Backlash: J.K. Rowling, Mumford & Sons, and What Scares Me About Success

In which the author uses 3,000 words to say something that probably could’ve been clearly expressed in 300. My apologies, etc.

1.

Imagine you’re participating in a local talent show. Maybe you’re a singer or a contortionist or a flaming chainsaw juggler. Doesn’t really make any difference. And the thing is, you really, desperately, care about your talent. The opportunity to show it off is kind of its own reward, you love singing or contorting or juggling so much. So you practice your craft for hours – days – weeks – months – years – sweating over the details and getting it wrong time and time and time again, hoping all the while that one day, if you’re both lucky and good, someone will be interested enough in your singing/contorting/juggling to actually take time out of their life to engage with your talent by listening to or watching you.

You prepare for this talent show like it’s your job, not just because you love singing/contorting/juggling, but because you would actually like this thing you do to be your job. In fact, you spend most of your time daydreaming about how unbelievably fortunate and grateful you’d feel to even get to play at little dinky local talent shows regularly. Imagine that you take the stage at this talent show, and you slay. The audience is into the performance almost immediately, and by the end of your act, they are in a nuclear frenzy. People are standing on their chairs, they’re racing down the aisle toward the stage, and they’re reaching up at you, screaming, overcome by the need to be near you, to touch you. Security beats these people back, and you’re both frightened and elated. The audience’s reaction has stunned you. I mean, you thought you were getting better and everything, and you worked really hard on your act, but the possibility that you would drive the audience crazy like that never even crossed your mind, because how arrogant would you have to be, right?

You catch your breath, walk off stage, and a reedy-looking man in a suit just about bowls you over. He congratulates you on winning the talent show. No contest, he says, and he hands you a check for more money than you’ve ever seen. They want more, he tells you. Every person in the audience raced straight out and told all their friends about your performance, and they’re all demanding a second performance tomorrow night. After thinking for a moment, you agree to come back the next night to perform. After all, you worked really hard to give yourself the chance to be seen, and your performance clearly impacted the crowd in a deeply meaningful way.

So you come back the next night and again your performance drives the crowd wild. The man in the suit books you for the next six months, and for the first couple of weeks, everything’s fantastic. You and your work are adored by nearly every one who sees the act, and every show is a sellout. Then, one night, you notice a few people get up and walk out of the auditorium half way through your act. You notice a few more shaking their heads and muttering to each other. Suddenly, someone shouts an unflattering phrase from the balcony. Someone else echoes the sentiment, and soon several voices have joined together, mocking you. More people leave, and soon, everyone you see has either abandoned the show or else is taunting you. Undaunted, you go on the next night, and this time the crowd is an even mix of your most devoted supporters and people who have written your singing/contorting/juggling off completely.

After the show, the man in the suit comes to you and says that it’s time for a new routine. He thinks some of the die-hards are waning, and the only way to keep the auditorium full is to offer them something new. You might even win over a few of the haters.

Question: do you totally overhaul the act, or do you keep the same essential formula, but with a couple of new twists here and there?

Answer: It doesn’t matter.

2.

J.K. Rowling is the most famous author on the planet. When she finished and released the seventh Harry Potter novel in 2007, she tied off the most successful book series of all-time, simultaneously relieving and creating immense amounts of anticipation for her global fan-base. Once we all learned Harry’s fate, the natural next question for his creator is, “What’s next?” This is almost certainly unfair for a whole lot of reasons, not the least of which is that the amount of time it takes to create a novel (or seven) and the time it takes to consume one is vastly disproportionate. This is true of all art, I guess, but it can’t be all that edifying to spend years constructing something very delicate and complex, only to have hoards of people say, “Great! Now dance (or sing, or contort, or juggle) for me again, monkey!” Yet this is what happens.

At first, most people assumed, even as Rowling gave endless assurances that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the true end of the series, many of her fans didn’t wholly buy it. Mainly, I suspect, because they didn’t want it to be true. Because J.K. Rowling could have written nothing but Harry Potter-related books for the rest of her life, made another billion – yes, with a “b” – or two, and coasted on the immense built-in success guaranteed by her rabid supporters (of which – full disclosure – I am one).

Another of her seemingly limitless options would have been to pull a Harper Lee and walk away from writing altogether. Rowling could have spent the rest of her days traveling, supporting worthy causes, contributing quotes to Harry Potter retrospectives, and avoiding the media, all while raking in unconscionable amounts of cash and ending her life on millions of people’s literary Mount Rushmores.

But, curse her hide, Mrs. Rowling had the audacity to want to keep working, and on something that possessed no trace of magical whimsy at all. So she wrote a book for adults, called The Casual Vacancy, which came out last week. I read a few reviews of it, along with The New Yorker‘s long profile of Rowling. Critical reception is lukewarm at best, although celebrated novelist Ann Patchett chalked that up (as the fraternity (sorority?) of authors are wont to do, from time to time) to simple bitterness and lauded the book as excellent.

