Has been

What happens when the spotlight fades, when time moves past the artist as another generation picks its own stars and heroes? What has happened to the musicians of your youth who weren’t lucky enough to stay on the train of popularity, to hold onto the rocket of success? You might be surprised to know that many of them are still doing what they’ve always done — writing music, recording and releasing, and touring — it’s just you who’ve moved on, or given up. That shouldn’t be a slam against either side, but so often the bands of yesterday go from being on top of the world to a flat-out joke. As I’ve spent the last few weeks on the trail of some of these bands, I’ve really tried to figure out why we treat them the way we do.

It’s true that some bands have such a distinct sound that was tied to a certain era, that they can’t develop beyond it — or if they did, the audience got upset and stopped buying, or worse, shamed them. I mean, if I mentioned the words Hootie & the Blowfish, there’s an image that comes into your head, and it’s probably not flattering. Why is that? It’s not like they were self-destructive pop stars who were such assholes they deserved our jeers. They were just dudes that played a simple, safe sound that, at one time, eclipsed nearly every other band around them in terms of popularity. But once that moment in history passed, they were still just dudes playing simple, safe music the way they had before we were ever paying attention. Sure, the songs were overplayed on the radio and might have become inescapable to the point of grating, but that’s not really their fault. So I ask earnestly, out of curiosity, why did they become punchlines? Because they were popular? That surely happened to Mumford and Sons, and they even tried to update their sound. Whether or not I liked it (I didn’t as much), I have respect for their attempt.

Here’s a fun fact: On the flip side of all of this, most of the artists don’t care so much what you think of them. Music is still as vital to them as it was from the beginning. They still stop everything they’re doing to jot down a lyric, or sing something into their phone, they still get excited to go into the studio, and most of them are fine with heading back to the smaller clubs to play for the folks who still follow them, or maybe the few that have learned about them afterward. Sure, they probably miss the money, but I get the sense that there is also a hefty weight lifted, without the madness that accompanies fame. From my own generation, bands like The Verve Pipe and The Presidents of the United States of America supplement their recording and touring by doing children’s albums (and both have been seriously successful at it). Daniel Ash from Bauhaus and Love & Rockets does a little movie scoring. The Romantics do cover songs for commercials, and many others have turned to producing younger bands, or becoming hired guns for bigger stars and their touring bands. The point is, these artists are finding ways to continue living their dream with, or without, your approval. As for most of them, music is still a driving force in their life that can’t be stifled. It’s a need to create and play.

To be fair, there are others who have thrown in the towel, and I’m always curious, if not puzzled, as to not so much the why, but the how. How do you turn that switch off inside you? The unglamorous answer is that sometimes life happens. When the path to continue isn’t available, you find a different job. You become a teacher, a real estate agent, a consultant, a woodworker or anything else. You do what you have to do. Maybe you don’t even look back. That rock-star thing was just something that happened once upon a time. Maybe you reintegrate yourself into the local scene and play the bars every now and then.

Regardless, staying in the public eye is hard, and it really is a shame that we ever label anyone with the has-been type of rhetoric. If someone wants to play, then play. If you want to sing out, sing out. Unless you’re someone like Fred Durst, then maybe not. He’s fine to laugh at and call names. •