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U2

Career Killers: The Super Bowl Halftime Show

If you go by the Nielsen ratings (which measures households), 19 of the 30 highest-rated programs in United States history are Super Bowls. If you look at average viewership, then the big game accounts for 28 of the top 30.

Either way you slice it, the Super Bowl is a proven ratings draw that provides a massive stage for players, performers and ad buyers.

As such, it’s no wonder that the Super Bowl halftime performance slot has become a highly sought-after gig for many musical acts.

When done right, the show can transcend the game and become an indelible part of the zeitgeist. In 2002, for instance, U2 gave a moving performance memorializing the people who lost their lives in the September 11 attacks and helped provide a moment of healing for a nation still in mourning. Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Madonna and Beyoncé reaffirmed their status as superstars while younger contemporaries like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Bruno Mars made a case for themselves to join their ranks.

When done wrong, however, the show can kill off an artist’s career. After all, it’s one thing to have a bad night, but to do so with the whole world watching?

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Career Killers: “Garth Brooks In… The Life of Chris Gaines”

The year is 1999 and Garth Brooks seems bored.

The best-selling male artist of the 90s (only Celine Dion and Mariah Carey outsold him during that decade), Brooks has seemingly figured out the formula for enduring commercial success. All he has to do is come up with 10 songs or so, pose for the album cover in his best Stetson, put on an entertaining live show and watch the money pour in. Indeed, every one of his proper studio albums has gone Diamond up to that point, and the only one that fell short was a lightly-promoted Christmas album that came out in the summer of 1992 and eventually became a staple of the cutout bin. Of course, this being Garth Brooks, that record still managed to go triple platinum and is one of the best-selling Christmas albums of all time.

Most artists would have sold their souls to have experienced a fraction of the success that had become routine for Brooks. Certainly most artists would have been perfectly content to run that formula into the ground in order to keep that conveyor belt going for as long as possible. But Brooks seemed eager for a new challenge. He talked about retiring so that he could raise his children. He signed a minor league deal and played in spring training for the San Diego Padres.

And in September 1999, he made the decision to cross over into pop-rock. Kind of. It’s still really confusing — even 22 years later.

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Career Killers: “Around the Sun” by R.E.M.

Some bands like to celebrate 20th anniversaries. Some like to wait for 30. Some, like U2, do both (Achtung Baby got a 20th anniversary rerelease in 2011 and a 30th anniversary one is scheduled for December).

For R.E.M., 25 seems to be the magic number. To date, the band has issued special commemorative 25th anniversary versions for each of its first ten studio albums. The most recent one was for its 1996 classic, New Adventures in Hi-Fi (I bought the vinyl version).

It’ll be interesting to see whether their next five albums will get the same anniversary treatment. Released after drummer Bill Berry’s departure, the last five albums of R.E.M.’s career (Up, Reveal, Around the Sun, Accelerate, Collapse Into Now) are not widely loved or respected and clearly show a band in decline. No longer the creative or commercial force they once were, R.E.M.’s Three-Legged Dog Era (after lead singer Michael Stipe’s quote describing the state of the band after losing one of its founding members) still produced some good music and memorable performances.

Unfortunately, it also produced Around the Sun.

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Career Killers: “No Code” by Pearl Jam

There were several reasons why Neil Young got the moniker “Godfather of Grunge.”

His 1979 album, Rust Never Sleeps, featured a highly distorted guitar sound that proved to be very influential with several major grunge musicians, including Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder.

Young would become a close collaborator and mentor to Pearl Jam, performing, working and touring together throughout the 90s and 00s. Young even helped inspire the name “Pearl Jam.” According to Rolling Stone, guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament were already considering using the word “Pearl” in their band’s name, and after attending a Young show in 1991 that featured several long instrumental jams, something clicked.

But it wasn’t just his music that was inspirational. Long known as an artist who refused to play by anyone else’s rules, Young was famous, or perhaps infamous, for making music for artistic reasons without regard for commercial success. In fact, his label once pressured Young for a rock album and he delivered a collection of rockabilly songs (they didn’t specify what kind of rock they wanted). His label then sued him for making music that was “not commercial” and “musically uncharacteristic” of his previous recordings.

Pearl Jam would take a page from Young’s book for its fourth album, 1996’s No Code. The more experimental, less mainstream and barely promoted album ended their run of commercial dominance and abruptly halted their seemingly inevitable march towards becoming the biggest band in the world. However, it may have also saved them.

