Friday, November 16, 2007

What Would Potter Stewart Say About The Seeger Sessions?

"Rob, top five musical crimes perpetuated by Stevie Wonder in the '80s and '90s. Go. Sub-question: is it in fact unfair to criticize a formerly great artist for his latter day it better to burn out or fade away?"

Because I only dabble in music, I am woefully behind the times. I am sure that I am going to talk about albums and music and issues that the real music blogosphere probably hashed out long ago. My options are to shut up and let it be or I can talk about it anyways. I pick Option 2, because Option 1 would mean that I have virtually nothing to contribute to the blog except Muppets videos.

At what point does an artist get critical leeway to do vanity projects? Much like Potter Stewart and hardcore porn, it is hard to define a vanity project, but you will know it when you see it. When Springsteen did the Seeger sessions, it was Exhibit A of what a vanity project is. Bruce Springsteen singing folk songs sounds like a bad SNL skit. Springsteen's voice is clearly geared toward the classic rock that made him famous -- he has no more of the twangy acoustic voice that good folk requires than he has the ability to flap his arms and fly to the moon.

But somewhere a long the way, Springsteen earned the right to record an album with one of his idols, Pete Seeger. Again, to harken back to the pornography comparison, I don't know where/when Springsteen crossed that line where he gets that free pass, but he did. (The fact that most of the music on the Seeger sessions is almost painful to listen to didn't keep it from getting critical acclaim, but that is a story for a different post).

It isn't hard to see why artists do vanity projects. When you get to the point that you are so famous that you can meet anyone you want and you can do anything you want without having to worry if you will be forced to fire your butler, it is appealing to do things that you have always wanted to do. Bonus points if you get to hang out with your heroes while doing it.

As an aside, there is nothing wrong with a vanity project that makes legitimately good music. Even if Ray Charles hadn't earned the right long ago, his Genius Loves Company album would be exempt because it was one of the best CDs in years. The Seeger Sessions, by comparison, was not good music, but Springsteen earned the right to explore those kinds of projects.

But where is that line that makes it acceptable for an artist to do a vanity project and get a free pass? I am generally not comfortable with gut instinct tests -- indeed, many young American men and women are patrolling Baghdad right now because of a gut instinct test -- so I like some test or method of determining something. It doesn't need to be a precise mathematical formula, just a list of factors. But if you started listing artists and asking if they had earned the right to do a vanity project and get that "you earned the right to do what you want seal of approval," I would only go with my gut. Elton John? Sure, he's paid his dues. Gnarls Barkley? Uh, no. Lets work on getting a second album out. Eminem? Ehhhhh.....God, that would be a tough one.

It's hard to even think of what factors would be used in this test. I can pretty much concede that if you have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you can probably get a free pass to do vanity projects -- you've done your time, you've proven yourself. I wish I could end this post with a flourish, where I wittily answer the questions I have posed. But I've got nothing. I'm thinking out loud more than anything else and if anyone can rescue me from the recesses of my mind -- a very scary place to be -- I would forever in your debt, I Dream of Jeannie-style.

Ray Charles & Van Morrison -- Crazy Love

Bruce Springsteen -- Froggie Went A Courtin