Around two years ago, we were all jumping in on the Gary Clark Jr. hype bandwagon. The Austin, TX musician had some obvious blues chops, and seemed to be one to look out for. As the release of his major label debut approached, his face suddenly became ubiquitous on TV and music blogs for a while, and his label-orchestrated “big break” was all too obvious for those really paying attention. Though the LP Blak and Blu managed to impress one of our own here at Antiquiet, it was ultimately a letdown, and it seemed like the excessive hype would soon die a much-deserved death, while the artist would live on. Unfortunately, that’s not how the folks at Warner see it, as they recently released this “trailer”:
It’s kinda disgusting. The amount of times the trailer brings up “the chosen one”, interspersed with other attention-grabbing quotes, is absolutely ridiculous. It’s as if some record label people were just waiting for his Grammy win (the first thing that shows up in the video) to bring up the idea that the guy is a living legend, and prop him up for an inevitable sophomore effort, which will come with its own share of hyperbolic magazine quotes. We’ve got nothing against the musician himself, but the truckload of exaggerations that follows him around deserves to be called out. We’re here to reassess how things went down since Gary Clark Jr. first made it onto the spotlight.
The man is talented, and there’s no doubt about how well he can play the guitar and sing, but jumping from venerable scene artist to “the chosen one” is a clear fabrication. Any musician willing to reach such heights would usually have an arduous proving ground ahead – and no amount of indie releases that no one’s listened to will count towards that. We’re talking about releasing albums and songs that people actually give a damn about, building a fan base that’s not reliant on Rolling Stone articles or late night TV to form their opinion. Though some fans will berate anyone doubting Gary Clark Jr.’s cred, the fact is that, in the early days of his hype, people were just sharing videos of his (admittedly great, but cover-heavy) live shows and hoping his debut LP would live up to them. His original material was supposed to fulfill the promise that Warner wanted to sell at the time, but it clearly didn’t.
Blak and Blu‘s issues started with the slick production, removing the edge from even his successful live numbers such as Bright Lights and Numb. But any momentum gained with good blues rockers was obliterated by unbearable, wholly unnecessary R&B songs like the title-track and The Life, where it sounds as if the singer’s soul is slowly dying on tape. Forays into other genres aren’t good enough to cross over successfully, and even the tried-and-true blues efforts fail to transcend in any meaningful way. Then there’s Glitter Ain’t Gold, where Gary goes full shit-period Lenny Kravitz, and Things Are Changin’, which is to The Black Keys’ ballads what an early Muse song is to The Bends-era Radiohead (more on that comparison in a bit). Remove all the record label-pushed forgettable bullshit material, and Blak and Blu is a good EP, at best, but still one that evokes the word “promise” rather than “the next Jimi Hendrix”. Certain fans will still want to argue, and since comparisons were the basis of so much of the hype at hand here, we’ll use them to deconstruct it as well.
“You should listen to the Bright Lights EP, that’s where the REAL music is!”
Yes, 20011’s Bright Lights is a well-executed blues EP – and not much beyond that. It shows an artist that knows his way around the guitar and can sing well, but has barely one song worth writing home about. It’s also strikingly similar to the music The Black Keys were making at the time, even down to Clark Jr.’s voice tone, a doppelgänger to Dan Auerbach’s howl. But there’s one major issue: none of the Keys’ massive, arena-filling hooks were present on Bright Lights (or Blak and Blu, for that matter). The Black Keys were already making great, somewhat catchy blues music before they broke out to a wider audience. In 2010, they consciously built one hit single, bringing in producer Danger Mouse, and working harder on that song than they had on entire albums before. The result was their biggest single yet, and their audience only grew with 2011’s El Camino. The time was right to bring in similar-sounding acts to the mainstream, much like what happened with The Strokes and The White Stripes in the early 2000’s. Gary Clark Jr. didn’t really have a hit single, but he had a bunch of people telling the world how awesome his music was.
“But Eric Clapton likes him! And The Rolling Stones brought him onstage! And look, here’s his picture with Jimmy Page!”
We don’t know what goes on in those artists’ minds, but they are still human, each with their own musical taste and opinion, and their validation shouldn’t mean an automatic crowning the way it does to so many people. Not to get into too many examples, let’s stick to people already mentioned here:
–Radiohead hand-picked The Black Keys to be their opening act in 2006. Around the same time, Thom Yorke complimented Wolfmother by saying: “I really like them actually. They’re totally unashamed about what they’re doing. They just don’t give a fuck – and I really love that.” That should sum it up, but let’s go on.
–Eric Clapton, polarizing as he may be with his solo music, used to praise John Mayer (polarizing as that guy’s music may be) almost as much as he did Gary Clark Jr., bringing him onstage and whatnot. When asked about The White Stripes, Clapton stated he’d only heard them once, at an awards show, and didn’t really like them, because it was some form of heresy to perform the blues in that setting, wearing those colors.
–Jimmy Page was shoehorned into photoshoots with Jack White much the same way he was with Gary Clark Jr. Then you watch It Might Get Loud, recorded years after that fact, and it’s like Mr. Page was just then finding out what the hell Jack White’s music was all about. When one agrees to a photoshoot, it’s about the press, not an instant endorsement. And even if it were an endorsement, should we give a shit?
–The Rolling Stones are known to bring onstage artists that are trending or have trended at some point, and it rarely works. Sometimes, they’ll get a good result from Christina Aguilera, then get a post-relevance Lady Gaga to jump around during Gimme Shelter like someone stuck a Red Bull up her ass and ruin the song. They’ll perform a worthy jam with Jack White, then do a not-so-good one with The Black Keys. They’ll even get John Mayer and Gary Clark Jr. on the same stage. And none of it means anything.
Seeing how Gary Clark Jr. gained an enormous media space in a relatively short time is a testament to the labels’ power, not that different from what happened to Lana Del Rey or other artists even less worthy of a mention. There’s no particular concern that the singer will start polluting the airwaves with really popular, really bad music all of a sudden, since his first record wasn’t that big of a commercial success to begin with. In fact, we hope he’ll come up with a second album that’s actually good, one that doesn’t bend to the will of producers, and doesn’t go in several musical directions just to see what markets it can be sold on next time. What concerns us is the way record labels try to bend public perception, creating legends out of thin air by spewing magazine quotes, TV appearances, and endorsements from legendary artists, when none of that should matter anymore, or at least not as much as it does. It’s a sign of what needs to change, fast.