What most fascinated me in my online investigation of reaction to the novel was not the reviews themselves as much as the comments about the reviews (or more often than not, about Rowling’s skill in general). Many, if not most of the comments (keep in mind that at the time of my reading them, the book had not even gone on sale yet) echoed the sentiments of negative reviewers, citing criticism of The Casual Vacancy as proof that Harry Potter is drivel, beloved only by mouth-breathing troglodytes with no sense of prose style. I can’t blame the commenters entirely, however, because they seemed to parrot what they saw in most of the book’s reviews. I don’t think I read a single one that didn’t use a Potter-pun to express their sentiments about Rowling’s new novel (a lot of references to spells being broken and the magic disappearing, as you might well imagine, and the novel’s derisive alterna-title, Mugglemarch). Most reviewers insisted on comparing The Casual Vacancy directly to the Potter series, which shone almost exclusively unfavorably upon Rowling, her new book, or both. (I wonder after typing this whether C.S. Lewis’ work was always tinted by reviewers’ Narnia-vision; or whether Lord of the Rings’ was a burden to Tolkein, and an explanation as to why he never wrote fiction unrelated to it.) I’m not sure what these reviewers hoped to gain or prove by viewing this novel through its nonexistent relationship to its author’s previous work, but in any case the prophecy has been self-fulfilled, and reviewers can go about gleefully cleaning their bloody hatchets; they’ve gotten in their licks on Rowling, whose chief sin seems in their eyes to be that she is not The Best Writer to Ever Live, yet is still somehow popular.

It seems clear to me that The Casual Vacancy never stood a chance of being judged fairly. In fact, many commenters thought that if Rowling was so concerned about being judged on her own artistic merit, she should have written under a pseudonym (something which, according to The New Yorker piece, she considered). Some claimed her refusal to do so can only mean that she is greedy, for of course she knew that a book with J.K. Rowling’s name on it would sell no matter what.

But think about the implication of this argument. Essentially, the idea is that once Rowling achieved success, she had given up the right to hope for a level-headed appreciation of anything she did not related to her initial achievements. Imagine how dispiriting this would be to think that the thing you are so proud to have created and poured your creative energy into has essentially become a weight around your neck, an inescapable bane.

 

3.

I was late to the Mumford and Sons party. By the time I got there, the only refreshments left were half a bowl of Chex Mix and a two-liter of Diet Rite. A lot of people have pointed to the Mumfords’ success as “unlikely.” This, I assume, is on account of the banjo, because I can’t really come up with a better answer. I mean, great quiet/loud dynamics, big sweeping sing-a-long choruses, lyrics about morality and mortality and love and fate? Checks all around. Coldplay has made a killing employing all of the above, minus the banjo (and the depression-era wardrobe). Sigh No More, their first record, was liked, to varying degrees, by a whole, whole lot of people. They toured behind it, got to play with Dylan at the Grammys, and for probably two straight years felt like they had won some kind of cosmic lottery (or talent show, for that matter).

So naturally, the Mumfords did what bands do, and they made another album. This one, Babel, has been pretty well received by those who really liked Sigh No More (though not as well as you might suppose, given just how popular that album was). This is, I’m sure, due in no small part to the fact that the two albums sound very much alike. Babel sounds a little bigger, whatever that means, and it’s more comfortable with extended periods of instrumentation (though not to meandering level of, say, Dave Matthews). Other than that, you could probably pull any three or four songs off of either album and switch them out with tracks from the other, and a first time listener would be none the wiser. I can offer little critical insight other than to say that I like Babel quite a lot, perhaps more than Sigh No More, but I’m going to let time be the judge of that.

Not everybody, however, feels the same way. A great many critics and average-joe listeners (saying “fans” might be presumptuous) see little to love about Babel, their primary complaint being that it sounds too much like the first album. You know, the one they really like. Let me let them tell you in their own words.

BABEL sold more than 600,000 copies its first week, but hipsters argue that more gangsta-rap influences would’ve made for a better album.

From Rate Your Music user tensionandtheterror:

            Oh dear. That it took them well over three years to release an album with the exact same formula and even less variation than their debut pretty much writes them off permanently in my books.”  

From Rate Your Music user Kepp:

            “It’s obvious that the record company told Mumford & Sons to make another album just like Sigh No More and that’s what they’ve done.”

From The Fly, a British music publication:

            “Effectively, it is emo for Blacksmiths. This would all be semi-tolerable, were it not for the sickeningly overwrought poetry bobbing on top.”

I can’t decide which I love more: the presumptuousness of the first two (assuming that for three years the band did nothing but struggle to create their sophomore album; stating with such certainty the demands of a vague “record company” upon the helpless sheep band) or the insult to blacksmiths in the last one.

In any case, the complaints seem rooted in the same weird frustration. Musically and lyrically, Babel is cut from the same cloth as its predecessor. Which people liked. To whit: Sigh No More’s Rate Your Music score is nearly four/tenths of a point higher (on a five-point scale) than Babel, and the first album’s user score on Metacritic is a 7.9, compared to a 6.5 for Babel as of this writing.

