The Dividing of the Pumpkins Fans, Part 4: Thoughts On the Role of the Artist, and the Artist/Fan Relationship

This is part 4 of a 4 part piece I am writing, inspired by a pair of Smashing Pumpkins concerts and a DVD documentary. As you may or may not know, I am a big Smashing Pumpkins fan, I always appreciate their work. I feel the need to preface this piece by saying that as it will give you an insight into the context of my commentary.

When I first planned on writing a piece about the Smashing Pumpkins, the concerts I attended and the DVD release, I kind of figured it might eventually become a discussion of the division between the fans. Since they started making new music, the Pumpkins have been a band of controversy with a lot of polarization amongst fans. I was aware of this and thought it might be worth mentioning as part of this piece, but as I attended shows, watched the DVD and browsed around various band websites, it became more and more apparent that the division of the Pumpkins fans would become a bigger part of the discussion than I first anticipated as I kept thinking about it.

Although I don't necessarily think that this division should be the center point of any recent piece on the Pumpkins, because it really should be about the music, I do think it raises some interesting questions on the artist/fan relationship in rock and roll.

I'm not the first person to see a rift forming. While researching this piece I found commentary online from a number of sources, fans and critics. There's lots of theories as to why this is taking place, if the band is actively thinning their fan base etc... but I don't really think any comments have it nailed down correctly. I don't even know if there is one specific reason, but I think a lot of it has to do with the Pumpkins view of what it means to be part of their band, and what their relationship is with their fans.

So what exactly is the role of the artist in relation to their fans?

Some other bands, a good number probably, would say that the role of the artist is only one thing... to entertain. I use the term "entertainment" loosely, because really it's whatever the fan feels during that song/album etc, THAT'S what they're delivering... they're letting people feel that emotion they originally connected with the band.

The bands and musicians who say they're just there to entertain are probably the same ones who see themselves purely as entertainers... and that's fine, because entertainment is a big part of music. To those musicians, rock and roll is not art, it's just a form of entertainment and when they go out on tour, their job is to put on the most entertaining show possible. For a band that has had a lot of hits, often times that means putting on a hits show, because radio and the popular media has reduced their catalog down to the memorable hits that the band has. The result is that you have "entertainers" touring on sometimes one song that people know... the song that you know they're going to close the show with every night, because it's the one people remember and appreciate and lets those people go to that original emotion they had when they first heard the band. These entertainers play live shows with the idea in mind that they are going to deliver exactly what people want.

Believing that as a rocker you're just an entertainer can also change the way you make music too. Suddenly your own creative impulses come second to entertaining and the focus becomes "how to entertain the most people"... a slight variation on: "how to sell the most records" or just "how to reach the most people". I believe the ultimate conclusion of such thinking is exactly what the music industry has reached today where "alternative rock" has become little other than these cookie-cutter, marketing produced bands and tracks that are devoid of things like creativity and soul... at least in my opinion.

Now, there is something to be said for being an entertainer, as there are some amazing entertainers out there who put on amazing shows, and something to be said for individuals who can perfectly craft a song and tailor it to their audience and sell millions of copies. A good band will balance those things and keep them in mind because both are important to the music industry and to anyone working within it.

There are some bands out there who feel that they are more than just record sellers and entertainers. Some bands are even pretentious enough to call themselves: "Artists".

Ever since the first rock and rollers stated that they thought they were artists, the debate has raged, critics calling those "artists" everything from crazy to pretentious "insert your favorite plural expletive here". I won't get into the debate because I think that someone can make a case for both if they really try. Personally, I consider all music to be art in some shape or form, even if the artists themselves might not, or the motives behind said music wasn't art related at all. In my mind, this makes all musicians artists in some way, even if they don't consider themselves such.

The important part of the debate though, is that once rock and roll becomes art, it changes the role of the artist and the artist fan relationship. Instead of their role being only to entertain, they also take on the role of artist, and the role of an artist, no matter what media, is only one thing: To make us feel/think... something... anything at all. Let's take an artist like Picasso for example. When I look at Picasso's work, it might be beautiful and I might be entertained by seeing it, but there's more to it than that. I think about what it means, what the Picasso is trying to say and what that particular work means to me in that moment (not what I felt when I originally saw it). Most importantly, it could be different every time, and a work might even make me feel uncomfortable and unhappy... that's still successful art, it made me feel something.

I look at music the same way... it's more than just entertainment, it makes me feel. I don't believe that a musician's job is to "do what I want". If I only listened to bands that did what I wanted over the years, I wouldn't be listening to about 90% of the bands that I hold so highly today. Instead I listen to the bands that do what they want, and let me come along for the ride.

This is also why, in my mind, the most amazing concerts I've ever attended are NOT hits shows where the band purely plays what the crowd wants. Instead it's the shows where the bands create something new on stage, something that makes me feel something. The epic jams of Zeppelin or Cream, the explosive punk power of the Stooges, the raw, screeching intensity of Sonic Youth's noise rock or the psychedelic, melodic explosion that is the Smashing Pumpkins... those are the kinds of shows that stay with me, effect me and leave me thinking I've seen something incredible... something artistic and creative.

I think for me personally, my love of music and certain bands has a lot to do with the fact that I view music/rock and roll as art. A band that is being creatively adventurous and attempting to make something exciting is far more likely to draw my attention than one that is purely entertaining. That isn't to say that I don't like being entertained and enjoy listening to music purely for entertainment, but it's the bands that really make me think and feel, while still entertaining... those are the bands that become my favorites and have me as a fan for life. I trust them, because I know that in the past, their creative inclinations have really spoken to me and inspired me. I trust that even if I might not connect with their art right away, I probably will eventually because I have in the past. That forges a much stronger bond than pure entertainment for me, and is probably why I'm so committed to the bands that I like.

