Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Base On Balls
I have not, to the best of my recollection, ever seen Cleveland Indians outfielder Grady Sizemore play baseball in person. Nor have I heard Hawksley Workman's new record. I am equally convinced that both of them should be great successes in their chosen field. But I am entirely sure that only one of them will amount to as much.

Let me explain.

I'm thrilled to have Grady Sizemore on my fantasy baseball team (even though I paid 29 imaginary dollars for him and that left me with so little money that I was forced to select Bob Wickman to anchor my bullpen, a man with the approximate shape of a grapefruit). By the numbers, Sizemore is almost perfect. Last season he hit 22 homers, stole 22 bases and drove in 81 runs. His on base percentage was .348 and his slugging percentage was .484. And he will not turn 24 until August, meaning he has not yet reached the peak of his abilities (baseball players are thought to top out at 27). The scouting report on him in The Sporting News fantasy baseball preview informs that Sizemore "has the gifts for greatness."

That is, coincidentally, exactly how I would describe Hawksley Workman to someone considering whether or not to invest imaginary money in his short-term well-being.

To date Workman has released two critically approved records (For Him and the Girls and The Delicious Wolves), one album that proved he could turn a decent pop song (Lover/Fighter), one decent Christmas record (Almost a Full Moon) and a book of poetry (Hawksley Burns For Isadora). He has produced albums for several above average artists, is quite popular in France and has a rather interesting and completely fictitious name. He is said to specialize in both "glam rock" and "cabaret pop" and he's vaguely from the Greater Toronto Area, which seems to count for a fair bit these days. Plus, at 31, he still has plenty of productive years ahead of him. A write-up in The Georgia Straight recently described Workman as "a musician of incredible velocity, [who] has evolved from the slight, pin-striped oddball with the acclaimed diamond voice, to the panoramic, guitar-punishing superstar with no performance limits."

By the math, Hawksley Workman should be huge. Massive even. Or at least Arcade Fire-level famous. But he is not. Not even close actually.

He is not internationally famous like Nickelback or Shania Twain or Avril Lavigne. Nor is he nationally famous like Our Lady Peace or Hedley or Rita McNeil. At the same time, he is not "cool" like Broken Social Scene or Metric or Stars. Nor is he just weird enough to be revered like Final Fantasy or all those other bands you read about on other blogs. He is a little like all of these things and therefore like none of them.

At first, the realization of this made me mad. Angry even. I was going to write one of those long posts that makes the desperate case for an under-appreciated artist and inspires the 12 or so of you who read this blog to run out and buy his new record, quietly starting a global movement that turns Hawksley Workman into a universally adored star on par with Madonna, or at least Joss Stone. But then I realized that would be wrong. Or at least misguided. Because popular music is not like fantasy baseball.

This, on its own, is not a particularly noteworthy revelation. But it is important to note to what great degree popular music is not like fantasy baseball. (To be honest, the fantasy baseball part is really just an excuse to brag about Grady Sizemore.)

Approximately 85% of all serious discussion about popular music is drawn from two companion ideas. First, that a given artist is far less popular than they otherwise deserve to be. Second, that a given artist is far more popular than they otherwise deserve to be. In those two statements you'll find the basis for almost everything you read about Death Cab for Cutie or Britney Spears or Tom Petty. In fact, at least one genre, indie rock, is based entirely on these two arguments.

Unfortunately, this means the vast majority of discussion about popular music is crap. Because popular music is nothing like fantasy baseball. (Correction. Perhaps that whole Grady Sizemore tangent had a point.) In fact, it is the exact opposite of fantasy baseball - a statistical sport based on only the aspects of a given sport that can be measured and defined.

Popularity in pop music, on the other hand, is almost completely coincidental. In most cases, it is based on matters completely outside the realm of one's control.

I'll give you a few examples.

If Gwen Stefani were a red head, she would not be Gwen Stefani, a vaguely robotic pop heroine. She would be Gwen Stefani, manager of several locally popular ska-punk bands in and around Venice Beach. Conversely, if the Cardigans were from California, Nina Persson would be Gwen Stefani, the vaguely robotic pop heroine.

John Mayer would be 98% less popular if he was 65 pounds heavier. Same with James Blunt. Or at least, in the case of Blunt, another 65 pounds prevents the video where he takes his shirt off.

If Kid Rock were actually from Tennessee, he never would have gotten to sleep with Pam Anderson. If you can't figure out why your favourite band isn't bigger, it's probably because they have too many syllables in their name. If Nickelback had formed in Seattle around 1991, they would have been signed to a record deal after their first show but then dropped before they could release their first record. Chad Kroeger would go on to become the manager of a particularly successful Pottery Barn.

You could play this game all day. Change the inherent circumstances of a given artist and everything changes. What would have happened to Coldplay if Chris Martin had long hair? What if Johnny Cash went by Johnny Stevens? What if Michael Jackson had started out white and ended up black?

Consider American Idol. Essentially, AI eliminates a great deal of the uncertainty associated with attempting to gain popularity. In fact, it manufactures its winner and even runner-up a base amount of popularity. The contestants are then put at the mercy of uncertainty and coincidence. Of course, in hindsight, it's easy to see why Justin Guarini never quite revolutionized the music business, but in the immediate aftermath of each season the finalists almost always look like sure things. And yet, only one, Kelly Clarkson, has so far amounted to much more than pop music's equivalent of a first baseman with warning track power.

Why has Clarkson succeeded where everyone else has so far failed? Perhaps because she is not overbearingly attractive. Or because she just so happened to be the first winner. Or because she found a producer with a couple Interpol records. Who knows? In any event, there's no way she's any more obviously interesting than, say, Fantasia, a black single mother with a unique voice and what amounts to a personality.

By the math, Fantasia is Grady Sizemore. And Kelly Clarkson is, I don't know, let's say, Lyle Overbay.

So what does this all mean? Well, I'm not sure. I suppose it means several things.

1. That gambling on pop music is probably not wise.

2. That a good name for a band would probably be Dude. Or perhaps Woah.

3. That Hawksley Workman is worth approximately 29 imaginary dollars.

4. And that actually listening to records is either entirely relevant or completely necessary.

Vaguely related: Indie bands soundtrack baseball video game.

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