Back in 2001, O Brother Where Art Thou? was a cultural phenomenon. Now it is just a cult. Back in 2001, Lonestar was a thing and Brooks & Dunn topped the charts with a country song that only a few hardcore country artists could currently name. The country landscape was a totally different world. The pop has yet to completely encapsulate this particular niche of music. Taylor Swift was 12 years old and Kelly Clarkson hadn’t even won American Idol. How is that for feeling old?
Artists that have been around for more than a decade have to face a pretty fair reality- are they an icon or just a person? The Academy Award winning film, Birdman, explored these themes to an astonishing end. Michael Keaton played a distorted version of himself. The film asked the fundamental question about relevancy that anyone with even an ounce of creative passion asks. The film studied whether he is a legitimate artist or just a guy that played a guy that dressed as a bird. When he dies, what has he offered the world? Is he an actor, or just an actor?
Garth Brooks recently came back in 2014 with his ninth album, Man Against Machine. This is his first major release since 2001, and the world is an altered place. Themes of ‘man versus technology’ come off ironic and little out of touch if done without a knowing ‘wink’ to the audience. When Garth Brooks Photo shopped face on the album’s cover brought him from his real age of 53 to a doll-like version of 22, he forgot that people don’t like Photoshop anymore. Vogue is using overweight models. Anne Hathaway publicly said photoshoping models are a plague on fashion culture. It ain’t that world anymore.
What Garth Brooks 2015 Tour Is All About
His tour is selling out everywhere with shocking immediacy, so the demand for Brooks material is well intact. But the artist displayed a perhaps reassuring level of self awareness in a recent interview with Oregon Live. “Somebody that comes and dumps a brand-new album on me and doesn’t play the old stuff, I’m pissed! We’ll play a sprinkling of the new album. You’ll know we have a new album out. But the majority of stuff we’re going to play is old stuff, because we got eight studio records compared to one new record.”
Billy Joel came to a realization back nearly 25 years ago. He realized that the demand for new music was less than the classics. His last original release, 1993’s River of Dreams, was a critical shrug. Sales were okay. But after touring four or five times on a standard new album every three years, Joel got the point. “Piano Man” would always garner a louder fan cry than “State of Grace.”
Imagine that this is before the Internet, before boy bands, and before just about any semblance of reality that makes up music nowadays. He still sells out stadiums in hours on the back of his classic tracks. Billy Joel would fit into the modern music scene like Lady Gaga fits into a nursing home.
Other artists embrace their own wavelength. Leonard Cohen sounds nothing like anything that would be even remotely mainstream, yet he garners massive critical acclaim through his gloomy melancholy ballads. Artists that continually stick to their guns end up earning respect over time. David Bowie basically released crap for a decade and a half. But he is considered one of the best solo musicians in history. It begs the question that if he released eight more records of mumbling voiceover ‘audio discs,’ would people still praise him?
Failure is Overrated
Why is Garth Brooks getting flack for his clunky comeback? Perhaps it is because he attempted one at all. Further, does it have to do with preconceived notion of Garth as an out of touch country rocker that should have hung it up? Is country music less serious as a genre? When Jaseon Aldean writes a new album every other year mostly about driving fast down a dirt road, it isn’t a particularly unfair point.
Garth seems partly aware of this. With Oregon Live, he was asked about Kacey Musgraves, one of the top charting solo country artists right now. At 26 years old, she seems like from another planet compared to Garth Brooks. He said, “She’s just going to tell you what she thinks. And those are the beginning steps of great artists, of iconic artists.”
Garth is self-aware enough to know that sales really don’t have the weight they did in the past when Brooks topped the charts time and time again through the 90’s. He understands that if you do what you want to do, the vision will fall into place. Garth never sugarcoated his down-to-Earth sensibilities and, now, his disinterest in the corporate music wheel.
GhostTunes and the Digital Battle
Taylor Swift widely publicized battle with digital streaming services has brought out some arguably repetitive discussions about music streaming. Artists fear it is diluting music- making it ubiquitous and weak. Musicians need to have greater control over their own work, which is a transition we are only beginning to see develop over the coming years. Taylor Swift has the influence and power to pull all her material from streaming. The Beatles do as well. Most artists don’t.
Garth Brooks is one of the musicians that have this capability, almost solely because he owns his own track masters. Not only did he remove the tracks from streaming, but he denounced digital. This would include iTunes.
It seems like a boneheaded move in 2015 considering the, not just relevance, but industry shifting vitality of digital distribution. Garth responded by launching his own digital platform called GhostTunes. It offers fairer compensation for artists and gives them more control over their work.
Journalism aside, the chances of GhostTunes can be seen as painfully distant and out of touch. But, there is something admirable about Garth’s confidence in fighting back at a system he thinks is broken. He may be taking the stand most artists can’t or won’t.
Garth Brooks is Relevant
Social relevancy is overrated. Garth Brooks may seem like he is way out of tune with mainstream country music, looking like a bizarre figment of ghost’s of the past standing next to Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert’s spirited youthfulness and charming pop sensibilities. But in reality, Garth Brooks is a juggernaut and an icon of the era.
LiveNation is its own juggernaut, except one probably far removed from creativity. Garth Brooks has managed not only to sell out multiple dates on his stadium tour, but he has allowed LiveNation to agree to his terms. The tour is sponsored by GhostTunes. It says it everywhere. It will say it when you go by tickets to his show.
Garth Brooks may be an outlier of society right now. Between his stint with Ireland’s government, his dubious album, and his almost complete dismissal of established digital music trends, the status is partly deserved. But Garth Brooks is in the fortunate position to have the clout to even take a stand at all. He is pissing some people off, and he doesn’t care. He is fighting music industry norms with disinterest at the least and frustration at the most. He is carving his own path. For an artist in the concrete status as ‘country icon,’ he is doing it the only way he can.
Garth’s reservations are actually legitimate. He is in a position where he can still grasp a time where the Internet wasn’t the monster it has become (or existed at all). Young artists now have a sense of blissful naivety. They lack reservations when it comes to technology because they don’t know another world. His comments with Entertainment Tonight in late 2014 were true. “What other thing in my life is like [social media]? The concerts. There’s nothing in between you and these people at a concert, and so if social media can make every day of my life like that. Count me in.”
Garth Brooks manages to connect the social experience with the real one. His live show may be the only time where the culture, the same culture teasing Garth, can actually get it.
Ryan Merkel is a cool writer guy and contributor all over the internet, from blogs on music to magazines about music to sites about playing music. He is currently founder of SunState Investing and is head editor of the music entertainment magazine, CultureTease. He has written two novels, and is currently working on a third full-length novel, surprisingly, not about music. His novel “Splatter the Noise” earned accolades for independent publishing. Be sure to check out: www.sunstateinvesting.com
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