What Does It Mean To Go Mainstream?

 

“Indie rock and roll… it’s in my soul” sings Brandon Flowers, self-proclaiming, on The Killers’ debut album Hot Fuss. It’s 2004, and the high and beautiful wave of mid noughties indie rock and roll is only just cresting, Flowers and his Las Vegan indie-an troupe still yet to ride it flat out onto the shores of the popular consciousness. “It’s indie rock and roll for me.”

Looking back now, some 12 years later, it’s easy to see that that wave has long since broken and rolled back—not least of all since, these days, actually singing about loving indie rock is perhaps the most un-indie thing a band could hope to do. Like wearing a Nirvana shirt you bought from K-Mart. But the real writing on the wall for early Killers fans would come almost 10 years after Hot Fuss, with the release of the band’s 2013 greatest hits compilation Direct Hits— their ‘Glamorous Indie Rock And Roll’ anthem by now swept to the sidelines, making room for a Calvin Harris remix of the popular radio single ‘When You Were Young’. It’s poetic, in a sense, to think that a group born out of the heart of the American Dream should sell their indie-loving souls to the devils of glamour and fame.

But is it right to say that they’ve ‘sold out’?

By now it’s a widely accepted matter of fact: on the rise to success, every artist must walk that fickle line between underground and mainstream; indie and commercial; authentic and sell-out. But what do we actually mean when we say that a band has ‘gone mainstream’? Where is that boundary between changing your sound and selling your soul? And what are we to expect of our beloved alternative artists as they flourish throughout their careers?

 

Cleaning Up Your Act: The Killers, Kings of Leon, and the Plight of Growing Up

A year before The Killers dropped Hot Fuss on the world, a small family band from Nashville, Tennessee were putting the finishing touches on what would be their first full-length album. Titled Youth and Young Manhood, the debut LP from Kings Of Leon made instantaneous waves in the pools of alternative rock, garnering the four-piece wide praise for their brand of bareback Southern garage. Their follow-up, 2005’s Aha Shake Heartbreak, elevated Kings’ fan-base from the esoteric underground to the indie grassroots, while their more polished third album Because Of The Times cast a wider net still, catching the ears of audiences across the Atlantic and nuzzling the top 25 of the US charts.

 

My foreshadowing here must be obvious, since these days just about every man and his mum knows about Kings Of Leon and their world-dominating fourth record, Only By The Night. It was the album that fired them into global orbit, bagging them more than a couple of Grammy nominations and selling out stadiums the atlas over off the back of singles like ‘Sex on Fire’ and ‘Use Somebody’. It was the album that both made them and unmade them, depending on who you happen to be talking to.

Defining the act of ‘crossing over to the mainstream’ in layman’s terms seems to frame it as, quite simply, the moment an artist shifts from alternative to popular; from independent to commercially successful. On the other shoulder, haughty indie purists will often claim with a touch of jadedness that the mainstream artist has ‘changed their style’, ‘abandoned their roots’ or ‘deviated from their original sound.’

In the case of The Killers and Kings Of Leon, both definitions apply. The growing popularity and commercial success of these bands is more or less proportionate to the changes they made in their aesthetic over time, both sonically and stylistically: from neo-Gallaghers to neo-Springsteens; from growling, ragtag rebels to short-haired, crooning carbon copies. With each new release, Killers and Kings have stepped so far out of their original skins—maturing, tightening, polishing the grit and varnishing the shine—that the old and the new hardly look alike. Put The Killers’ track ‘Under the Gun’ next to ‘Runaways’, for example, or Kings Of Leon’s ‘Wasted Time’ next to ‘Wait For Me’, and the dissonance is almost dislocating.

