Burned In The U.S.A.

[From Room Thirteen, January 26, 2008]

If you are a musician from the UK, there is something you should know: the American music audience hates you. Well, perhaps hate is too strong a word, but they at least distrust you, probably don’t understand you and, to a greater extent, haven’t forgiven you for the excellence of your musical forefathers.

Led Zeppelin were British; The Stones and Beatles were British; The Who, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, The Clash and Cream as well. If you aren’t as good as any of those, then as far as the American audience is concerned you are automatically terrible. This might sound harsh, but every avenue of every American line of thinking is based on the idea that everything is a logical continuation of something else.

Those early gods of rock were insanely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, so it makes sense that every single American has them as a frame of reference. Describing someone as “David Bowie fronting Pink Floyd” is something most Americans could visualize, because everyone knows Bowie and everyone knows Pink Floyd. These summations of bands are almost always wrong, but the difficult and important part is never getting an American to agree with you after the fact, just to get them to accept the possibility beforehand.

The thing is, most American acts really do fit neatly into these pockets and asinine equations, and the American consumer is taught pretty much from birth to accept these analogies for everything from breakfast cereals to sports cars. If someone says Band A sounds like Madonna fronting Lynyrd Skynyrd, the American listener can not only automatically deduce what that band probably sounds like, but also that their lead singer is probably really hot. If someone then says that Band B sounds like Inspiral Carpets mixing with House of Love, the American listener would assume you were a pompous jerk with elitist tastes. The years between Led Zeppelin and Oasis were mostly barren of any British bands truly big enough to saturate middle-American consciousness, nor were there many avenues in the way of distribution channels beside crooked FM radio programming and an increasingly narrowly-focused MTV. For every Smiths or New Order that a few better-minded Americans embraced, there were a million others that went almost entirely ignored. In their wake sits a gaping hole fifteen years wide where there should be a lot of acts whose names Americans should recognize, but probably don’t.

What happens now is that once you’ve been labeled as British, the average American will typically associate you with what two British bands anyone knows anymore: Radiohead (if you are weird or play guitar) or Coldplay (if you are boring or play piano). Once upon a time, Travis were drawn up in parallel to Radiohead for no good reason other than sharing a producer and engineer; once the secret was out that their stock and trade was in major-key pop numbers rather than dissonant experimental soundscapes, they were as good as dead. Travis’ unforgivable sin was not being an especially terrible band. No, Travis’ unforgivable sin was simply one of not being what anyone was bracing for.

Arctic Monkeys and Snow Patrol, on the other hand, both managed to be just about the biggest band in the States by their own merits for all of maybe ten days, until suddenly no one cared anymore. Why? Because those two bands sound like plenty that the average British music enthusiast has heard, and sound like absolutely nothing the average American music enthusiast has heard, which means that to the American those bands sound like absolutely nothing at all. Biffy Clyro are a perfect example of a band that almost everyone has heard of, but no one has actually heard. Biffy Clyro are also a perfect example of a band that sound kind of like a lot of other things, but not enough to put them in simple, easily digestible terms.

On the other hand, you have a band like The Darkness who caught on like wildfire in the States. Contrary to popular belief, their success had little to nothing to do with them being any good, but America was certainly ready for the idea of Freddie Mercury fronting Journey. Oasis were able to maintain Yankee popularity by adhering to the even simpler premise of sounding as much as possible like The Beatles as often as possible. Lo and behold, they became legend for it. For all intents and purposes where the American music public is concerned, it doesn’t matter what your music is like – just what people say it is like.

For all the talk (stateside, at least) of it being the land of invention and exploration in thinking, America has a surprisingly high dependence on familiarity of music form. Or, to borrow from the great comedian Chris Rock, the music industry in America is a tough business: here today, gone today.

So what of it then? Is all hope lost? Is America doomed to remain the great unconquerable frontier? Worry not, UK musician, for the solution is simple, and it probably sounds a lot like Iron Maiden covering The Beatles.


Andrew Reilly is an American music writer currently based in Chicago.