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Career Killers: “Door to Door” by The Cars

Many artists have done the “back to basics” album at some point in their careers.

Sometimes, there are legitimate artistic reasons for this. Maybe they’ve been experimenting with new sounds for too long and felt like there was nowhere else to go. For instance, U2 seemed to hit the electronic wall following Pop, resulting in their back-to-basics follow up, All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

Or maybe they veered too hard into commercial territory, got backlash from their hardcore fans, and decided to get back to their roots. This was the stated purpose for Metallica’s St. Anger album, until lots of other things got in the way. Ultimately, their follow up albums, 2008’s Death Magnetic and 2016’s Hardwired… To Self Destruct were more in line with their 80s classic sound.

But sometimes, a “back to basics” album is a “Hail Mary” — a desperate ploy from an artist to stop his or her decline, or from a band to paper over some cracks and avoid a breakup. The proposed Get Back album and movie project for the Beatles turned out to be examples of this, as the band broke up before either were released (we’ll get to see some of that footage in November, when Peter Jackson’s documentary is released on Disney+).

Likewise, Door to Door (1987) marked the moment The Cars broke down and got put on concrete blocks, ending their run as hitmakers and exacerbating personal conflicts between members that broke them up for the better part of two decades.

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Career Killers: “Adore” by the Smashing Pumpkins

Mike Love may be a good rock ‘n roll heel, but Billy Corgan is an actual heel. The longtime wrestling fan and eventual promoter and on-air authority figure made a conscious decision, from the beginning, to be the bad guy. “In the early years of the Smashing Pumpkins, I saw that I was going to be treated as an outsider,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016. “So rather than play along, which is what you’re supposed to do, I decided to play heel, in wrestling parlance, and have fun with it… I’d rather be that heel than the babyface who goes along to get along.”

He did a great job. Despite his obvious talent (the Pumpkins singer and lead guitarist wrote almost all of the songs and played, pretty much, everything except for drums on the band’s first two albums), Corgan became one of the least likable people in music. He tossed off arrogant quotes to the music press more easily than Ted DiBiase threw his money around to move to the front of the line at an emergency room, close down a public pool or buy himself a championship belt because he was upset he couldn’t win the actual one. He treated his bandmates like employees, hiring and firing them at will or blaming them for breaking up the band when he was always on the one in charge. And he certainly wasn’t humble. “Do I belong in the conversation about the best artists in the world? My answer is yes, I do,” he said to Rolling Stone in 2010.

So like watching the hated heel get his comeuppance, there was quite a bit of schadenfreude in seeing Corgan fail. And with 1998’s Adore, Corgan did so in spectacular fashion, bringing his band’s momentum to a screeching halt and ending its run as one of the biggest and most popular alternative rock bands in the world.

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Career Killers: “Turn It Upside Down” by The Spin Doctors

UPDATE (07/06/2021): Thanks to Todd in the Shadows for citing this review in his latest episode of Trainwreckords.

We may remember the 90s as a turbulent period in music, full of angsty grunge and alternative bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains, introspective singer-songwriters like Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, Jewel and Sarah McLachlan, gangsta rappers like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Biggie and 2Pac and superstars going through ironic and/or cynical stages like U2 and R.E.M.

But not everything was doom-and-gloom. Divas like Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Madonna and Shania Twain sold boatloads of records and dominated the pop and album charts. The 90s also brought us the extremely non-ironic and safe-for-mass-consumption Hootie and the Blowfish, who became a cultural phenomenon when they released Cracked Rear View, one of the best-selling debut albums of all time. The decade also saw 80s stars like Bryan Adams, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi and Sting reach even greater heights. Even the hip hop world found room for decidedly non-gangsta acts like The Fugees, PM Dawn, Will Smith, Arrested Development and OutKast. And of course, by the end of the decade, the biggest-selling artists were bubblegum acts and boybands like NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears.

Then there were the Spin Doctors.

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Career Killers: “Yes Please!” by The Happy Mondays.

When it comes to movies, there are box office bombs and then there’s Heaven’s Gate.

