to a band's chemistry when they're practically forced to change directions? How hard is it for bands to simply be allowed to make the albums they want to make, without having to deal with interference and backlash from a deluded "fanbase"? Radiohead may have it right after all: isolate yourself, record what you want to record, ignore what anyone says about it. Even still, they have a solid advantage in that they're locked in to a major that will release anything they put out.

A lot of artists seem to believe that they can best follow their artistic leanings on an indie label and never have to worry about being told what kind of music to write. But, honestly, I don't see it that way. If you want to retain your artistic freedom: DON'T SIGN AT ALL. Once you build an audience of any kind, that ocean will push you in some direction or another, beyond what you would like.

Even the people who shout from the heavens that they do music for themselves and don't care what other people think are deluding themselves. Everybody cares in one way or another if someone enjoys the art they're creating. Those who truly don't care don't share their music at all, and are probably more sane for the effort.

I don't know. I guess I just miss the days of just being able to hear an album on its own merits and enjoying it, without having to worry about what the "cool kids" think. I'm sorry, I can't get into Arcade Fire or The Bravery just because some intelligencia says they're awesome. In six months, those bands will be yesterday's news, cast aside for the next thing. And granted the wake of bands behind them, the most impressive discovery will be if they can somehow survive the glare.

To be honest, I think what I miss most about the late 90s emo thing is that it wasn't based on IM sessions, blogs, and chat rooms. Bands weren't deemed cool by the royalty, approved for all of the masses to enjoy. People heard great records and told their friends. You could go to a show knowing that the people there knew what you knew, and whether or not anybody else did was unimportant. And it was regional and slow, not everywhere all at once. A band could play in front of thirty at a show in a big city, then play the next night in front of 150 in a rural nowhere.

And while the Internet has slowly become the great equalizer, where any band has any chance to find an audience, it's also become a vast wasteland of music - no direction, little form. People almost have to look for the loud voices to tell them what's cool - otherwise, they don't know where to look. But when those voices turn against you, god help you.

I guess, in some ways, it hasn't really changed much since Dear You was crushed by the herd. I'll admit, though - I think the herd's significantly larger now. I feel like there's a lot more damage to be done.

You know, when I started this, I was going to write about bands breaking up. But this is what I've been thinking about lately. Maybe it's that age thing again, but I'm getting more and more jaded about music and about the people who claim to enjoy it, who celebrate and destroy all at the same time. I spent most of the last decade being angry at the majors for laying waste to a scene I cared about, but I think I've refined that more to despising them for picking up the pieces of what the scene itself destroyed and using it to sell something else.

Every young musician believes the same thing: put your heart and soul into a good piece of music, and it will be heard and appreciated. I'm old enough now to be blissfully aware of just how untrue that is.

Frankly, I'm glad to see the Get Up Kids make one last tour of it. Hopefully, the intelligencia will stay home and let the people who simply enjoy the music for what it is to enjoy it one more time.






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