For those of us who grew up when “alternative music” meant an entire ideology, and wasn’t a descriptive term for bands like Train, music management people have always been the enemy.
Record company executives, A&R men, managers, agents and the like existed only to corrupt artists. To yank them away from the better angels of their nature and convince them to abandon their ideals with the lure of sweet cash. In our minds, these evil, greedy souls always wanted to push artists to make the most commercial music possible — songs that would appeal to soccer moms and sound good in Lexus commercials.
This division between art and commerce has existed forever, but coalesced in popular music with the punk movement. Alternative, and then indie rock, borrowed from the punk philosophy liberally when building its ethos.
And mostly, those stereotypes seem to be true. Record company executives have been proven to be incompetent, out-of-touch morons more often than not.
But there have been occasions when management’s push to make music more commercial has worked out well for all involved, both commercially and artistically. Specifically, on two separate occasions a decade apart, management demands to include “a hit single” have moved albums from two all-time great artists from very good to all-time great status.
In 1984, Bruce Springsteen had wrapped recording the follow-up to his minimalist masterpiece, Nebraska. The new album saw him returning to the commercial sound of The River and Born to Run. Springsteen combined anti-Reagan lyrics with tunes sure to make people ignore the political sentiments within. He was re-entering the mainstream after a period of questioning his career path.
And the resulting record, Born in the U.S.A., would surely have been a huge hit, buoyed by singles like the title track, “Glory Days” and “My Hometown.” But Springsteen’s manager, Jon Landau, thought the album was missing something. He thought it was missing a gargantuan hit single.
Landau has long been demonized by Springsteen fans for what has been viewed as a controlling, Machiavellian management style. He’s been blamed for Springsteen’s mistakes (the dissolution of the E Street Band) and ignored for his successes. Landau is viewed as someone who hitched his wagon to Springsteen’s star.
But in this case, he was right.
According to Dave Marsh’s biography “Glory Days,” Landau told Springsteen forcefully that the album was incomplete, that it felt like it was missing something important. It was short a hit.
“Look,” Springsteen responded. “I’ve written 70 songs. You want another one, you write it.”
But something in Landau’s argument got to Springsteen, and that night in his hotel he wrote “Dancing in the Dark.” Springsteen described his songwriting process that night as almost preternatural: “It was just like my heart spoke straight through my mouth, without even having to pass through my brain. The chorus just poured out of me.”
Wrote Marsh, “By sunup Landau had what he’d asked for: a song that summed up Bruce Springsteen’s life in that moment. It was exactly what the album needed But it was more — the most directly personal excavation Springsteen had extracted from himself since ‘Born to Run.'”
Landau’s meddling accomplished two things: 1) He prodded Springsteen to create the song that would put Born in the U.S.A. over the top, a multi-platinum seller that temporarily placed Springsteen in the company of Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson in terms of fame, and 2) More importantly, “Dancing in the Dark” is an all-time classic. It’s the best song on the album and one of the best in Springsteen’s immense catalog.
The song has always had its detractors, mostly because of the silly Brian DePalma-filmed, Courtney Cox-filled video, but also because of the keyboard riff, which firmly grounds “Dancing” in the ’80s. Steve Van Zandt in particular hated the synthesizers, and pushed for new arrangements when the E Street Band later played the song live. Springsteen himself eventually shied away from the song’s massive success (it charted at #2 — Bruce’s biggest hit. As he said in the liner notes of his greatest hits album, “Damn you, Artist Formerly Known as Prince.”), not playing it much in concert from 1999 on.
That’s too bad, because it’s a great fucking song. The lyrics are dark, direct and soul-searching. That gets lost in the song’s catchiness in the same way that “Born in the U.S.A.” gets misinterpreted because of its pounding drumbeat and soaring chorus.
Jon Landau was right. That album needed “Dancing in the Dark.” The Springsteen oeuvre needed “Dancing in the Dark.” Score one for the pencil-pushers.
Some 15 years after Landau and Springsteen argued, Wilco was completing it’s third album, “Summerteeth.” Their prior record, the double-album “Being There,” helped break the band to a new audience, and hopes were high for their new stuff.
“Summerteeth” is famously the “Jay Bennett album,” because Jeff Tweedy’s former consigliere bled all over it. Bennett took Tweedy’s relatively straightforward acoustic-guitar-based songs and added layers of hazy, drunken keyboards, synths and sound effects. If not for Bennett, “Summerteeth” might have sounded a lot like “Being There.” Instead, it stands alone in Wilco’s catalog, a brazenly catchy and unique sounding collection of tracks.
Executives at Reprise Records didn’t like what they heard when Tweedy turned in the album. They wanted a hit, and didn’t think anything Tweedy had recorded could deliver.
In “Learning How to Die,” Greg Kot wrote that Reprise’s head of radio promotion told a product manager: “Can you go back to Chicago and tell Jeff that we really need him to deliver a ‘One Headlight.’ We think Wilco could be another Wallflowers.”
As ridiculous as that sounds, as evil as it sounds, it resulted in Tweedy writing “Can’t Stand It,” the album’s leadoff track and one of its best songs. Amazingly, Tweedy agreed to write and record a new song for the album, with an eye on making a hit. Kot: “Jeff Tweedy tried to be a good sport about a process he openly loathed, but was willing to try — once.”
Tweedy essentially sold out, at least in the way we’ve always understood the term. He had a completed artistic statement in his mind, but tacked on an extra song to try to make more money for himself and his record company. There’s probably nothing wrong with doing that, but we’re so conditioned to view sales as a natural enemy of art that we bristle at the very idea.
The nameless, heartless record company guys were right, though. “Can’t Stand It” is a bouncy, dynamic opener and serves the album well. Of course, they dropped Wilco in advance of their next album, but that’s a whole different ball of wax.
“Cant Stand It.” “Dancing in the Dark.” Two great songs that wouldn’t exist but for the prodding of greedy men. Two instances where management “taking advantage” of artists worked out to everyone’s benefit. The Man can’t always be wrong, I suppose.