The 1980 western epic went massively over-budget thanks to a disastrous and well-publicized troubled production and received infamously bad reviews upon release. The film ended up being such a box office bomb that it single-handedly killed director Michael Cimino’s Hollywood career and star Kris Kristofferson’s potential as a leading man (one particularly brutal review from Vincent Canby of The New York Times wondered if Cimino had made a deal with the devil to produce his last movie, Oscar-winning classic The Deer Hunter, and now the bill had come due).

And that was just the beginning. According to the documentary Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate, the movie may have also killed off United Artists, the studio that produced it. Shortly after writing off the film’s entire $44 million budget (equivalent to nearly $140 million in today’s money), UA was sold to MGM and ceased being an independent studio. The movie may have even killed the era of the all-powerful director, as runaway disasters like Heaven’s Gate, Apocalypse Now, At Long Last Love and others caused studios to step in and start asserting control.

By those standards, Yes Please! by the Happy Mondays is the Heaven’s Gate of albums.

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Career Killers: “Synchronicity” by The Police

Most of the time, an album that kills off a career is either a critical failure, a commercial flop, or both. Rarely is it a smashing success that captures an artist or band at their absolute peak. And it’s almost never an album that establishes an act as the biggest in the world – putting them at the level of The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin or even The Beatles. After all, that kind of an album usually prolongs rather than shortens careers.

That makes Synchronicity by The Police the rare example of an album that both made, and destroyed, a band.

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Career Killers: “18 ‘Til I Die” by Bryan Adams

Plenty of musicians have successfully reinvented themselves – arguably, all great artists have to do it in order to sustain long careers and remain relevant. Radiohead went from Nirvana wannabes to fearless experimentalists. The Beastie Boys stopped doing hardcore punk and became world-famous rappers. U2 changed up their sound in the 1990s, successfully going from fading force to culturally relevant powerhouse while perfecting a template that many others continue to follow. Heck, Madonna has made it into an art form to the point where successful reinvention has become part of her overall brand.

But what about artists that fight reinvention, either because they’re determined to stick to their guns and continue doing what they had always done (and been quite successful at) or because they aren’t ready to become the thing that they know they will have to?

Bryan Adams, I’m looking in your direction.

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Career Killers: “Switch” by INXS

Plenty of bands choose to soldier on after the death of an iconic, seemingly-irreplaceable lead singer.

Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen went with established singers, touring and recording with Paul Rodgers of Bad Company fame before moving onto “American Idol” alum Adam Lambert. AC/DC took the opposite approach, hiring then-unknown Brian Johnson to replace Bon Scott. The Eagles did a bit of both, replacing Glenn Frey with country superstar Vince Gill, as well as novice musician and Frey’s own son, Deacon. Bands such as Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Sublime, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and even the Grateful Dead have carried on in some form, with mixed results.

Other bands chose not to try and replace the irreplaceable. Nirvana broke up after Kurt Cobain died by suicide – as did Mother Love Bone following Andy Wood’s fatal heroin overdose (although two members of the band ended up forming Pearl Jam). The surviving members of The Doors continued as a trio after Jim Morrison’s death, releasing two uneven albums on their own before calling it a day. On the other hand, Chicago decided not to break up after Terry Kath’s death and became an adult-contemporary powerhouse under Peter Cetera in the 1980s. And perhaps the most famous example is New Order, which formed out of the ashes of Joy Division after frontman Ian Curtis’s death, and achieved more fame and success than its predecessor.

Then there are some bands that give it a go with new singers, only to flop badly, ruin their legacy and confirm to everyone that they should have just let their band die with their late vocalist.

INXS was one such band.

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U2 – “Experience and Innocence Tour” at the United Center

Not so much a review as an observation. I enjoyed Tuesday’s show a lot more than I thought I would. I actually preferred it to the Joshua Tree show I saw last year. The new album definitely grows on you and some of the songs sound much better live than on the record (especially “The Blackout” and “American Soul“). And it was cool hearing “Until the End of the World” (one of my favorite U2 songs), “Acrobat,” and the “Hollywood remix” version of “Desire” live.

While Bono and company mostly stuck to the prevalent themes on Songs of Experience, namely positivity and inclusiveness, it was nice to see the band mix it up with a healthy dose of cynicism by bringing back MacPhisto, Bono’s Zooropa-era alter ego. “I was in Charlottesville when the KKK sieg heiled together,” MacPhisto bragged during the intro to “Acrobat.” “Made damn sure the president’s hands were full with stormy weather. Ha! You get it? You can’t make this shit up.”

Nope. You certainly can’t.