You know the feeling you get when you walk into a huge megastore like, say, Forever XXI or H&M, and become immediately exhausted by the sheer amount of crap you have to sift through just to come up with one wearable item? It’s that wind-out-of-your-sails, punch-in-the-gut sentiment that comes when contemplating the prospect of pushing through what boils down to a human cattle farm that reeks of the puberty sweats just to plunge your hands into seemingly infinite bins of loosely applied sequins, abrasive mesh, and sweaters that ask the real, deep questions: “Don’t You Wish Your Girlfriend Could Twerk Like Me?” Now that I’m not 13 and have more than $10 to spend on an outfit, I actively avoid this kind of psychologically traumatizing shopping experience, choosing instead to consider a few good options rather than be inundated with hundreds of shitty ones. Yes, my days of standing in line for 30 minutes to try on see-through jersey dresses in a dressing room closed off by a glorified shower curtain (where there are always gaps in either side and you know someone walking by at just the right angle is definitely going to get an eyeful of your glorious yet still reasonably puritan semi-nude form) are over. Unfortunately, there is no musical version of The Limited. You, me, and all the other music-addicted saps in the world are stuck in the auditory equivalent of the clearance section of a Charlotte Russe, and it ain’t pretty.
Do me a favor and turn on the radio. The actual, bonafide radio, not Internet radio pre-programmed to match your tastes, that’s cheating. Write down the names of the first five artists you hear. How many of them do you know? Probably close to 100%. Bigger question: how many do you like? Do you appreciate their artistic talent, or are they chilling somewhere closer to the level of your racist aunt who gives you magic kits for Christmas and flirts too much with people’s husbands when she’s drunk as far as earning your respect is concerned? Well, when I played this game, I got Zayn Malik, One Direction (which sort of feels redundant), DNCE, Bruno Mars, and Ariana Grande, respectively. So, do I know them? Check. Did I enjoy this experience? Not really. It kind of felt like I was back under the fluorescent lights of Forever XXI. Not just because that is exactly what I would be forced to listen to while getting lost somewhere between the plastic jewelry and the shoes made more of glue than anything else, but also because I was muddling through the musical manifestation of the color beige, trying in vain to find one thing I kind of sort of liked.
This exercise begs the question: What exactly are the criterion for becoming music-famous these days? The ability to rhyme “car” with “hard?” The will to be provocative? To craft a celebrity identity based entirely off flashy outfits and insane antics? Wherever the bar is set, it’s low. Like, the last round of an extremely competitive game of cruise ship limbo low. One Direction and their newly pink-haired-for-Valentine’s-Day one-off Zayn are more famous for making pre-pubescent girls swoon than for their music, Bruno Mars might be some kind of sentient mold that just grew out of that fedora after a heavy rain, and although I admire Ariana’s personal commitment to representing herself from a feminist perspective, I can honestly say that breaking glass comes to mind when I hear her hit high notes.
Now this is not some tortured lament on my part about how there is no talent out there anymore, nothing fresh to revitalize my cold, dead heart. There absolutely is—the problem is that what is great and new and different is typically not what makes the cut. There are some notable exceptions to the rule, some killer groups that get fairly regular air time and maintain a steady, wide-reaching fan base. Your Black Keys, your deadmau5 (deadmice?), your Band of Skulls, your Neighborhoods. But for every great artist who makes it big, there are at least 15 other artists or groups who, like those cheaply-made graphic tees at H&M, blind you to the presence of the good stuff.
And then there are the even more disenfranchised rare, quality pieces of clothing stuck eternally beneath layers of thrifty crud that will likely never rise to the top, or even the middle. Just look around at your local music scene and you can undoubtedly find some hidden gems that will, tragically, remain hidden, even though secretly you might be happy about that because it makes you look cooler in the long run. You want an example? Look at home-grown Floridian acts like Hundred Waters, Quiet Science, or Dashboard Confessional who, despite being pretty great and headlining middle-of-the-road festivals and venues, might never manage to break into more lucrative circles because they are inevitably buried by a solid layer of—pardon my French—sh*t.
The problem is that it’s too easy and too hard to become famous in the music industry. It’s both, simultaneously; erroneously. It’s somehow entirely possible for people with no discernable musical talent or creative drive to rise to the top, yet completely and utterly impossible for innovative musical minds to become anything more than mediocre. And that sad fact is even more torturous than contemplating a trip into Forever XXI.