I am a big fan of Faith No More. I have been a fan since 1989’s The Real Thing so that means I’ve been a fan of the band for 25 years. That means my “relationship” with Faith No More has been longer than all of my relationships — except for family and my best friend. Not saying that it’s deeper, because it surely isn’t, but it’s definitely longer. Thanks to the accompaniment of my older sister I got to see them during their glory years, the Angel Dust Tour.
I won’t say I’m a ride or die fan. I didn’t like Album of The Year and I still don’t. But I love the Chuck Mosley years and the Mike Patton years about equally, and I have all sorts of vinyl, and I’ve traveled across the country to see them live, since the band reunited in 2009. So I’m a highly impassioned fan, if not a “super” one.
This past week FNM released their first full length album, since their initial breakup 18 years ago, Sol Invictus. I actually tried really hard to avoid hearing the singles before I could hear the album in full; hearkening back to the first time I heard The Real Thing in full, and was so entranced that my mom left me in the car to go to Zayre or Fuddruckers or something while I listened to the album in full. People I trust, and who know about my FNM fandom assured me I’d love it but since I can’t stand it when people tell me what I think before I know it, so I was prepared to dislike it on first listen. But I didn’t, Sol Invictus is great, it’s aggressive, and fun, and a most fitting musical statement from a band of weirdos who never really gave any fucks and who really don’t give any fucks now that they’re in their 50s.
This means a lot to me, as Faith No More was always my American Dream band, my ideal of what being in a rock band supposedly meant, that a bunch of people with different personalities and musical tastes could get together and take making music seriously but not take themselves seriously, and not get too hung up on what a rock band, a metal band looked and sounded like. Through in some piano? Sure. Some pseudo-rapping over thrash metal riffs? Okay. A lead singer who sounds like he’s drunk all the time? Another lead singer who alternates between crooning and shrieking like he’s got rabies? All of it. ALL OF IT.
Growing up, Living Colour was the band that convinced me that black folks could play rock music and be accepted. Faith No More convinced me that rock music can be whatever the hell you want it to be, and who cares who accepts it, do it anyway. It’s a mindset that works for a lot of things.
In reality, that didn’t work so well for Faith No More the first time around. There was a lot of vicious infighting between the band members in their heyday, which eventually broke up the band, but time heals all wounds, and one of the glorious things about growing older is that over time, age means that you really stop paying attention to what random people think about you and what you do, because life is short.
I feel and I hear in Sol Invictusthe musical vigor of a bunch of guys making music because they want to (they didn’t have to they could have easily toured off of their fan favorites forever) What critics or fans think really does come second to the fact that they were gonna do it anyway. “We can do whatever we want” said bassist Billy Gould in one interiew. “I don’t care who listens to our album,” Mike Patton said to Billboard “I don’t want to be a 50 year old making music for teenagers.” These days, to say that you’re not really thinking of your audience is a pretty daring statement. They’re not explicitly saying “fuck the audience” but in so many words, they are.
It’s not as easy to make that kind of statement these days, to put your creative self out into the void, but I kind of remember what that’s like. One of the good things about being a writer old enough to have written for publication before the age of social media, is that you remember a time before media and writing was “audience-driven.” You could write an article, put it out into the universe, and it would take days, weeks, months, possibly years before you heard a response from people. You didn’t have to spend time tracking your social media responses or peruse analytics reports as a measure of whether you were worth reading. In an age where writing careers live and die (literally) from pageviews, this may seem like a terrifying concept (why write if there’s no feedback? How do know if it’s good?) but there’s something freeing about being able to write into a void, and know that the blowback, if any, will take awhile. You develop ideas with the guidance of your own voice (and your editor) as opposed to writing with the expectation of hoping it will “take off” on social media, or bracing yourself for a negative response.
The first essay I ever wrote for publication actually got published in a magazine, and later a book anthology. It was an essay about growing up as a black female fan of heavy metal, that I wrote for Bitch Magazine. Every four to six months I will get an e-mail about it, even though i wrote it 15 years ago, and a lot has evolved and changed for me personally, and with the music industry, since I wrote it. The piece is actually on the Bitch website now, and I’m sure there’s comments on it, but I’ve only checked once, which was enough for me because I couldn’t deal with the idiocy of arguing with a stranger about something I wrote a decade and a half before.
