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Lou Reed

Career Killers: “Cyberpunk” by Billy Idol

As we’ve seen, bad concept albums can kill careers and destroy their creators in the time it takes to throw a CD into the garbage, send it to China to be used for road paving or sell it to a used record store for half-pennies on the dollar.

In Billy Idol’s case, it did that and then some. But it also set the stage for an interesting critical re-evaluation. Was 1993’s Cyberpunk, a bloated concept album about machines, technology and consumerism that also happened to be one of the first major studio releases recorded mostly on the computer, packaged with a floppy disk containing bonus content and marketed via the internet actually ahead of its time?

Yes, it was. Without question.

Content wise, Idol’s musings about technology proved to be prescient, while his recording and marketing methods established a blueprint that almost every artist of the mid-to-late 90s and early 00s would copy and emulate, right down to the bonus floppy (although CD and DVD-ROMs predictably replaced the floppy as the technology became more ubiquitous and affordable).

But that doesn’t mean the album is good or deserved to be successful. And it’s certainly no surprise that it ruined Billy Idol’s career.

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Career Killers: “Liz Phair”

Plenty of artists with cult followings go mainstream and become popular.

R.E.M. went from highly-regarded college band to one of the biggest and most acclaimed groups in the world. Metallica slowly and steadily built up a passionate fan base that kept growing in size and intensity until they exploded in popularity in the early 90s. Genesis established itself as a highly inventive artistic and progressive rock band before transitioning to FM superstardom.

In fact, these days, many “indie” acts are actually mainstream and do all sorts of things that bands like Fugazi and artists like Neil Young would have considered “selling out.” Allowing your music to be used in commercials, TV shows and movies? Check. Praising pop stars and being influenced by their hit songs? Check. Working with hit-making producers and songwriters? Check and check.

Yet when indie queen Liz Phair did all those things in 2003, she provoked a furious, almost personal backlash that tanked her career. Maybe she was simply a few years too early. Or maybe she was never going to succeed because the same factors that led to her rise helped keep her down.

Or maybe it was because her self-titled 2003 album wasn’t as good as it could have been.

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Career Killers: “St. Anger” by Metallica

It’s been said that great art comes out of great suffering or adversity. Eric Clapton produced his masterpiece, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs while nursing a crippling heroin addiction and hopelessly in love with his best friend’s wife. Francis Ford Coppola had a nervous breakdown and allegedly threatened to kill himself multiple times while filming his classic film, Apocalypse Now. Ludwig van Beethoven composed some of his best and most-admired works after going deaf and while suffering from terrible health problems. Vincent van Gogh was, perhaps, the archetype of the tortured artist, battling mental illness for most of his career (including the infamous episode where he cut off his own ear) and produced some of the most beloved paintings in history.

Of course, sometimes, great suffering or adversity ends up producing crap – crap so bad that the artist is never quite the same afterwards. Case in point: St. Anger by Metallica.

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