Gimmick. Noun. – A trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or business.
This is nothing new in the performing arts universe, and at some stage or another, almost all of the greats have had one. Gimmicks are not, however, a substitute for talent, originality or progress. I’ve been a fan of bands who have used gimmicks very successfully, such as Alice Cooper, Iron Maiden, Rammstein, et al, but at the end of the day, these groups relied not on makeup, mascots or explosions, but on solid music. Even in the 80s, Kiss took their makeup off. These artists used their respective gimmicks as a vehicle through which to evoke an idea or mood at a particular time, as a means to an end, not an end unto themselves. David Bowie doesn’t need to be decked out in full Ziggy regalia to be able to put on a good show, nor does Alice Cooper need his guillotine to keep an audience enthralled. But there are bands that cling to their respective shticks the way a toddler does their security blanket, never venturing beyond the limitations of their chosen feint. As an audience member, I find this to get very old, very quickly. It’s a bit like watching the same film over and over, and no matter how much you may like it the first few times around, eventually you’ll find yourself wanting to do something else.
I’ve asked myself why artists do this? How could they possibly enjoy writing album after album of material based on a single theme, or perform shows that run like clockwork, month after month? Do the artists get bored themselves? Are they actually artists at all, or merely performers, playing a role?
The more I thought about this, the more I realised that they seem to only be interested in getting the largest crowd of booze addled punters to their gigs as possible. Which is fine, if you aren’t looking for a band to take you on a cathartic journey, but if you are looking for a performance with a bit of depth, this gets increasingly frustrating. Particularly when you see acts of this ilk getting airplay and exposure, while others slog away tirelessly creating unique sonic landscapes, grabbing their smaller, more thoughtful audiences by the shoulders and not letting them go until the final chord decays, to no avail. A quote by actor William Hurt comes to mind. “The amount of financial and imaginative energy that’s put into mediocrity is just amazing which I find to be fundamentally offensive as a human being.” Another Bill has been quoted saying “When did mediocrity and banality become a good image (for your children)?” Simply put, it isn’t. Nor is it anything other than dressing mutton as glam for the sake of a few extra dollars. Or a few more fans likes on Facebook if you’re part of a smaller scene.
Performers with integrity venture beyond the guaranteed money making formulas. The Doors, for example, were documented eschewing their hits (Morrison allegedly hated performing Light My Fire night after night) in favour of straight poetry sets with a music backing. The casual fan disliked this, but those in it for the art would have surely had their mind blown. Even more disturbing than the band that clings to a tired old gimmick is the band that started with a gimmick as the driving force behind their performances and songs, only to later try to branch out, so to speak. It is as if suddenly they realise that people have stopped paying attention, and decide to focus on the music (which they probably should have done in the first place). This, for me, is almost a gimmick unto itself, as if the band’s ‘maturing’ is something the listener should be into, as though it were a performance itself. In truth it is simply the death rattles of a creatively parched group of people, desperately attempting to get someone (anyone) to listen. One may argue that for a band to stand out, they require something to make them unique. Instead of spending hours a night sewing sequins onto your bands matching negligee, perhaps developing a unique sound would ensure a little more longevity? Besides, nobody wants to see sweaty guys in knickers, unless they are Twisted Sister (how great would an Australian Twisted Sister tour be?)
What is my point in this rambling tirade? There is a point, I assure you.
When I look through my music collection (I’ve got iTunes open right now), all of the bands that have high play counts have constantly evolved their sound, never for a second resting on a single idea. Led Zeppelin were ostensibly just a hard rock band with a healthy grounding in the blues, but they were equal parts blues, rock & roll, folk, and something else entirely, each album progressing their sound to the unfortunate end. Anathema began as one of England’s premiere death/doom bands, and over the course of 20 years have developed into what can only be described as equal parts Pink Floyd, Nick Drake and Radiohead. These are simply quick examples of bands that never rested on a single gimmick, and they are the ones worth listening to. Bands that stand the test of time rely on solid writing and performing, not on a gimmick. Sure, a lot of luck is also involved, but for the sake of artistic integrity, lets drop the act and focus on the thing that is most important about a band.
By Tyrone Blackman