For a brief period, I was Watertown Middle School’s biggest Green Day fan. But 2004’s American Idiot came out while I was in seventh grade, and I couldn’t get into it. Its mock-political premise was different from the snotty pop-punk Green Day, the band I initially fell in love with. The inherent schmaltz of ubiquitous radio smash “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” didn’t sit well with my budding music identity.
I soon came to a tough realization: I could no longer relate to my favorite band. Something about my rejection of American Idiot inspired me to reassess my fandom, and I suddenly could no longer find the things I once enjoyed in their older material, too. I didn’t give it much thought then, but I had clearly outgrown a band, perhaps for the first time. Many years, and a few jarring shifts in taste later, I’m finally starting to wonder: do certain artists have a creative expiration date?
It’s important to grasp the definition of this proposed concept. It could be said that societal changes in music taste are inevitable, so the case of artists merely falling out of favor simply because of their sound doesn’t really apply. Neither does the case against artists who don’t embrace massive creative revolution—so long as the material retains its initial quality. This is key. Plenty of artists continue to remain important industry fixtures well into their career so long as they continue to make work that challenges or fully satisfies their listeners.
So, it then appears that an artist’s ability to maintain creative relevance relies entirely on the quality of material they produce as they advance in age. As such, those who can’t match the heights of their prior work in one way or another have indeed met their expiration.
If music listeners are willing to accept this theory as fact, it then also seems imperative to point out the signs of an artist approaching said demise. As I see it, this largely occurs in three distinct ways. First off, some artists just plain run out of effective creative energy. In other words, the creative well runs dry for some before they’re ready to hang up their instruments. This leads to subpar follow-up material not unlike The Kings Of Leon’s most recent releases: records that have seen gradually diminishing critical favor, and as a result, decreased sales.
The second indication that an artist has surpassed their expiration happens when they elect to take on an ill-advised change in direction. In these cases, artists will attempt to play ball with passing trends in order to appeal to differing contemporary tastes. Take for instance, nü-metal band Korn experimenting with dubstep beats a few years back on their universally loathed Path of Totality record. These changes are often far too random to fit within the artists’ established voice and are most likely only going to diminish their continued relevance.
The final stamp on an artist’s loosening grip on relevance comes when they pull some sort of embarrassing publicity stunt to drum up listener interest. For an example, look no further than U2’s “free” album and widespread privacy invasion Songs Of Innocence, where they uploaded their newest record onto every iPhone user’s system without consenting to the download. These actions, especially when perpetrated by established artists, evoke a desperation to remain in the conversation, a distinction that falls in line with this theory of perceived creative expiration dates.
What this all boils down to is a rather simple premise: artists that try too hard to retain popularity are often the ones most at risk of becoming irrelevant. Take for example, the releases of both Green Day’s semi-recent trio of albums and Weezer’s newest gimmick-pop album Everything Will Be Alright In The End. Both records were billed by their collective marketing teams as a “return to form” of their relative ’90s heydays, and they were both underwhelming critical failures. When applied to this theory their failures make perfect sense. By attempting to retread their former glory, these artists failed to challenge their listeners in any conceivable way or match their previous work. To put it bluntly, these dudes are far too old to be presenting their old tricks as new, and it might just be time for them to stop playing altogether.