In summary, the albums are very much the same, but one is good and the other mediocre at best. (I’m sorry. There probably should have been a question mark at the end of that sentence.) Now, I understand that stasis is not a generally sought after quality in art. The ‘if-some-is-good-then-more-is-better’ logic doesn’t typically produce great results on the part of artists or appreciation on the part of fans. But in many cases the expectation that an artist should reinvent themselves with every book, film, or record is selectively and frustratingly applied. Has Bruce Springsteen ever strayed very far from earnest rock ‘n’ roll, thematically centered on lost people seeking release and salvation? He doesn’t catch a whole lot of flak for that though, does he? What about the Ramones? Elvis Costello? Van Morrison? Over 30-plus year careers, none of these artists reinvented the wheel, but outside of people who probably didn’t really love them in the first place, has anyone “written [them] off permanently?” I’ll admit that the Bowies, Radioheads, and Beatleses of the world have shown us that reinvention is possible, but surely they’re more exception than rule.

Would a nu-metal influenced record have served the Mumfords well? What about a reggae track thrown in amongst the soaring folk ballads? Do we really want to encourage change for change’s sake?

What standard is being applied here? I would argue that there isn’t one, at least not in the way we would traditionally use the word. I would argue that the thing being attacked in the cases of J.K. Rowling and Mumford and Sons is the same, despite the differing resultant criticisms. That “thing,” that source of so much ire, is simply their respective success.

4.

Let’s hit pause and get back to singing, contorting, or juggling for just a minute. Maybe you’re hesitant to believe that your artistic choice would make no difference, that you’d be damned either way. But what evidence is there that I’m not right? Huge success and huge popularity (which I don’t think are exactly the same; see: Nickelback) breed divisiveness, sure, but the kind of snarky dismissals aimed at Rowling and the Mumfords seem predicated on something more specific, namely, that they’re beloved by the “wrong” crowd. What I mean is that once both of these artists became “known” to a wider audience, their popularity was carried not by effusive critical praise or word-of-mouth adoration from a hipper, more selective crowd. Instead, it was carried by everybody. People who don’t read books read Harry Potter; people who listen to whatever comes on the radio without discernment listened to Sigh No More. Harry Potter was for children. (Eww!) Sigh No More was Coldplay with banjos. (Unforgivable!)

Uneasiness regarding a particular artist can develop quickly among people who have their eyes and ears out for the next love of their literary or musical lives. For those (I’ll let you insert ‘douchebags’ here if you want) who pride themselves as being a step or six in front of the cultural curve – full disclosure: I kind of am one of those (again, insert ‘douchebags’ at your leisure) – popularity amongst the so-called philistines is a sort of artistic death rattle. It’s why some people who clutched Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head to their chests and sobbed while they sang along to “The Scientist” in their dorm rooms wouldn’t be caught dead listening to Mylo Xyloto.

This is only an explanation for the behavior, not an excuse, but when I apply this logic to the hypothetical talent show, it bums me out, mainly, I think, because for me the talent show isn’t so hypothetical. Granted, people aren’t exactly packing the seats to watch me juggle flaming chainsaws, but I hope they will someday (metaphorically, it should go without saying), and if that day arrives I would hate to think that who likes my work would be more important than the work itself. That seems to be what has happened to my examples. Rowling has been written off by much the “serious” literary community as living, breathing lucky break, specializing in diet philosophy and simplistic parables, while Mumford and Sons are poseurs, earnest and emotive in all the wrong ways.

Perhaps it’s just getting harder and harder to attain broad popularity and artistic credibility simultaneously. Perhaps infinite blogs and tweets and status updates have made the enormous crests of backlash towards popular artists too easy to create. Perhaps that’s too convenient a conclusion. In any case, it’s hard to argue that our cultural atmosphere would be worse off if we allowed – even if only every once in a while – for more overlap between the two circles. After all, don’t we complain when great movies get beat out at the box-office by Michael Bay’s latest travesty? Aren’t we bothered when Sue Grafton leapfrogs a dozen better writers to the top of the best seller list? I know, of course, that even these examples are wildly subjective, but I think the point stands.

The answer to my earlier question was that it doesn’t matter (that was so long ago, I’ll forgive you for forgetting) what the singer/contortionist/juggler does. Rowling set out for new territory, unwilling to stay safe by writing about the world that built her reputation. The Mumfords gave people more of what they loved. Neither choice, apparently, was the right one. Which can only mean that there isn’t one. All that blood and sweat. All those tears just brushed aside by a lot of the same people who had given them a reason to be shed in the first place. What a shame.

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  1. Your Favorite Posts in October | thethingaboutflying - October 31, 2012

    […] #20 Backlash: J.K. Rowling, Mumford & Sons, and What Scares Me About Success […]

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