Tuesday, June 13, 2006

If you're going to rip someone off, it may as well be Bowie

As a music fan, i often hear/read about performances that i missed. Whether it be iconic for its size (Woodstock, the Beatles at Shea Stadium), or a surprise guest (when Dan got to see Sufjan Stevens guest at an Iron and Wine show), or just a really great set (like any number of shows by any number of bands). Well, this morning, whilst procrastinating, i was reading an interview with Dan Bejar, aka Destroyer, aka the Bowie sounding guy who does 2-3 songs per New Pornographers record. He was talking about the millieu of the live performance and said "I think the Merge showcase we played at the 2002 CMJ, during the This Night tour, might have been the best Destroyer show ever."

This may seem like another piece of Salvatore pining over a show missed, except for the fact that i was there - and i did not appreciate it.

Destroyer is one of the many bands i dismissed initially because of a sonic similarity. Bejar's voice is very David Bowie-circa 1972 (when Bejar was born actually). I know Bejar didn't align his DNA to purposely create a Thin White Duke-esque voice, but he certainly doesn't shy away from phrasing, singing and generally sounding like Bowie. After the aforementioned CMJ showcase, when Bejar and co. got a standing ovation, i wondered aloud to the strangers next to me, "Haven't these fucking people heard of Bowie?" To which they replied, "Who cares?"

Well, i did, dammit! In a world where conformity is encouraged at every level, indie rock should be unique and not instantly remind you of something as universal as Ziggy Stardust. Sure, every band has a song that sounds like someone else - but to my ears, every song in a catalog shouldn't be confused for an outtake of someone more famous. Especially if every song evokes the same guy.

So this begs a question. If you happen to have a natural tint towards someone famous, should you be blamed for emulating them? I mean, there are a dozen guys i can think of off the top of my head who would love to be compared to Bowie - people who spend their entire career trying to achieve a similar balance of credibility, instant recognition and financial success would kill for his voice. So is Bejar really doing anything other than simply taking advantage of a natural ability? If you are a great baseball player who can hit like Tony Gwynn, people would love you, not deride you for it.

And Bejar, on a personal level, does not play up the Bowie thing - he doesn't pull an Oasis and compare himself to his sound-sake. He's put out three Destroyer records since 2002, and each one has been unique and moderately successful. He is pushing his own boundaires with each release and seems to be genuinely commited to a career of idiosyncratic indie rock - albeit idiosyncratic indie rock that people will constatnly compare to Bowie.

What i believe we must do in cases such as Destroyer, is that we must look past the obvious to the subtle. This is, obviously, easier said than done. Frank Black, when talking about one of his favorite albums, Leonard Cohen's I'm Your Man, he says that you must think of the dated 1980s production as "the frame that surrounds the songs." Maybe the Bowie thing is just an ornate frame, that through careful studying, can reveal something really special within.

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I don't know if i agree with all the points made here, but it again shows that for good writing on the interweb, Pop Matters is king.

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