Sunday, 20 November 2011

Style & Substance : Do Our Rock Stars Need Both?

Having been together - in one version or another - for over twenty eight years, and in that time selling over 70 million albums, it would be unfair and wrong to argue that an artist or band is unable to fully ascend into the realm of mega-stardom without having a strong, stylish and easily recognisable image to accompany their musical talent; as the Red Hot Chili Peppers demonstrate perfectly. Sure, you can’t hear the thundering rhythm of Flea’s bass, Anthony Kiedis’s punching vocals or the screams of [now ex-guitarist] John Frusciante’s emotionally charged guitar through a poster, but this hasn’t stopped millions of fans across the world from hanging their stylistically challenged funk-rock heroes proudly on their bedroom wall.

Such facts and figures go a long way to proving that appearance really isn’t everything in this image obsessed world of ours - which is obviously a wonderful thing - however as a harmless observation, it is amusing to note that the Red Hot Chili’s uncomplimentary mish-mash of style has seemingly passed under the radar (but just as tellingly; nor has it spawned an army of clones among their vast fan base).

I was reminded of their aesthetic downfall recently when watching the music video for the song Dani California, the concept of which is actually very entertaining – or would be – were it not for the fact it serves only to highlight their own shortfalls. The video itself is a nod to the evolution of rock music; the band is performing the single on a stage while embodying a variety of iconic images which represent important figures or eras in the history of rock music. Recognisable characters include David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Rotten, The Misfits and The Beatles; each being easily recognisable due to their association with a powerful image which instantly triggers recollection of the person or band without need for a musical accompaniment. In creating a video of this nature, the Red Hot Chili Peppers chose to draw all the focus onto the one thing that they themselves do not possess; a strong and recognisable image, or indeed any style at all. This becomes most apparent at the conclusion of the video, when the bold and striking adopted facades of previous icons are stripped away, leaving the band looking as lost and unidentifiable in their own clothes as attendees of a year 7 non-uniform day.

While they are clearly all fascinating and hugely talented people with extraordinary life experiences behind them – as a read of Anthony Kiedis’s autobiography Scar Tissue will confirm – I find it is hard to fully give oneself over to a band whose forty-nine year old singer scales the stage in black fingerless gloves adorned with safety pins, while his huge muscular, tattooed bulk of a torso fights its way out of red cut-off combat trousers. To his left can be found the man-boy that is Flea, often seen in a full-body skeleton outfit, as if to throw their collective appearance off kilter and confuse even further. On drums, we have Mr America, aka Chad Smith – looking like the spitting image of Will Ferrell and usually dressed in a sleeveless blue denim boiler suit, complete with baseball cap and a motorcycle loving, basketball supporting, can-we-just-finish-the-show-so-I-can-grab-a-beer-and-some-nuts demeanour. Then to come round in full circle, on stage left [no longer] stands John Frusciante – easily the coolest member of the group in terms of effortless style, he embodied a casual grunge fan’s aesthetic, often with long unkept hair and chequered shirts. His look could have worked well, were it not for the bizarre contrast it created between him and his bandmates.

Taking such deficits into account, it is really not surprising that in their youth the Red Hot Chili Peppers often used to take to the stage naked (or wearing a singular gym sock to hide their dignity), as at least this would provide a more collective image and remove any confusion regarding their abomination of styles.

The relationship between style and substance has been a recurring theme throughout the history of rock music. While some bands or artists effortlessly strut the tightrope, maintaining just the right level of each and in such a way that it comes across as the most natural thing in the world, others seem to struggle with their balance – occasionally over compensating in style and subsequently placing their musical output in second place. I wish to raise American rock band KISS as exhibit 'a' in this argument. Perhaps the only band whose likeness could be recognised world over, but in 99% of cases, not a single song from their twenty studio album back catalogue can be recounted. A serious case of style over substance certainly, and I’m using style in the loosest possible sense of the word. The New York Dolls are perhaps another band which falls firmly into this category. While their musical style may have paved the way for the punk invasion, (a movement born from the very notion that having something to say against the establishment was far more important than any musical ability) their main achievement was successfully setting the visual trend for new wave and glam metal which would take the music world by storm ten years later in the 1980s, when everyone would be attempting to imitate their flamboyant clothes and pretty-boy, androgynous appearance.


Throughout the history of music, we have seen many different struggles and various outcomes in the battle for style and substance. There are even bands that have held both in the palm of their hand for a time, for example; Kings of Leon. Having emerged in 1999 with a rugged, mysterious and intriguing appearance and an easily recognisable, individual sound to boot, within ten years they had sold out on both; their closely-shaven generic faces producing even more generic music to be played on repeat within every generic bar and club the world over. A sad thing to witness from a band that initially had such a buzz of promise and excitement surrounding them. Another potential outcome to be aware of; and one that should be avoided at all costs, is that one’s look could go a little too far into the realm of individual style and join the ranks of Cher, Freddie Mercury, Elvis and Slash in becoming a gimmick; the subject of countless poor fancy-dress attempts and tribute acts in a bizarre and surreal turn of events which must be akin to watching what was once your own style, growing it’s own legs and running off to join the circus. It is arguable as to whether this is better or worse than having no style at all – Travis, Stereophonics, Elbow; I’m looking at you.

In making such observations, I am not pushing for a music industry that is more centred around style and vanity than it already is – as indeed, these things cannot be forced anyway. I also wish to highlight that in talking about style, I am by no means referring to physical appearance, as this is a different kettle of fish all together and particularly irrelevant in the musical sphere where talent and charisma can transform anyone into the most sexually enthralling person in the world. I’m talking about a general aura of style and cool that some people are bestowed with, and others unexplainably lack. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are a fine example of a band which hasn’t needed four incredibly cool members in order to propel them forth, as their music has done that for them. But it is worth questioning whether artists that possess both style and substance have more power at their finger tips, and will have more to say in the bigger picture of musical history. For example, at the mention of The Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Jarvis Cocker and Annie Lennox, one’s head is not only filled with a compilation of incredible songs and the sound of their respective voices, but a visual representation is also conjured, and when done properly – like in the cases of those mentioned above – the line between their visual and musical legacies become blurred due to their impact on so many aspects of our culture.

While a band or artist will always have music as its legacy - and rightly so - there is definitely the potential to excel further and add another dimension to the music and output as a whole. In an era where manufactured music is everywhere, one can take solace in the fact that what I talk about is something you are either born with or you are not, so there will always be a place for those with both talent and style in the music industry. In the present day we can thank the likes of Kasabian, Pete Doherty, Florence Welch and The Kills for continuing this trend.

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