4 Artists Who Should Probably Just Take a Break for a While
I hate speaking negatively about writers, or musicians, or directors, or artists of any kind. Not because I think artists are better than regular people (HAH!), but because there's almost always an inherent risk when creativity is involved, and attacking an artist when he or she fails almost always sounds like chastising someone for even attempting something risky, for putting themselves out there, and that's not a business I want to be in.
That's why I'm trying not to outright insult any of the people on this list. In fact, I'm only writing about them because I genuinely think all of these artists are great. Talented and important, and so forth. I just think they maybe lost their way, and this is my humble attempt to say, "Hey, great artists who lost your way: Be quiet and go hide somewhere for a little while."
Tim Burton and Johnny Depp as a Team
In the last 10 years, Johnny Depp has collaborated with Tim Burton on five films. He wore pale makeup and crazy hair in four of those five (the fifth was Corpse Bride, where Depp's character, while made of clay, still had a pale face and weird hair), and while he was always enjoyable to watch, no character really stands out as particularly iconic; they're all mostly just eccentric, and they sound funny.
In this span of time, Depp has created only one character that (almost) everyone unanimously agreed was instantly iconic, and that's Capt. Jack Sparrow (from a film Burton had absolutely nothing to do with), and I'd argue that his only other great movie in this period was Rango, which a) was awesome, b) also had nothing to do with Burton and c) was really awesome. The Pirates movies made more money at the box office than his collaborations with Burton by a wide margin, and I haven't found a single critic who thinks either Burton or Depp have made their best work together in the last 10 years. I'd go as far as to say that Burton's last great movie was Big Fish, which is suspiciously the only move he made in the last 10 years that didn't feature Depp.
I really love this movie, you guys.
So, you know. Maybe knock it off for a while, guys.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not faulting them for not doing their best work together lately; no one can be expected to be constantly making their best work, and the fact that they struck gold once with Edward Scissorhands is impressive enough, forever. I am saying that when you enter into a creative relationship that is so comfortable and enjoyable, one of two things happen: 1) You challenge, enhance and bring out the best in each other, becoming greater as a pair than you ever were solo (McCartney/Lennon, the Coen brothers, Trey Parker/Matt Stone) or 2) You agree and support each other so much that you lose objectivity; you can no longer gauge your ideas on their merits, because you've turned two talented artists into each other's personal Yes Man (Ferrell/McKay).
Burton and Depp seem to be in that second camp. From the outside, it looks like they're engaged in some kind of self-perpetuating circle of unflinching reassurance and back-patting, which is dangerous for creativity. It's worse than creating in a vacuum; it's creating in a vacuum that thinks all of your ideas are great and don't need to be edited or revisited or even questioned at all. It's one thing to have a collaborator that you're comfortable with and whose rhythms you understand and quite another to have a nodding mirror image of yourself. A disagreeing voice is one of the most valuable things to have in a creative environment. It's a good way to keep one's head out of one's ass, and it's why no movie has just one guy completely in charge of everything.
That rarely works out.
Johnny Depp creating an eccentric, pale character for Tim Burton featuring Helena Bonham Carter is one of the most bizarrely specific cliches I think I've ever come across. All I'm suggesting is a little creative break. Each artist should spend some time exploring other things, maybe having a different collaboration or two, then perhaps one day, after they've had some time alone to really figure themselves out, they can get back together and collaborate again, armed with new knowledge and experiences.
Plus then Johnny Depp will have more time to make the Rango 2 movie I'm writing.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers
At no point in the middle of practice one day did one of the Red Hot Chili Peppers stand up and say, "Hey, is anyone else just sick of playing Chili Peppers music?" I mean, other than the one drummer and the three guitarists who quit. Obviously.
When they first hit the scene, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were new, and they had an energy that almost no one else could touch, and asking them to quit now must sound crazy. Every single member of the band is great. Flea is incredible and insane, but really he deserves a ton of credit, if for no other reason than because he's probably the only bassist that an average person could actually name.
These might be three awesome bassists or just three random dudes. You don't know.
I've always maintained that Chad Smith was one of the most tasteful and dependable drummers in rock and roll, John Frusciante (who recently got just as sick of Chili Peppers music as me, and quit the band again) will certainly make every top 20 greatest guitarists for the next several years and Anthony Kiedis ... I don't know, sure has had a lot of different haircuts, I guess.
They're all so talented, and it's wonderful that they found each other, but ... come on, guys, that's enough.
Years ago, the Chili Peppers were slinging this rap-rock-funk-fusion thing that, to this day, no one else has even attempted. Honestly. I can't think of a single other band that is even trying to imitate RHCP music, because the style is just so clearly theirs. They own it.
Unfortunately, they haven't really grown in the last, at least, 15 years. They're still just writing Red Hot Chili Peppers music. Funky rock songs with awesome bass about California and fucking. That's it. And that's fine, in doses, but they've been doing it for almost 30 years. I can't name one band that should have still been playing together after 30 years. Not one.
The smartest thing that R.E.M. did was break up. It was clear that they'd reached a point where they realized, "Hey, these later albums aren't as good as our other ones. Obviously, we've already recorded all of the best R.E.M. songs. Let's just call it quits." Every artist in every field reaches a point where they exhaust their own limitations. The Simpsons was great right up until it was terrible, and it was terrible right after they'd finished making all of the great Simpsons episodes it was possible to make. If Michael Richards was still doing Kramer today, it would be the saddest thing ever. That's just the way things go, nine times out of 10. An artist is great, but if he misses the brief window where he can back out with grace and dignity, he'll just humiliate himself and end up Favreing the whole end of his career.
