Adult contemporary is the rock style supposed to appeal to the largest audiences while not possessing any of the rough edges of other styles, that might drive mainstream audiences away. But just remember the scenes in American Psycho where main character Patrick Bateman is reviewing Phil Collins and Huey Lewis enthusiastically, before turning his enthusiasm to bloody murder. Soft rock can be just as degenerate or more so than other extreme styles of rock.
It is not to say that adult contemporary music has nothing to offer. Like any music style, there might be traces of enthusiasm and passion, clever arrangements, nice packaging. But for the most part, it’s an understood deal that this genre makes with the world. “You keep giving us money and audiences and we won’t fuck anything up for you. You can find us where you left us, in the middle of the road”. And while that is fine for some bands, it is sad to see it happening to artists whose music was at some point reckless and exciting.
The Offspring was the little pop-punk band that could. While the world of alternative rock was shifting its attention in the early ’90s to California punk, the Offspring was the most unlikely success story. It was also one of the largest success stories, with the band having hits off of each new album with songs channeling the fast-paced, distorted guitars of classic punk, mixed with melodic vocals and humorous lyrics.
The Offspring may not belong entirely to adult contemporary yet, but they are certainly making inroads there. Their last two studio albums saw the band reflect on life and the passing of time on slower-paced numbers that even saw them strum acoustic guitars. Sure, not all of the songs are terrible or even seem disingenuous. But what you can safely say is that they lack the exuberance and confidence that built the band a world scale audience.
A sad addition to the list and a band who got out just before becoming a staple of MOR radio. In their three-decade career, R.E.M. possibly did more than any other band in America for alternative rock. They were the first alt-rock band to gain national attention while not making any changes to their sound or image. By the late 80’s using the same philosophy they had become internationally successful, in the same league with any of the largest selling groups in the world.
But as time went on some of R.E.M.’s songs tended to lose distinction and the fearless experimentation of their earlier records seemed to be replaced by safer, well-tested choices. When fans complained about this, the band (to their credit) made changes on what would be their last two studio albums Accelerate and Collapse into now. But for all their merits the music seemed to be losing its sense of wonder and R.E.M decided to retire just before being destined to become merely a greatest hits band.
Remember the 90’s when folk was being paddled as alternative rock by radio and MTV? You might, simply because the same thing is going on now. In fact, it is likely an ever ending cycle. Jewel was the flagship for the neo-folkie songwriters. A singer with a distinctive voice who was supposed to be trading on tradition but writing songs for the current times. She was featured and hosted MTV alternative rock shows. Jewel even opened for Bob Dylan.
To her credit she wrote a few really fine songs. She also presented herself as a poet, a move designed to further prove the artistic vision she possessed. But as time went on, Jewel seemed all the more interested in packaging her music as mainstream accessible. The alt rock crowds were left behind without much concern. The last we knew she was a pop-country music star.
Pink Floyd, Genesis, ELP, Yes
It was a common road that many of the Prog-Rock bands of the 70’s shared. They of course did their most adventurous and complex work during those 70’s days when they also enjoyed great commercial success. In fact, all the bands listed above did at some point fill out arenas while playing concept albums with long songs, complex instrumentation and difficult lyrical themes.
But as punk rock made it’s fateful appearance and much of prog rock fell out favor, those musicians decided to adapt. Sadly, few adopted to the immediacy of punk and alternative. But they were tailored made for adult contemporary territory. All the groups had a lot of success later in their career after a complete metamorphosis into a slicker, less complex and complicated type of group. Some, of course still recorded good music, but to many fans of the bands they were by now as far removed as possible from their original sound and intentions.
The Strokes has not yet made the leap into adult contemporary or at least the press (very favorable to the group up to now) has not decreed that it has. The Strokes were the most famous of the garage revival bands that were popular starting with the early 2000s. The band took inspiration from fellow New York bands like the Velvet Underground and Television and if you were to believe the reviews, they were the best thing going on at the time.
In some ways, the Strokes defied expectations in terms of longevity and change of musical style. Their recent two releases are not by any stretch bad albums, but their mild nature comes as a bit of a shock coming from a band that had built its reputation almost solely on fast, carefree songs featuring choppy guitars and loud vocals. The albums find the Strokes in mid-tempo range, contemplating yesterday’s errors and sounding a lot like an 80’s pop band in the vein of A-Ha. But then again, adult contemporary has proven to be a very lucrative market for some.