Interesting...

Ok, so all that sociological and philosophical stuff is great, but what does that have to do with the Pumpkins?

Well, I think that a lot of the division between Pumpkins fans comes from this idea of the role of the artist and the artist/fan relationship.

One of the problems with becoming successful in the popular music market and having your music on the radio thousands of times a day, is that you're sure to garner a lot of fans who are NOT connecting with your creativity and your art, but are purely connecting with the entertainment they get with your music. That entertainment doesn't have to be simple either, it could be anything, because music is what you make of it, so whatever that person feels with that song, THAT'S what they connect with, not the creativity behind it. If they only connect with one song on an album, then that's the only one they appreciate... the rest "aren't good," where as if you connect with the the creativity behind that one song... that song as art... then you can appreciate all of an artist's work in some way or another.

With the Pumpkins, it seems like a lot of fans seem to only be connecting with their own feelings about songs. They hear a song like "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" and they immediately identify what it meant to them back in the 90s, not what it means now, or meant when it was written. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. To this day, certain songs/albums remind me of specific times, but to limit the emotions you feel to those first ones is very limiting. With that limiting mindset, when you go to a concert like the Pumpkins shows I recently attended, you don't want to see the creativity on display for the majority of the night, if at all. You want to be nostalgic and remember your own connection to a particular song and when I band doesn't play that song, or plays a new version, or spends "too much time being creative on stage" you get frustrated and feel disappointed, because that isn't what you wanted.

For many musicians, being an entertainer and not trying to make people feel new things is completely satisfactory and they're happy with what they're doing. And why shouldn't they? They're making people happy even if it's only through the nostalgia they feel for that one hit single and get paid well to do so.

For the "artists" though, that isn't enough, they feel like they're just going through the motions if they're only playing the hits and entertaining people... they need a creative outlet and will work to create something new and exciting on and off the stage. It's almost worse than death (at least artistically) to have to go through those motions and play it up to the crowd that only wants what they want and not much else (although it's never the whole crowd that feels that way). They understand that the fans want certain things, and will try to make the fans happy without giving in entirely and abandoning their own creative impulses

I can relate to this personally as an artist and I'll use the Soul of Rock 'n' Roll website as an example.

I could easily craft every post I make specifically with my audience in mind. I don't do that because then the act of writing holds no interest for me anymore... there's no creativity involved and writing becomes more of a chore than an enjoyable process. At the same time though, when I receive feedback on something I've written, I take it to heart and I use that feedback to improve my future writing as long I don't feel like I'm compromising "my art." In the end, I'm still going to write whatever the heck I want, but I'll definitely keep the reader's opinion in mind... if my audience doesn't like it, they don't have to read my site. People can email me all they want asking for me to do a feature on ABBA, and writing about ABBA might (for whatever reason) bring in tons of traffic... I'm still NOT going to write about ABBA, it just ain't gonna happen... (just an example, used for effect... but still don't email me asking for ABBA posts).

I really think that the Pumpkins feel the same way about their albums and their live shows. They are going to respect what the fans want to hear and improve the show accordingly, but won't compromise the art by doing a full fledged "hits show", because they feel that will compromise their art and make it more of a chore than something creative for them. They'll write albums that I think the fans will enjoy, but won't completely rehash some of their most famous works, or purposely change their own artistic impulses purely to sell albums or get radio play. That's the line that a successful artistic band has to walk or they'll either linger in obscurity thereby reaching no one, or end up being nothing but entertainers and feeling no creative fulfillment.

That's where I think the division comes in, because so many of the Pumpkins' fans want the band to "do what they want"... play the songs they want to hear, and write an album that is just like the one they connected to originally (not those artsy ones like MACHINA that came later and made me think) or one that they can connect to with the same emotions they felt the first time. They don't want to take the time to see what new things the band can make them feel...and so you end up with a lot of fans who just don't want anything to do with the band, and feel completely dissatisfied going to a show and seeing an obscure set list or an overly experimental performance.

That's one of the odd things about popular music. The direct interaction with the fans, and the nature of the media means people often have very specific expectations about bands and concerts. I don't think that happens in other media... I don't think that back in the day people went to see Picasso's newest work expecting it would make them feel the same things that his earlier works had. Maybe they did... but people have a different connection with music for some reason.

OK, but doesn't this happen with all bands then at some point then? They either get artistic and divide their audience or try and please everyone and end up losing their own creative fulfillment?

Yes, I think the answer is yes for any band that choses to explore their own creativity, they will most likely divide their fan base. For some reason though, It just seems more prominent with the Pumpkins to me. I'm not sure if that's just because I've been involved with the Pumpkins community so much recently and I'm just more aware of the division, or something more substantial. It might just be because they were hugely popular at one point... I mean, during the 90s, almost everyone I knew owned at least one Pumpkins album, usually Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Maybe it's something else specific about this band... who knows.

Again... it's all very interesting...

Anyways, these are just a few of the thoughts on the artist/fan relationship and the role of the artist that I have been kicking around after seeing two Smashing Pumpkins shows and a Pumpkins DVD. I'm sure there are lots of other thoughts out there on this, many probably far more coherent than mine. Probably a few people hear what I'm talking about, and a few others think I'm just one of those crazy, pretentious "insert your favorite plural expletive here", just like all those "artists".

Oh well, no matter what other people think, I thought it would be a good way to close out this 4 part piece, leaving a few of these ideas to linger with you all out there... something to ponder and think about as it relates to the Pumpkins and other bands. I do consider myself something of an artist after all, and maybe my role is to make you think/feel a little something with my writing.

Go back to part 3 of this piece here: The Dividing of the Pumpkins Fans, Part 3: A DVD Review

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