The Foo Fighters are a great counterexample. That's another rock band that's been around for a long time, and they're still making new music, but they haven't overstayed their welcome. The difference is that the Foo Fighters seem to be growing and evolving with every album. Their latest album is stylistically a world away from their first album, but it is still a distinctly Foo Fighteresque sound. It has everything that makes Foo great while still feeling fresh.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers have had, like, four different amazing guitar players quit the band, but they're still going. If losing two of its founding members isn't going to stop the Chili Peppers, and if they aren't going to grow and evolve (they're not), then they should really think about taking some time off.
I don't know how old most of our readers are (there is literally not a single piece of demographic information that this site trusts me with), so I'm not sure what version of Family Guy you're all familiar with. You might know the current version, the show that feels more like an ironic commentary on itself, a super meta Family Guy full of intentionally alienating non sequiturs and in-jokes that are way too self-aware. The "saved" Family Guy that was rescued from cancellation several years ago.
You may not remember the version of Family Guy that was worth saving. I do. I remember a show that was hilarious and exciting and completely different from everything else on television at the time. I don't know if I'd call it ahead of its time, but when it debuted, it certainly stood alone. The references were sharp, and their sheer joke-per-episode ratio was incredible.
Then it got cancelled, which was bad. Then it came back, which was worse.
You did it, Seth. You're infallible.
If you want to know what happens to a kid who never gets told "No," look at Seth MacFarlane's career. The resurrection of Family Guy was the worst thing to happen to his ego, because it was basically a way for him to tell himself "Hey, I was right. All of the higher-ups who said the show was too weird, or that not enough people watched it, or that I was more obsessed with making obscure references than I was with telling stories and, occasionally, jokes -- that was ALL HORSESHIT. I never should have doubted myself. And I never will again."
That's what happened. Fox apologized and then handed Seth MacFarlane the keys, and that's why the majority of Sunday night TV is owned by MacFarlane. The freshness that made Family Guy great when it first came out is gone now. How can it stand out among its peers when its peers are also MacFarlane-created cartoons about dysfunctional families and animals that talk for no reason?
He's even taken his brand and wit elsewhere; his first movie, Ted, will be out later this year, and it's about a not-too-bright New Englander whose best friend is a vulgar Teddy bear that walks and talks and does inappropriate things, for no reason. The jokes all sound like Family Guy jokes, only with (mostly) real people instead of cartoons. Mark Wahlberg, as the dumb man-child, plays the Peter Griffin role in this movie, basically. Also, Seth does the voice of the bear, and he's using the exact voice he uses for Peter Griffin, so I guess he's also being the Peter Griffin part in this movie, and just everyone's Peter Griffin, it's a goddamn Peter Griffin parade. He's his own Tim Burton to his own Johnny Depp, constantly reminding himself that he's infallible. How will MacFarlane ever learn to doubt himself if he's so wrapped up in the amazing American underdog story that is his tremendous comeback?
He's clever and talented and very bright, but with all of his new power, he's also the Establishment over at Fox at this point. And no comedian should be the Establishment; it's just not how comedy works.
If he could take some time away from the perpetual motion device of Family Guy American Dad Cleveland Show Ted, he might actually learn some new comedy tricks (or learn that making a thing talk when ordinarily that thing wouldn't talk isn't technically a "trick").
In 1994, Alice in Chains was very popular. Jeff Buckley released one of the most depressing (and critically acclaimed) albums of all time. Bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots were all over the charts. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain killed himself.
In short, almost everything musical in 1994 was taken very, very seriously.
We are very serious adult men. This song's about a school shooting.
And then Weezer showed up.
We're not! This album is our blue one!
Weezer was one of the only non-Weird-Al-Yankovic-related bands in the mid-'90s that weren't afraid to say, "We're making silly rock and roll music with our instruments and having a very good time!" They were funny, and goofy, and never seemed to take themselves as seriously as the other popular acts that surrounded them. They only wrote catchy pop songs with easy-to-remember choruses, and their songs almost never lasted more than four minutes. They didn't write about fights, or black hole suns; they wrote about how much fun surfing is, and how that one guy looks like Buddy Holly.
It sounds easy and stupid (it sort of is), but it was so refreshing to hear a band that wasn't afraid to sing about how sweet it was being in a band. Their first two albums, Weezer ("The Blue Album") and Pinkerton, have some of the catchiest and most fun rock-for-nerds songs I've ever heard.
And then they Just. Kept. Going.
It's weird to hear new Weezer music. They're still just as goofy, but it all feels so manufactured now. Rivers Cuomo is still writing the same kinds of songs he wrote when he was 19, but he's over 40 years old now. Watching scrawny Rivers sing about sweaters in the '90s, I thought, "Oh, boy, this is so fun!" but watching him sing about eating candy and hearing him try to say things like "I'mma do the things that I wanna do" at 42 years old is more than a little off-putting. You're a father, Rivers. Stop singing about how rad you think everything is and go home and play with your kid.
Weezer showing up in the mid-'90s was important; they were a clear reaction to music that had gone a little too far up its own ass. But it's 2012. We don't need jesters anymore; music is goofy as shit now. One of the biggest bands in America right now is called "fun.," people win pop stardom on television and something called Skrillex got famous for creating an album that tries to sonically represent the sound of two fax machines fucking.
Weezer, you've served your purpose. Please take care of your children.
Daniel O'Brien is Cracked's senior writer (ladies), and he'd probably do well to take some time off for a while. He'll be speaking on a comedy panel on 5/16/12 for Digital LA alongside Funny or Die's Scott Gairdner and CollegeHumor's Spencer Griffin. Check it out if you like things.
For more from Dan, check out Why Humanity Can't Get Past The 7 Deadly Sins and 6 Insanely Awesome Things The 1900s Thought We'd Have by Now.