I’ve been thinking some more about a book by Susan Rogers, who was Prince’s sound engineer on Purple Rain and then got a cognitive science Ph.D., called This Is What It Sounds Like about the appeal of popular music. I feel like I didn’t give enough examples from the 1970s when I reviewed it awhile ago in Taki’s Magazine.
Rogers argues that there are three different audiences for musicians: the public, other musicians, and the critics.
First, the public: They “…like what they like and don’t seem to care who is the most clever, creative, or virtuoso. Instead, the public listens for music that lets them pay a relatively cheap price in mental effort to get a good-sized return in musical pleasure.” For example, in the mid-1970s, the Steve Miller Band had a string of hit singles that were instantly enjoyable in their time:
Steve Miller didn’t appeal much to critics because his records didn’t require critical explication
High musical pleasure / low mental effort artists tend toward the Familiarity pole of Rogers’ Familiarity-Novelty bell curve. I wonder if they have short arcs at the top? For instance, Miller sold 13 million units of his Greatest Hits 1974-1978, but his span at the top was not long.
Second, other musicians. For example, last week I saw this obituary headline in the Los Angeles Times:
Frank Sinatra was a rare example of what Rogers calls a triple crown winner: all three constituencies acknowledged his supremacy, and for quite a few years, whereas even Prince was on top for only a single year, Purple Rain’s 1984.
In contrast, the public didn’t much notice Frank Zappa other than his novelty hit single with his daughter Moon Unit, “Valley Girl,” — Zappa’s music required a lot of cognitive work for its rather meager rewards of aesthetic fun — and critics tended toward ambivalence about him: he didn’t much seem to embody the future of music but instead stuck to his own furrow.
But … musicians worshiped Zappa.
To have been a member of Zappa’s band was the highest credit for a Los Angeles professional studio musicians. They’d stay off drugs to be allowed to play for Zappa.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there are starting to be tombstones around Los Angeles that read, rather like Oscar-winner Lee Marvin’s,
Frank Zappa Band
Third, there are artists who become famous by appealing to critics.
An upbeat example are The Ramones, who had no pop hits and only a few FM hits like “I Wanna Be Sedated” in a long career. And other musicians were at most condescending about their ability to stick to the beat.
But critics got The Ramones’ joke. And they spent a long time explaining why you should too.
For example, here’s my 1979 review of a Ramones concert in the Rice U. Thresher.
Their first drummer and manager Tommy Erdelyi somehow managed to translate the slightly racist blue collar musical prejudices of Johnny Ramone — who was sick of the blues and wanted to develop a white form of rock and roll — into theory that the Downtown New York art scene crowd could run with.
In the long run, us verbalists have a lot of influence.
Hence, the estates of the various Ramones have profited enormously in this century from T-shirt sales and TV commercials. Here’s the wonderful 2014 Cadillac commercial that connects Hewlett-Packard and The Ramones: