Did you know there was a time when Johnny Cash wasn’t in vogue? The crowd in the ’80s had all but abandoned him. You didn’t have very many people asking for or covering “Folsom Prison Blues” in late-night bars. No, it took a few folks picking up on his “American” series during the ’90s for the public to deem him worthy once again, which made me think about cycles. Cash had been around for a long time, and if he wasn’t putting out noteworthy music, it would be fairly natural for the newest generation to not care. It really brings up a question of how long an artist should stay in the game. If they’re going decades at a time, they should expect to have a bad run, maybe even the length of the decade, before the fans care again.
You can see a lot of that in the slew of reunited bands that have reappeared over the last few years. For a lot of them, they disbanded because the money wasn’t there. They had their run, and for whatever reason, folks stopped paying attention. Sometimes it’s just that an artist is stamped in an era. When you think of Presidents of the USA or Fastball, you think of the ’90s. Psychedelic Furs in the ’80s, KC & The Sunshine Band in the ’70s. But all of these artists are still making music, they’ve just become irrelevant to the bigger picture and we’ve left them behind, at the very least, because we crave new.
My colleague, Brad Yost, brought up Elvis Costello. He’s been a fan for years and years, but admitted that he stopped paying attention after a while. That because of Costello’s near nonstop output, there was no time to miss him and that after a while, the magic was gone. Regardless of the quality, he didn’t want to hear his voice anymore, hinting at the idea that, for longevity, maybe an artist has to disappear every now and then.
R.E.M. is a great example, too. By the end of the ’90s, they had ceased to be a sure bet. Some fans will blame the quality of their post-Bill Berry albums, claiming that once their drummer had left, the band fell apart. Personally, I call bullshit on that. “New Adventures,” “Up” and even “Reveal” stand up to anything they had done prior (“Around The Sun,” not so much). I think it was more that even the most steadfast of fans were ready to move on. Fast forward ten years when their “comeback” record, “Accelerate,” arrived and watch them all pour back in. A decade was a nice break. Let’s be friends again.
It’s a ridiculous and impossible question to ask, but how long should an artist stick around before taking a longer hiatus? Does Radiohead do it right by waiting four years or more between releases? Fiona Apple has kept the attention with that game. Or how about Sade, who only pops up every 10 years? She releases a record and it becomes an event.
Or does it all come back to the music? Is the album the right sound for the right time? No doubt that artists have released a collection, saw it panned and passed over during it’s release, only to have us “rediscover” it years later as a lost classic. Weezer’s “Pinkerton” might be the supreme example of that one, but I don’t expect we’ll be claiming the same thing about their “Red Album.” Looking back, would it have just been better for Rivers Cuomo and the crew to hang it back up after the “Green Album” (or “Maladroit” if you want to push it)? From what I’ve read, not even they will stand by the few albums that followed.
But here I am, about to contradict myself once again by saying that when I’m a fan of a band, I really don’t want them to go away. Ever. I may not have cared much for the new U2, but I’m ready for them to follow it up as soon as tomorrow if possible. Maybe it’ll be great. Maybe it’ll be great and I won’t notice. But somewhere down the line, it’ll be there waiting, and I can fall in love with whatever I didn’t want to hear at the time. It’s silly, the stock we put into all of this, but that’s what makes being a fan so much fun.
Kyle Meredith is the music director of WFPK and host of the nationally syndicated “The Weekly Feed.” Hunting bears was never his strong point.