I’m not sure what that essay would have looked like if I had written it today. These days there’s a real struggle to not occupy your time with audience response as you create. I see how many of the writers that I know brace themselves for the criticism, the dissection, the “Well, actuallys” when they write an essay for a high-profile publication. (And that doesn’t even get into the potential for invariable abuse or threats that comes from being a non-white male daring to express a strong opinion about something online, but I’ve gotten into that in another post.) It’s not just writers of course, one of the burdens of being creative in the age of “content creation” is that you risk being immediately eviscerated every time you choose (or are required to) share your work publicly. That goes for writers, musicians, artists, even You Tube personalities.
At the same time, to say, publicly, “fuck the audience, I don’t care what they think and I’m gonna do my own thing” is the equivalent of professional suicide for pretty much anyone who isn’t already firmly established with a audience who already loves them. Now more than ever, “virality” is a virtual requirement for creators to make a living, and there’s not a whole lot of room to not think of an audience. Writers write for pageviews, musicians write to get picked up for an Applebee’s commercial or MTV reality show, social media personalities do what they do so a company will give them products or sponsorship. Audiences are the lifeblood of creative work,especially now, but being hyper-aware of the interests of an audience, one that’s often fickle and highly distractable, can lead artists away from listening to their own voice. And while we as the audience admonish our creatives to be honest, fearless, and original, we still think of them as ours, and beholden to our whims. And now online, we can facilitate those whims. We clamor for immediate response, we demand explanation and apologies, we beg for a follow on social media. Artists that claim to not think of an audience are seen as arrogant, or ungrateful (“we pay your salary!”). Creatives who dare to not cater to us are seen as unworthy of their jobs. (How many times have you read an article or watched a TV show and then read the subsequent online comment “how is X employed ?” How many times have you been that online commenter?)
To say “fuck the audience” these days, within the confines of mass media, comes at a price. Audience response is pretty much the barometer of success, of relevance, so even if you’re thinking “fuck the audience” you can’t let them know. You need them to pay attention to you. To dare to say “I’m not really thinking about who consumes my work, or who consumes me, is a pretty provocative act, especially if you mean it. And I’m sure a lot of people do, but don’t have the freedom to say. Frankly, I think it’s a privilege that is primarily enjoyed by those who are popular and successful enough to have a community of supporters, and it may indeed be a relic of a pre-social media age. And yes, I think it’s a racialized and gendered privilege too, but maybe I’ll get into that some other time.
Mike Patton can say “I don’t care who listens” to Sol Invictus because he’s got almost three decades worth of fans obsessed with his life’s work, he doesn’t need to make any new friends. But what about the indie musician, the fledgling author, the up-and-coming filmmaker? Can anyone else really say “fuck the audience, this is my voice, and my vision, and I don’t care if you like me, or what I do, I’m doing it anyway?” I’d like to think that it’s still possible, still somehow an action that can supported economically, because it’s a liberating, freeing thing.
Creatives shouldn’t have to think of us as they create. Some of the best music, fiction, etc. comes from when a creator gives us something we as the audience are not expecting and that we don’t think that we want or need. But realistically, if giving the audience what they want and expect isn’t foremost on your mind, these days you won’t have any type of career.
Faith No More was already the off-beat choice for rock music in the 80’s and early 90’s, and it’s safe to say that for a number of reasons, they likely wouldn’t have gone very far in today’s music industry if they came out now. (Hard to classify, not media-attractive, blah, blah blah.) The Faith No More’s of today probably have a decent YouTube or Soundcloud following and still beg their friends to come to their shows. They won’t even get to the one-hit-wonder status that (inaccurately) gets prescribed to FNM. And that sucks, because Faith No More totally made my life better, and some other weird band should do that for someone else for 25 years.
I imagine the guys in Faith No More are aware of this, and figured if they have the freedom to be able to create music as a band they way they want to, on their terms, finally, and to have fun with it, why the fuck not? If we as the audience dig it, that’s awesome. But if we don’t? It doesn’t matter. They may indeed be part of a dying breed in rock. They can do whatever they want.
*I wanted to call this post “Fuck The Audience” but that would have been a disaster for SEO purposes, so I didn’t. Which means even in writing this I’ve thought of the audience, so perhaps I’ve already lost.