Monday, March 23, 2009

TIME TO SAY GOODBYE?

This morning I was reading one of my favorite weekly blogs, Chartwatch by James Masterton, which provides commentary on the UK music charts for Yahoo, and James said something that I found more than a little disturbing. Citing the middling chart performance of the new Pet Shop Boys single, "Love Etc.," a No. 14 debut this week, as well as the short life span of all the duo's recent singles and albums, he wondered aloud if it's not time for them to call it a day. Ditto Depeche Mode -- he's even dubbed this past-their-prime career phase "Depeche Mode syndrome" -- and other artists who are, at this point in their careers, preaching to the choir only. "You have to wonder why they continue to bother?" he asked.

Actually, James, I don't. Especially when sufferers of the dreaded Depeche Mode syndrome continue to create music as fresh and inspired as PSB's Yes; Depeche Mode's latest single, "Wrong"; Cyndi Lauper's Bring Ya To The Brink and Alison Moyet's The Turn. If all I had to look forward to was Rihanna's next hit or the latest overrated single from Lady Gaga, I'd become that thing I've always feared most: a middle-age guy obsessed with retro tunes from my glorious misspent youth. I'm grateful that chart success is not the only motivator because if it were, we wouldn't have the possibility that someday R.E.M. or Morrissey might record an album that makes me love them again (as PSB have just done). And what if movie directors felt the same way? We wouldn't have had Roman Polanski's Oscar-winning The Pianist in 2002; Todd Haynes would have given up several movies ago; and there'd be no chance that someday Woody Allen will truly get his groove back (he's getting there, but be patient, not yet).

James's words make him sound like a guy who has no respect for artistry, and I am absolutely certain that with James that is not the case. One presumes the reason why some artists continue to make records long after the The Top 10 and chart longevity have begun to elude them is because of an addiction to creative expression. Annie Lennox hinted at this in a recent interview with Jonathan Ross in which she said that the one thing she wishes she had more hours in the day to do is spend time in the recording studio. Spoken like a woman who couldn't care less that she hasn't had a Top 10 single since 1995.

Considering that musicians make most of their big bucks from touring, merchandising, licensing and endorsements, for artists who have no trouble launching sell-out tours and making money in non-recording ventures, going into the studio and creating new music is largely a labor of love. It's not all about the benjamins.

Although one cannot say that about Smashing Pumpkins, who disbanded at the dawn of the '00s because they couldn't bear to compete with the Britneys and 'N Syncs of the world. Billy Joel retired from pop after releasing 1993's The River Of Dreams in order to focus on non-pop ventures, so that at least when his sales began to slip, he'd have a good excuse. And where in the world is David Bowie? I haven't heard a peep out of him since 2003's Reality. On the flip side, no one in my house is dying to hear new music from Paul McCartney or Stevie Wonder. Sometimes the best way to preserve your legacy is to let it be.

Paul and Stevie aside, if you ask me, there is a lot more dignity in releasing excellent new music that may not quite reach the chart heights scaled in an act's early days than to settle into a middle age as a purely nostalgia act (sorry, Billy, Rolling Stones, Tina Turner and Rod Stewart). And of course, if at first you don't succeed, try and try again. Look what it's done for Cher -- multiple times throughout her career. You've just gotta believe in life after number one.
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