Rock Music’s Modern Dilemma

30 March 2015 Comments Off on Rock Music’s Modern Dilemma


A few days ago, the English alternative rock band Muse released two songs from their upcoming album “Drones.” After their disappointing two latest albums, I still wanted to give them another shot, but unfortunately I got what I expected. While trying to figure out what the problem was with these songs, a quote that I saw a few years ago came to my mind. I couldn’t find the original post and can’t remember who said it, but it was something like:

For every successful rock band, there comes a time to make a choice between trying to become the greatest band or the biggest band. Radiohead went one way, Muse and Coldplay the other.

Obviously, the only band among these three that chose musical quality over fame was Radiohead. Unfortunately, the exceptionally talented musicians in Muse and Coldplay “sold out” for popularity. I very rarely use this expression due to its strong implications, but I don’t think anything else could explain such a rapid decay in musical quality. I think these obvious examples portray a very common dilemma that many modern rock musicians face. As producers of one of the leading and most popular genres, rock bands can either reach millions by making consumable music, or ignore the audience and create art the way they feel like doing it. Unfortunately, cases where these two alternatives coexist occur very rarely. So let’s try to understand what lies beneath this distinction, and how music can transform from art into a business model.

I was introduced to Muse about eight years ago, by a musician friend of mine. Back then, I didn’t listen to music properly, but just enjoyed popular tunes that I heard around me. Muse was the first band that I was really a fan of and the one that made me interested in music in a more profound sense. Basically, my musical journey started with Muse. I started to pay attention to instrumental phrases, sound production and the way compositions progress. In fact, I probably owe this interest to the musical richness and hidden complexity of Muse songs. I spent more than two years listening to their first four albums, “Showbiz,” “Origin of Symmetry,” “Absolution” and “Supermassive Black Hole,” and I devoured every single beat, note and lyric. These are very creative, still fresh, progressive, somewhat experimental and, above all, extremely ambitious and passionate records. I would go even further and say that “Absolution” and “Origin of Symmetry” are among the most remarkable and significant rock albums of the 2000s.

With “Supermassive Black Hole,” Muse’s fame spiked. They started to get radio airtime, and their music videos started to appear on TV music channels. I felt like they had finally succeeded, and I was very excited to hear what they would do next, in their upcoming album “Resistance.” Unfortunately, it was a shockingly mediocre, unoriginal record. There were a few enjoyable tunes, and most of the songs were well organized and presented with a very clear production, but they lacked Muse’s artistic touch. They felt like they were synthesized rather than composed. I didn’t want to give up on my favorite band and hoped this was just an album in which they were transitioning toward a new musical direction.

However, their next album, “The 2nd Law,” showed the ugly truth to me. The production was again crystal clear and very close to sonic perfection, but to this day, I still haven’t heard another album as hollow as this one. The compositions are extremely plain, repetitive and radio friendly, with every song carefully crafted around the musical trends of the time. I guess I should have seen this coming when Muse did the soundtrack for “Twilight” in 2010.This album was created to be a hit, and to ensure its popularity, Muse’s artistic expression and unique style were sacrificed. The characteristic passionate vocals, eerie distorted guitars, thick and groovy basslines and tight, creative drum fills were nowhere to be found. Instead we were presented with plain, unoriginal, cheesy electronic loops dressed up by fancy, colorful production. I realized that I was no longer their target audience. Muse was aiming at the unconscious majority that didn’t listen to, but merely consumed music. As long as Muse sounded trendy, was played on the street and had radio airtime, it was good enough for this audience.

When I was let down by “Resistance” in 2009, I started searching for new music and stumbled upon “Viva La Vida,” the latest release by Coldplay. The album had a very impressive, epic vibe, and I enjoyed it at the time. However, later on, when I checked out their earlier releases, I fell in love with the three previous albums “Parachutes,” “A Rush of Blood to Head” and “X&Y,” and totally forgot about their latest.

Compared to Muse’s sound, Coldplay’s was much more accessible, lighter and sonically less diverse, but it was just as creative and had as much musical brilliance. I have always admired how they could fit so much musical density into such simple compositions, and manage to stay original while so many other rock bands were going for a similar style.

Unfortunately, “Viva la Vida” became Coldplay’s “Supermassive Black Hole,” and even though it was very satisfying, it was the band’s last real album. With very similar discographic timelines, both bands found their sound and then got lost during the same years. I think the key to their success was passion. For Coldplay it was bursting through Chris’s confident vocals, the beautiful piano phrases and the harmonious drum parts that carry the songs forward. For Muse, it was Matt’s breathtaking vocals, Chris’s unique bass performance and the mesmerizing lead parts for distorted guitars and piano.

When their fan bases got huge and they gained mainstream recognition, neither band managed to keep their artistic side alive. There were great expectations from both the fans and the gigantic record companies (Warner Bros. for Muse and Capitol and Parlophone for Coldplay). Under these circumstances, the bands couldn’t really take risks and had to guarantee commercial success for their albums. In the end, the shallow musical expectations of the average listener and the economic pressure of the greedy record companies killed the artists in these talented musicians and transformed them into music manufacturers. I still can’t digest the fact that Coldplay has become a band that features Rihanna as guest “musician,” and Muse has replaced their emotional, dense lyrics with very predictable, shallow and meaningless ones that seem to be politically aware, but in fact only state the obvious.