 

So is changing your sound and growing your fan-base all it takes to go mainstream and be labelled a sell out? As it turns out, that might be shooting a little wide of the mark. The Killers and Kings Of Leon grew up, got bigger production values and started generating music that happened to appeal to a broader commercial audience, yes. Only By The Night isn’t Youth and Young Manhood. But the thing is, we already had Youth and Young Manhood—The Killers already gave us Hot Fuss. Do we really need regurgitated approximations of those albums, five or 10 years later? Would it have necessarily been better if these bands had stuck to their original formulas, refusing to fix what’s not broken rather than developing and advancing their sound? For instance, The Strokes were criticised when their sophomore record Room On Fire just sounded like B-sides of their debut, Is This It?

In these particular cases, maybe. But the problem isn’t that the new albums sound different to the old ones, or that these bands grew up and changed who they were—the problem is that as they did they fell back on ever-safer formulas: cleaner sounds; simpler song structures; more anthemic chorus lines. The problem of ‘going mainstream’ is less about the abandonment of the old, more about the failure to bring anything new. And while Killers and Kings may have cleaned up their act, it was ultimately the grit that made them shine.

 

Dipping a Toe in the Mainstream: Progression vs. Regression  

Of course, The Killers and Kings Of Leon aren’t the only bands to have absorbed commercial elements as they expanded their horizons: there’s a handful of artists who’ve dipped their toes in the mainstream, so to speak, without ever going in up to the neck. Tame Impala added a healthy splash of pop to their psych around the same time Kevin Parker started boogying with Mark Ronson, for example. Arctic Monkeys traded in their trackies and trainers for denim jeans and leather jackets, cranking up their amps to a volume that’d give the nosebleed section of any rock arena tinnitus. Each of these artists can be accused of changing their sound and style over the course of their careers—and in both cases those changes seem to correlate with an increase in their popularity.

With their 2015 LP Currents, Tame Impala sheared away the woozy, psychotropic aesthetic that was tie-dyed in the wool of their first two albums in favour of a crisper, more accessible sound. It was the band’s first LP to crack the top 10 of the international charts, ranking as high as number two on US Billboard’s Top Rock Albums. Arctic Monkeys, meanwhile, have undergone a steady metamorphosis from whip-smart, slightly daggy English lads to drawling, desert rock deities—a transformation that culminated in the release of their hugely successful 2013 album AM. The modern Monkeys have fallen so far from the tree, in fact, that one music publication in particular has interrogated a professional linguist on why front man Alex Turner now talks like a cowboy.

 

Why is it, then, that neither band has been relegated to the musical sin bin under allegations of ‘selling out’ or ‘going mainstream’? What sets the likes of Tame Impala and Arctic Monkeys above the likes of The Killers and Kings Of Leon? The answer is precisely this: that Tame and Monkeys refuse to fall back on the tired, tried and tested formulas that Killers and Kings often do. Their developments feel daring and rich in promise, rather than bland and watered down versions of popular forms. ‘The Less I Know The Better’ is relatively straightforward and intuitive; ‘Arabella’ simply reanimates the ghosts of Sabbath past—and yet both tracks still manage to feel like forays into fresh and untenanted soundscapes.

What it boils down to, ultimately, is a distinction between progression on the one hand and regression on the other. Bands like Tame Impala and Arctic Monkeys progress—they experiment with different styles, they expand the limitations of their genres, they break new creative ground and they explore those untenanted soundscapes. Bands like The Killers and Kings Of Leon regress, rolling back like a wave to safer territory where the land’s already been colonised and cultivated and the fruit is ready to be plucked from the vine.

It is here that we mean when we say ‘the mainstream’. The fundamental problem for artists who go there, and perhaps the reason they are met with such scorn when they do, is that all the space has already been occupied: there’s no room left for anyone to stake out a place of their own. And so the artist who crossed over—who didn’t so much sell out as fall in—must settle for that spot of momentary safety that they deigned to claim for themselves, destined to be forgotten for all the thousands that have been there before them and the thousands that will inevitably follow.

“Eventually.”

 

About Gavin Butler

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. I'm wearing Huaraches in the Vatican.

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