There was an interesting piece in The Guardian this week in which Rob Fitzpatrick pondered the rapid decline in popularity suffered by once-massive acts such as The Kaiser Chiefs, Hoosiers and Duffy. It was a great piece, with the focus largely on how it feels to experience the second album curse. But why does it happen to some acts and not others?
The obvious answer, of course, is that some acts just make rubbish second albums which are received accordingly. But I have noticed that the most extreme falls from grace almost always happen either to ‘indie’ bands such as the Kaiser Chiefs, Hard-Fi and Glasvegas, or singer-songwriter types like KT Tunstall, Duffy and Newton Faulkner. In general, although other acts such as pop groups and RnB stars are far from immune from a followup flop, they’re much better at holding on to a fanbase, with a decline in popularity likely to be more gradual – and easier to recover from.
On the surface, this seems strange. The received wisdom is that it’s the indie kids who make real connections to their music, while pop fans have a shorter attention span and are more apt to move on to the next big thing than to stick with an artist through thick and thin. Think of the obsessive fandom that fuelled classic indie acts like The Smiths and a pre-stadium REM.
In another recent Guardian article; Peter Robinson talked about ‘The New Boring’ – the idea that no-fuss, stripped back performers like Adele and Mumford & Sons had come to represent a supposed ideal of what constituted real and valuable music. Most of the artists who suffer unexpectedly brief shelf-lives fall into this category. Kaiser Chiefs and Hard Fi might have traded in witty lyrics and spiky guitar riffs, but they still dressed and performed in a way that suggested they’d fit in more comfortably in a local working men’s club than on the world stage.
The problem is, while many of these acts are extremely talented, they’re just not all that interesting. For all of Morrissey’s outsider credibility in the 80s, he was also a pop star through and through. From his biting wit to his unique fashion sense, he was a figure that people could really connect with, imitate and aspire to. He was also more than willing to delve into the celebrity world that today’s indie acts set themselves in opposition to – from recording with 60s pop icon Sandie Shaw to hanging out with Pete Burns of Dead or Alive. Then as now, he was easy to love, easy to hate and very difficult to be indifferent to.
Aside from the fact that she’s Scottish, plays guitar and has a few nice songs, what can anybody really say about KT Tunstall – whose second album sold barely an eighth of her multi-platinum debut? She might be the funniest woman in the world, but you’d never know because she isn’t presented in a manner that is in any way engaging or accessible. Same with Duffy. A hideous coke advert and a dreadful lead single from her second album can’t have helped, but ultimately for all her ubiquity in 2008, I couldn’t tell you a thing about her. It’s just very difficult to care about people like this. If I was Ellie Goulding, I’d be very worried right now.
On the other hand, I don’t think this is an absolute rule. Adele may be the poster child for slightly drab worthiness, but she actually makes a fantastic pop star. She has a great sense of style, she gives wonderful interviews and she speaks her mind. People who like Adele aren’t just buying into a few nice songs they’ve heard on the radio, they’re buying into a complete package. She may have a few failures in the future – very few artists never do – but I suspect she’ll be a star for as long as she wants to be.
Another major problem is that once you’ve lost your audience, it’s very difficult to win it back. The industry is always in search of the next big thing, and once you’ve been deemed over or uncool (i.e. when Radio 1 stop playlisting your singles), you could record the next Pet Sounds and they still probably wouldn’t welcome you back.
In 1978 Kate Bush was launched with a number one single and a top-selling debut album. What people often forget is that her swiftly recorded followup Lionheart was a big disappointment. The first single ‘Wow’ stalled at #14, the second ‘Hammer Horror’ missed the top forty entirely. As we know, Kate went on to record a string of classic singles and albums that cemented her place as one of our very greatest performers and songwriters. But what if, after Lionheart, she’d been written off and faded into obscurity? Kate herself has stated that she feels Lionheart was a mistake, rushed out under record label pressure to capitalise on the success of her debut. But perhaps it was a mistake that she needed to make. Without that learning curve, would she have fought so hard for the independence she required to produce her subsequent records?
In my experience, a failed second album almost always leads to a more interesting third one. In cases where a followup record does manage to continue the momentum of the debut, there’s always a risk that hubris will set in. If What’s The Story (Morning Glory) hadn’t matched the success of Definitely Maybe, perhaps Oasis wouldn’t have spent the next fifteen years rehashing the same sound that kept them on top for much of the mid-nineties. Although if Liam and Noel hadn’t been such quoteable, tabloid-friendly characters, perhaps nobody would have cared very much either way.