7 Warning Labels Modern Music Desperately Needs
Parental advisory stickers have been a mainstay of modern music since sometime in the mid-1980s, when Tipper Gore realized she was too shitty of a parent to keep Prince songs about masturbation out of her kid's hands without some sort of assistance from the government. So, a congressional hearing was called, and the "fuck" word warning we've all come to know and love was born.
Rest easy, parents!
Fortunately, the program was a resounding success, and nary an utterance of the word "shit" has caught parents by surprise on record ever since. It's a good thing, too; getting blindsided by an unexpected swear word can be a real motherfucking day-breaker. We talk about a few more things that should ideally never happen without advance warning on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... where comics Delanie Fisher and Nick Kaufman and Rotten Tomatoes editor Sarah Ricard join me to talk about friends who come over unannounced, dudes who like to show off their dicks, and so much more.
For the purposes of this column, though, I'll just stick to music. Since we're on the verge of celebrating two decades of completely telegraphed swear words, I wouldn't mind seeing some labels for a few of the other unwelcome surprises that sometimes pop up in modern music. For example ...
Still Sounds Nothing Like the Old Stuff
I've said before that I think criticizing bands for changing their sound is usually a bullshit complaint, but people complain about it nonetheless, and as the old saying goes, "Where there are people complaining, there are people who need to shut right the fuck up." People who whine about bands not making the exact same album 10 times in a row need to do just that, and this label might help. Say goodbye to the days of going online to complain that Metallica's St. Anger album doesn't sound anything like Ride the Lightning, because duh, motherfucker, it says so right on the label. The bandwidth we'd save in angry message board posts and YouTube comments alone is worth the investment this sticker would require.
Should Apply To:
The aforementioned Metallica is an obvious choice here. People have been complaining about Metallica not sounding like Metallica for about as long as there's been a Metallica.
Some would argue that Weezer deserves it, but I'm more of the opinion that their sound hasn't so much changed as their songs have just kind of started to become awful. It still probably applies, though.
A more recent contender is Best Coast, a band who released a few early singles that sound like they were recorded on a 1980s boombox placed in front of a floor-model television speaker ...
... and have been dealing with fans clamoring for them to make songs that "sound like the old stuff" ever since. Sure, by the time they released their first proper studio album they'd already moved on to recording in much more acoustically pleasing closets ...
... but people still treat every moderately well-produced record the band makes ...
... like some kind of radical departure from "the sound that made them famous."
That seems a bit harsh to me. Can we at least give them a chance to become legitimately famous before we start giving them shit for selling out once they became famous?
Cannot Be Recreated Live
The recording studio is a magical place, capable of making even the most dreadful of noises sound somewhat music-ish. While employing the various technological bells and whistles that modern musicians have at their disposal can make for a fine experience on record, too much studio trickery can lead to an album full of songs that the band in question is completely and totally incapable of recreating in a live setting. It might seem like a minor sticking point if you aren't the concert-going type, but people who rarely attend concerts are the ones who need this label the most. Concert tickets are expensive. Should it ever come to pass that you find a song so moving that it compels you to spend that kind of money, wouldn't it be nice to have some assurance that you aren't making a foolish investment?
Should Apply To:
There are actually a few practical applications for this label. As mentioned previously, fancy studio tricks are always difficult to recreate onstage, so R&B sensation T-Pain would be an ideal candidate ...
... if people still gave a shit about that guy. There are plenty of acts that are just as deserving, though, and most of them are way less honest about the magic they employ to make their voices presentable.
Even in cases where bands can reproduce technologically complex songs in live settings, the odds of them doing it regularly are slim to none. Case in point, check out this performance of Radiohead's electronics-laden "National Anthem" single:
If I'm not mistaken, playing that song in concert requires the use of an old-timey telephone switchboard and at least one 13-inch television monitor.
A band might be fine hauling that kind of contraption around when the songs are fresh and new, but rest assured, five years down the road they'll have reworked all that fancy computer music into something they can play on regular instruments.
Also, it's probably a moot point now that Courtney Love definitely didn't kill the band's lead singer years ago, but Nirvana's landmark Nevermind album probably should have come with a heads up about the differences one should have expected to hear when those songs were released into the wild. So much trickery went into making that album sound HUGE in the studio ...
... that a three-person unit could never come close to accurately recreating them in concert:
Like I said, it doesn't matter now, but it's something you might have wanted to know in 1992 or whatever.
Mostly Guest Artists
Believe it or not, there used to be a time when guest artists and collaborations in rap music were a rarity. Albums were a place for artists to display their own unique talents and nothing more. Obviously, that was a long fucking time ago. For the better part of two decades now, rap music has been all about the guest appearance. Putting a record label in the hands of an established rapper is a great way to make sure every album they release from that point on will basically be an open mic for their less talented friends. It's goddamn epidemic in rap music, but one name in particular excels in this area of deception.
Should Apply To:
A lot of people should, by law, be applying this label to their albums, but no entertainer has run up a longer list of offenses related to inviting unwanted guests to the party than Lil' Wayne. Of the 15 songs on his album Tha Carter IV, eight of them feature guest appearances from other artists. That's all fine and well if the guests are of the same caliber talent as the main star, but this is almost never the case. For every Drake or Nicki Minaj that emerges from Lil' Wayne's circle of friends ...
