Last week, Austin Kleon wrote this nice piece in response to a Grizzly Bear piece by Nitsuh Abebe. I highly encourage you to go read both things Austin wrote, as well as the Vulture piece on Grizzly Bear. Austin’s point was essentially that it seemed as though Grizzly Bear had a sort of ‘anti-pop’ approach to their songwriting, a purposeful avoidance of writing ‘hits’. Austin fairly pointed out that many of pop music’s most revered songwriters sat down to do just that (The Beatles are probably the best example, though they certainly didn’t always work this way), and that there’s nothing wrong with that. The thought was basically that writing for yourself is fine, but there’s a sweet spot between satisfying creative curiosity and writing tunes that the average person wants to hear. Things don’t have to be so black and white between “pop music” and “creative expression”. Please do read Austin’s piece, he discusses it quite well and has some quotes from other songwriters that really do expound on the different ways in which songwriters approach their craft (and their consideration of the audience).
That said, I just caught up with Austin’s follow up. Ed Droste was nice enough to reach out to Austin and give some perspective on Grizzly Bear’s approach and purpose when writing songs. Droste says, “I think you missed my point. I just don’t like to be clouded with grandiose notions when writing. I want it to come from… somewhere natural and organic and not with some “we gotta get a song on the radio” mentality bc I think that taints the song… we don’t deliberately sit around and try to be obtuse, but we do want to be honest with ourselves. If we don’t love it how are we supposed to stand behind it and tour it?”
It comes down to their rhythm as songwriters together, their interest in writing and playing songs that come from their own comfort zone (I don’t mean that negatively, I think that Droste’s ‘natural and organic’ place is the same thing), which they can stand behind and be proud of when playing for an audience. And I think that this consideration of how a song works both in the practice space, the studio, and on the stage is an incredibly important thing for all musicians to consider. As Austin points out, record sales are what they are (not great), and the live performance really does need to be something the band can rally around night after night … it’s the crux of the entire experience at this point.
But again, Droste’s comments seems unnaturally focused on their preferences, not their audience’s. He says, “In order for us to be able to perform a song over and over and stand behind it, it’s gotta come from a place that feels natural and honest to us and that excites us! (…) We aren’t willfully ignoring our audience but rather acknowledging we have to love the music in order to tour and release it.”
Of course they’re not ignoring their audience. Their live show is immaculate and incredible to experience, I’ve had the pleasure several times, but it sort of sounds like what Droste is saying is, “Writing pop songs is hard, I’ll give you that, but we don’t really try to, we want our music to come from someplace real inside of us so we can care about it as much the 200th time as the first.” This is completely fair, and makes perfect sense.
But let’s consider this process as we understand it now. A band (doesn’t have to be Grizzly Bear) writes a song, records that song and plans to perform that song hundreds of times over the course of a year. They play for no one, thousands, on TV and stripped down for radio, whatever. All along, the mission statement is, “Come from the heart, focus on what we can stand behind, realize the organic origins and love what we do.” This is a highly respectable approach for anyone creating anything, particularly music. And many times, this mission statement is in support of a song or piece of art that fulfills all those requirements and and ends up being a ‘hit’ or a cultural phenomenon in some other way. That’s great, that’s the ideal, right? Your natural instincts as a creator led you to something that was enjoyed on a huge scale, acknowledged by some kind of pop culture whitespace, respected by both exacting listeners and casual passersby. You create a sort of Warhol-esque soup can in your genre.
So there’s no real logical flaw in this process, and the success described above is this kind of Venn diagram “sweet spot” Austin mentions in his first piece. You might purposefully try to get there or not – this part of it almost doesn’t matter.
The part that bugs me is this: “We aren’t willfully ignoring our audience but rather acknowledging we have to love the music in order to tour and release it.” I don’t take issue with the statement itself but rather its subtle implication. He seems to be saying that their satisfaction comes first, ours second. In every step leading up to a live show, I can totally get behind the mission statement, but here I get worried.
If the live show isn’t for me (the audience) first, I’m not sure why I’m there. More so than any other digestion of the art, this part of it is explicitly for my enjoyment, my experience of it. Why perform anything live if the primary goal is for the performer to be happy? This has been true since the beginning of live performance. Does the king like it? Did the audience stay or go? Will your benefactor underwrite your next work? It all requires the audience’s enjoyment. Yes, some pieces become great after an audience misses the boat, but that requires time. In our time, the audience’s enjoyment and connection to each moment of a live performance seems to me to be the most important thing any performer can aspire to. No one wants an artist to neglect his or her own objectives, artistic credibility or desire to connect on the terms they prefer, but the audience’s experience should be in line here, should be a primary driving factor.
All this said, I think that Grizzly Bear in particular does attain this. As I mentioned, I consider their live show to be one of the best. And if my enjoyment is a secondary goal, I’d say they’ve done a great (commendable, even) job of living their mission statement while entertaining their listeners (both in headphones and on stage). Whether or not any song they play is ‘popular’ or ‘a hit’, however they (or anyone) share those songs in the live environment must include some kind of implicit contract: This is for you, fan, listener, participant in the experience of this creation: this is our real time sharing of our craft, and we hope you enjoy.
If that’s not why you’re touring, you should just stay home.