The Worst Artists in Popular Music Today

April 24, 2012

Okay, so I realize I have left several blog-series hanging in the wind, including final posts on threads of a much more thoughtful nature than the topic at hand here*; and although I comment on music regularly on this site it’s usually to list and rank the “best of” things, whether albums or songs of the year or the artists of a particular genre or era. I make criticism pretty much in passing only unless I’m just panning a particularly bad album in a group of reviews.  But I’ve kicked around the idea of doing a “worst of” list for awhile now and as a way of easing back into a (hopefully) more regular schedule of updates I thought I’d give this bit of pretentious cynicism a go. This will be a minor and sporadic thread in which an artist or two at a time will be “highlighted.” To start us off, here are two bands I consider some of the worst offenders in all of popular music today.

* Breaking Benjamin

I couldn’t sing you one single Breaking Benjamin song if I wanted to–to me they’re simply forgettable. Breaking Benjamin make ridiculously forgettable songs–songs that arrive with a self-aware sense of bombastic, wannabe “bigness” but that dissipate into the air the minute they’re over. Which is why it’s surprising to me that Benjamin has four successful albums under their belt, a slew of modern Rock radio staples to their credit, and are the constant go-to guys for a ton of forgettable soundtrack compilers. One word sums up this band’s sound better than any other–banal. That simple quality of extreme mediocrity wouldn’t brand them so high on a “worst of” list if they weren’t so overwhelmingly popular, though. I don’t know how many people I’ve met who claim Benjamin as their favorite band or at least mention them early on when talking about what bands they’re into. If this is what passes for a rock star group in 2012, rock radio (and rock fans) are in trouble. Which is the real problem–there are literally dozens of amazingly talented and creative rock bands making music today that get nowhere near the level of exposure that Breaking Benjamin does. The band represents the pure middle-of-the-road state of rock radio. Their drony, post-grunge, pop-metal sheen, uber- “serious” rock sound has spawned a dozen like-minded imitators (say, Shinedown or Black Stone Cherry or Three Days Grace or whoever, for example). Take the basic Benjamin sound and formula and push it a tad in any direction and you’ll have another successful generic prototype. Want a “heavier” Benjamin? Try Five Finger Death Punch or another crappy pseudo post nu-metaler. Want a more earnest, soulful Benjamin? Try the craptastic Fray or Snow Patrol. How about kicking the Benjamin sound further down the middle of the road, adding a slight twang and you’ve got multi-platinum stadium-suckers Nickelback. Which is funny, because at one time Nickelback would reign supreme on any worst- of list I was compiling. They’re absent here not because they’ve gotten better–oh no, they’ve gotten much worse with success, moving from passable post-grunge to debauched stadium sleaze now that they’re so wealthy–but because they are kind of their own joke without knowing it and they are therefore nowhere near as soul-suckingly bland as Breaking Benjamin. Kids, Breaking Benjamin are not a rock band. They’re a filler band that signal you, the listener, to flip the dial or change the track.

* Sugarland

I really think Sugarland’s lead singer/songwriter Jennifer Nettles might be the worst vocalist in popular music today. I honestly want cotton to plug my ears with every time she hits a high note…or a low note, or any note for that matter. You might be thinking that I simply should avoid listening to her band, but that’s something for which I apparently have no control over–Sugarland’s success and popularity have apparently made them a satellite radio staple for every major grocery, retail, and gas station chain in the south east. Not a day goes by when I don’t seem to hear “All I Want to Do” at least once and I feel like screaming every time. I wake up with that ear-worm of a non-chorus stuck in my head. I don’t mind a bit of “twang” in a vocalist; I prefer distinct, original vocal personalities, voices that ground a singer in the area that produced them and the genre that they make. An artist like Loretta Lynn without the twang or Joe Strummer without the Brit-snarl would be completely different, far less compelling vocalists altogether. But Nettles’ vocals are all twang at top volume with no real contours; it almost sounds like a fake twang but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s a glossy twang though, she sings in the way that every cover band or karaoke singer in a  Nashville or Memphis bar does when they’re trying to show you they really “mean it.”  To make matters far worse are the completely ridiculous lyrics those pipes deliver–schmaltzy, cheesy mundane, and ridiculous narratives and non-starters. Sugarland is indicative of everything wrong with mainstream country radio–generic, stereotypical vocals, intellectually unintelligible lyrics, and a flattening, sugar-coated gloss of over-production to send it all home. Look, a little cheese is fine which is why the only song I’ve ever heard Sugarland deliver that seemed to be authentic for them–their first hit “Baby Girl”–for the most part worked. It was like a Wal-Mart Country music two-decades later update of “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Which is why it was totally unsurprising that the band did a duet with Jon Bon Jovi in his brief go at testing the waters of modern pop country music–because at his best Jon delivered guilty pleasure through a massively successful dose of rock cheese that played with the textures and conventions of metal while all the time really just making pop music. It took Jon and his band about 5 albums, all of the eighties (and half of the nineties) to really jump the shark and cross that fine line from guilty pleasure to absolute crap, a feat he cappped circa “Have a Nice Day” at the turn of the century during a relative resurgence in popularity. Nettles and company in ‘land do the same thing with the genre of Country–toy with the textures and conventions of that ancient genre while all the while really just making pop music. The problem is it’s very, very bad pop music that a whole slew of people really, really like.

*I will do my best to wrap up the “God-shaped Hole” series and the “30 Best Metal Albums of All Time” thread at some point in the near future for anyone who happens to be reading those.

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