When it comes to discussing a band’s musical evolution across the full arc of their career, the most frequently sounded accusation is leveled at their potential “sell-out” status (a topic treated so well by Dave Eggers in a separate piece that I need not revisit it here). Metallica, their diehard fans might (and do, often) say, sold out at about the same time that they decided to start writing straightforward ballads that were about things rather than romping power anthems like “Battery” which could, truth be told, be about almost anything (to this day I have no idea whether or not Jim Hetfield is anguishing over Energizers or an aggravated assault charge). To members of a later generation, Fall Out Boy might have sold out the moment that they stopped playing small venues, decide to re-package some of their old songs now revamped with higher production values, and individually began dating people like Ashlee Simpson. Implicit in this criticism, what Eggers calls the “unshakable need to reduce,” is the assumption that the band simply isn’t as good as they once were, however “goodness” might be measured.
Saying that a band has sold out is thus to see in black and white, to see a world entirely without nuance. Somewhere between good and bad, a line is arbitrarily drawn, and through some transgression, the unfortunate sell-out winds up on the lower side of the scale. And yet, what words can we find to describe a band that has somehow transgressed, that has moved its music in a direction contrary to our liking…and yet that, despite it all, we still kind of like? The answer that many music critics have found, even if they don’t know it, is to make claims to the band’s increased “accessibility” (a singular word choice, used always in favor of even direct synonyms like, say, “approachability”). Casually surveying the Metacritic composite scores for the most recent two Sonic Youth albums, nearly everyone has something to say about the newly enhanced accessibility of Kim Gordon’s (and that other guy’s) songwriting. Both albums are, simultaneously, their “most accessible album yet,” which would seem to imply a direct trend towards accessibility as the members of the band get older. Case in point? “What a Waste” from Rather Ripped was played, live, on an episode of Gilmore Girls.
Accessibility would seem to imply that the band has made itself more approachable (to use that cognate again) to a more casual audience; and yet, now that they’re almost in their sixties, with twenty some odd albums and EPs to their name, it’s difficult to believe that a broader audience is really what Mrs. Gordon and her husband (Thurston Moore, who does, yes, have a name) are going for. Claiming that a band has been more accessible is only a more nuanced way of drawing a distinction between the art of yore and the more acceptable art of the present moment. To say that a band has been made more accessible, but that you like them still, is only to say that you still liked the band when they sounded like they were playing in somebody’s garage, in short, that your tastes are more discriminating than the average joe’s.
If selling out is a way of “reducing,” then accessibility becomes its blood brother and opposite, a means not of disparaging the band, but of talking up the listener.
Yet still, maybe there’s a point to such awkward, self-indulgent criticism. Since we, on our Rolling ivory tower, can safely assume that most popular music is made by and for morons, enhanced accessibility would likewise means that accessible music is music stripped almost entirely of its technical sophistication. Certainly “Battery” sounds different from “Nothing Else Matters;” anyone who has ever played the video game Rock Band can tell you that the earlier track is nearly impossible to play, and that’s part of the point. “Battery” revels in a level of technical sophistication that simply isn’t attainable by most performers. The sweetly lilting guitar work of the first thirty seconds, reminiscent of the instrumental prelude to Rod Stewart’s “Maggie Mae” serves only as an exhibition of what Kirk Hammett is capable of immediately before he attempts to saw your ears off with the song’s impenetrably thundering, quick-changing riffs. Back in a different day of yore, the sonnet poetic form was likewise an exhibition of skill in much the way that Kirk’s weirdly duplicitous guitar playing manages to accomplish. Constrained by only 14 lines, and constrained yet further by an irritatingly un-English rhyme scheme, sonnets became a way for Renaissance courtiers to truly exhibit their intellectual ingenuity, forcing declarations of love (or hate, but mostly love) through the most awkward poetic form imaginable.
And what do we have now? Blank verse. It doesn’t take nearly as much effort on the part of the artist to pair together unrhymed words (and thus why most people are completely turned off by modern poetry – what’s poetry matter if I could / just/ throw a line break / anywhere?). Poetry has suffered in the public consciousness precisely because it has become more accessible as a medium. Perhaps if we got back to basics, poetry could experience a Renaissance all its own – and Metallica would stop making music that sounded like Lars Ulrich was pounding on paint cans.