... there are twice as many Mack Maines and PJ Mortons that no one will ever care anything about.
If you're paying full price for an album that's secretly half about furthering their careers, a warning of some sort is definitely in order.
50 Percent Skits
As unfortunate as having quality time with your favorite emcee cockblocked by some talentless interloper may be, it still beats the shit out of buying an album that looks like it's packing more than 20 songs only to find that half of them are nonsense skits that wouldn't even be enjoyable at the awful improv comedy classes where they belong. This is another borderline epidemic in rap music. At some point in time, it was decided that just being able to string together words that rhymed was no longer entertaining enough. I don't think a single person has ever gone on record to admit to actually enjoying between-song skits, but sketch comedy and rap songs have been inseparable ever since.
Should Apply To:
Even if we never attach this label to any album ever again, it at least belongs on De La Soul's first two albums, Three Feet High and Rising and De La Soul Is Dead. As I've mentioned before, those albums clock in at a jaw-dropping 24 and 27 songs, respectively.
Look at 'em all!
But when you subtract the useless filler that permeates both albums, like this nonsense ...
... you're actually left with about half as many real songs. Don't get me wrong, they're both fantastic albums and a bargain at damn near any price, but the "comedy" you have to sift through to hear them all is definitely worthy of a warning of some kind.
Major Label Rejected
Here's a deceptive little number that should be implemented in the recording industry immediately. It would benefit everyone! On the one hand, it would be a convenient way for a record label to release something they don't necessarily want their name attached to without really attaching their name to it. On the other hand, when an established act has an album rejected by the label that has loved them up to that point, it's usually a pretty good sign that it's the best fucking album ever. An easy way to identify that kind of stuff without reading sob stories about dealing with The Man in Rolling Stone first would be a treat indeed.
Should Apply To:
Pick your poison. Fiona Apple and Wilco both had some of what turned out to be the best work of their respective careers shot down by dipshit record executives before it ever saw the light of day.
Nirvana's In Utero wasn't completely rejected, but there were rumors that it was going to be on account of it not sounding as much like a Tiffany record as the one that came before it, but it's a way better album if you ask me, which you should, because I'm already here talking about it and whatnot.
In general, record labels just tend to make shitty decisions in this department. A little selective labeling might go a long way toward helping us reap the benefits of those shitty decisions.
Not the Original Lineup
I mean, if you're even sort of a fan of any band, you should just know when they stop being the original lineup. If you're getting hornswoggled into buying Lynyrd Skynyrd albums in 2014 because you think Ronnie Van Zant is still the lead singer, you're probably beyond the kind of help that reading words can provide anyway.
Nevertheless, people who make this kind of mistake do exist, and sometimes, thanks to deceptive album covers and such, the consumer can't even be blamed for their mistake.
Should Apply To:
Well, did you know the lead singer of Journey is a Filipino dude? There's nothing wrong with that, obviously, unless you were buying the Journey DVD pictured above. It's the one in the middle. It's barely distinguishable as a Journey product at all, much less one featuring the lead singer who replaced the lead singer who replaced the original lead singer.
If you were buying that as a gift for your baby boomer dad because you knew he was a big fan of Journey in the '80s, there isn't a whole lot there to tip you off to the fact that the band's original frontman, Steve Perry, hasn't been around for ages.
Of course, it's ultimately your dad's fault for having such shitty taste in music, but still, a label would be nice.
Obligation Now Fulfilled
Nothing brings out the worst in a creative type like being forced to do something. Even if it's something they would typically enjoy doing, like a musician making music, for example, once it becomes something they have to do, you're likely to see far less desirable results than if you were to just let the "magic" happen on its own.
That's natural enough, I reckon, but it also presents a huge problem for the record-buying public. How in the hell are we, the consumers, supposed to know if a musician is only giving half their usual effort because this particular album was recorded as a condition of their parole or some shit? It's almost impossible to tell; that's why we need the label.
Should Apply To:
Well, it's almost impossible to tell. Willie Nelson made the point pretty clear when he released an album called The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories? to pay off a gigantic tax bill. Then again, that's Willie Nelson. He's been talk-singing along to the exact same guitar for so long, he's literally worn a hole in it. You generally know what you're getting when you buy a Willie Nelson album, no matter what the inspiration for recording it might have been (I'm assuming it's usually weed).
At least he can smoke with it now.
You'd think a youngster like Justin Timberlake would still have a lot of musical adventures left in him, but there are rumors to the contrary, surprisingly enough. A recent Hollywood Reporter story claims that he was forced into recording his most recent album, The 20/20 Experience, solely to fulfill a contract obligation, presumably one that called for him to finally release one truly awful song before he hangs it up.
The "hang it up" is the concerning part of the story, because he apparently wants to do just that as it pertains to music, and would have a long time ago if business didn't necessitate one last trip to the studio. He has been saying for a long time that he wants to focus mostly on acting. Will history someday prove that his first truly award-worthy role was convincing the world he cared about music one last time?
I don't know, but that was a great fucking sentence.
Adam hosts a podcast called Unpopular Opinion that you should listen to on Soundcloud and a live stand-up comedy show of the same name that you should come see sometime if you're in the Los Angeles area. You should also be his friend on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.