Wednesday, November 19, 2008

O.A.R. "catches a crab"

O.A.R.--"Get Away (live)" (mp3)
Neil Young--"Heart of Gold (live)" (mp3)

From the Free Dictionary:

a phrase used of a rower
- McElrath.
when he fails to raise his oar clear of the water
when he misses the water altogether in making a stroke.

O.A.R. is the latest of many, many, many reputable bands to succumb to the desire for a hit single. I was driving to the grocery store this afternoon and listening to the radio station my daughter had left on, and Rick Dees' show was on. When he announced that the next song was O.A.R's "Shattered (Turn The Car Around)," my jaw dropped. And it dropped even farther when I heard a bouncy little song that sounded a lot like the rest of the crappy stuff on the radio.

What? O.A.R.? Aren't they a jam band? Don't they play at places like Bonnaroo? I don't know much about O.A.R. My friend John has put them on a mix or two. But I do know that they were a band with some credibility as recently as last year. Do they still have it? Should they? The official Itunes review says that "this time around they had some help from songwriter Gregg Wattenberg, who penned hits for Chris Daughtry and Five For Fighting." Yeesh! How intentional can you be?

People who know me or who read these pages know that I can be a music snob. And perhaps the thing that chaps me the most is when I think somebody has "sold out." I turned against Carlos Santana, R.E.M., and many others when I thought they had sold out. It's a sliding scale. Here are my perhaps-hard-to-defend criteria:

1. The band or individual doesn't usually have radio-friendly hit songs, but now has them.

2. The band or individual seems to have changed their/his/her basic sound to accomplish #1.

3. The band or individual has to have been pretty good at one time; otherwise, I wouldn't give a crap.

4. Integrity can be regained.

I know, I know, it's a carefully-wrought aesthetic argument I'm crafting here, so there is bound to be some gray area. But if I stick to these four rules, then I can make allowances for those people I like who appear to have "sold out" (Bruce Springsteen on Born In The U.S.A.) and those who have tried and failed (Liz Phair), thereby avoiding my wrath.

My guiding angels in this argument are Ernest Hemingway and Neil Young. Hemingway chided F. Scott Fitzgerald for writing short stories for big money on the side, which then gave Fitzgerald the income and flexibility to pursue his true literary endeavors. Hemingway saw this is a corrupting compromise which, once done, could never be undone. What we don't know, but can surmise, is that Fitzgerald was making a buttload more money than Hemingway was at the time (yes, incredibly, at the time one could get rich publishing short stories in magazines) and that's what drove Hemingway to criticize him. As for Neil Young, he's probably one of the few major rock stars who can legitimately claim that he never sold out, hence his "hit" MTV video, "This Note's For You." His crazy, sporadic career appears to be driven by nothing more than his own artistic muse, which, admittedly, has taken him some strange places, but never to corporate sponsorship or the need for a hit song. Or so the legend goes.

And, as I noted above, I have to disagree with Hemingway somewhat. I can see how serving both money and art would lead to a dangerous compromise, but I'd like to think that it isn't a fatal one. Heck, we all have dark periods when we aren't ourselves and aren't who we want to be, and if there were no chance for redemption, what would be the point of anything?

But for now, I guess I'll just remain my usual smug self, and when I hear that O.A.R. song, I'll think, 'Man, that's some shit. Kinda catchy, though. '

"Get Away" comes from O.A.R.'s first live cd, Any Time Now. Neil Young famously said that he "headed for the ditch" after the surprise top 40 radio success of his album, Harvest. In fact, he refused to play "Heart of Gold" for many years; this live version comes from a Farm Aid concert.


Anonymous said...

you think REM sold out? I think they just ran out of creative juice for awhile; Although I haven't really listened to any of their records since Automatic for the People which I guess hints at selling out.

Bob said...

I thought that Green cd was a sellout, even though they tried to portray it as kind of an ironic joke on seeking hits--"Pop Song '89," etc. Botton line for me: a bunch of poppy, dumbed-down songs that seemed less creative and more radio-friendly.

Anonymous said...

Your F Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway point is also very interesting. Actors sometimes take roles to finance other projects that they are interested in....Crispin Glover is the king of this. Still, with regard to recording artists, is selling your songs for worthy advertising....Is that selling out? Or, is just making a crappy commercial sounding album selling out? I know Tom Waits would never use his stuff for commercial use (he's won several court cases to attest this fact), but with the decline of cd sales and virtual collapse of the record industry, is it ok for artists with non commercial sounding songs to sell their music for advertising to get by? I ain't talkin about Sting or Moby, but a good example is that lily's song i sent you "Nanny in Manhattan." It was a big levis hit in England. Made the chap a little walkin around money. He still got to play at this year's ATP in new york with Dinosaur Jr., My bloody Valentine who are fans. Just askin.

Bob said...

Personally, yes, I think selling songs for advertising is selling out. If you're going to do it or feel like you have to do it, at least don't ever play it in concert again, because whatever meaning it once might have had has been sold, too.

Oddly, for some reason, I exempt songs that appear in tv shows, even as theme songs.

But I already knew my logic is not consistent.

Billy said...

Interesting. So let's use an example close to your heart. You're saying you admire Bill Mallonee for being flat broke and known only by a small handful of loyal fans? That's like admiring a tree for falling in a forest when no one's around to hear it.

I understand the notion of "art for art's sake," but I also like to see people whose art I enjoy or appreciate reap some financial fruits for their labor.

Last month, you wrote this: I wanted to feel valued and celebrated and appreciated and buttressed in the only way that matters--monetarily.

I'm not sure your music concerns make you a "snob," but it does seem somewhat hypocritical.

Bob said...

Mallonee's flat-brokeness would appear to be a result of career choices, bad luck, and mismanagement, not some hard-headed artistic integrity that keeps his songs from being commercially friendly. I mean, there are plenty of "artists" whose music has been on the radio from the start of their careers--even Bob Dylan. I'm critizing someone who changes their entire "raison d'etre" just to sell songs. I think that's terrible. And here's a corrolary you'll enjoy, Billy: I think a "Christian" artist who switches to mainstream is disgusting.

As for Mallonee, I'd love for Bill to place a song in a movie or a tv show, but I'd hate to see "Resplendent" become a car commercial, just as I'd hate to see Bill Mallonee turn into Edwin McCain just to make some money.

John said...

A couple of points, writ backwards.

Edwin McCain's cover of Bill's "Struggleville" was actually pretty good, but I do get your point.

The guy behind Iron and Wine is well known for selling his stuff for commercial purposes. I heard an NPR commercial with him about it and he basically said, 'Hey, it puts food on my kids' table' or something to that effect. Here's the M & M commercial that uses "From Such Great Height", one killer song...

Jeff said...

How did Bruce sell out on Born in the USA? By writing a song that turns the whole idea of patriotism inside out? By writing a great pop song that explores the idea of how difficult it is to have a meaningful life and relationships? By cutting his hair and getting in shape? By dancing with Courtney Cox? If Born in the USA is a sell out then so is The River. Sherry Darling? etc. Nope it's just bringing the good stuff to the masses. Check out what Nick Hornsby wrote about it in Songbook: just because something is popular doesn't mean it's not good.
Don't like his new song, don't like Born in the USA, don't want to see him in concert...what DO you like about Bruce????

Bob said...

Jeff, no worries, I'm with you, pal. That's why I wrote "appears to have sold out." I love Born In The USA, even though it is stadium-sized.