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5 Artists So Popular They’re Unpopular

Popular and Unpopular
Jason Merritt / Matthias Nareyek / George De Sota / Mark Metcalfe, Getty Images

Earlier this week, I read an article asserting that the Foo Fighters suck. I don’t remember much of it, but the gist was that they aren’t really rock and roll for this reason or that — Dave Grohl‘s stage patter is corny, their lyrics are too superficial, they’re too rich, too omnipresent, that kind of thing.

I don’t know whether it was the author’s intention or my bias, but the subtext seemed to be this: The Foo Fighters are no good because they’re popular. That’s right, in some circles the Foo Fighters are unpopular because they’re popular. In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

It’s not just the Foos, either. Perhaps the oldest move in the music snob book — and color me guilty — is the “I liked their early stuff” gambit, which is shorthand for “I liked them before you did, but I’ve moved on.” However, I’m not so cynical as to believe that’s all that phrase means.

"There’s something magical about “discovering” a band and letting them into our little bubble."There’s something magical about discovering (read: “discovering”) a band and letting them into our little bubble. In some ways it’s akin to the infatuation stage of a new relationship. Everything our new band does is brilliant and fascinating, and we could listen to them all day. Some of us actually do.

Eventually, familiarity creeps in though and with it comes contempt. Really, Dave? Again with the earnest rawk? Why did I think you were so cool? I think we need a break. It’s not me, it’s you.

But it is us. We’re the ones who are constantly chasing the buzz that comes along with a new infatuation. The musicians we toss on the scrap pile for committing the heinous crime of entertaining millions of people haven’t done anything wrong. Well, maybe Phil Collins has, but that’s another essay.

In the spirit of “Nobody likes the Foo Fighters because everybody likes the Foo Fighters,” here are five bands who have been pilloried for being successful:

1. U2

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How is it that U2 rose to the lofty heights of Biggest Band In the World, yet everyone seems to hate them? Who bought those 150 million albums?

I’m right around 238 years old, so I remember the excitement when ‘War’ broke in the States. I rushed out and bought the band’s back catalog  (both albums) and went on the hunt for imports, B-sides and bootlegs. When ‘Unforgettable Fire’ dropped I declared it a perfect album and pretty much glued it to my turntable.

Then Live Aid happened, and a billion people watched Bono do the same stage moves that seemed so earnest and sincere on a smaller scale. After that came ‘The Joshua Tree,’ and that’s when the band’s popularity really exploded.

Since then, U2 have operated under a cloud of “you suck” while continuing to sell out venues, sell records, and tick people off with their promotional efforts.

2. The Rolling Stones

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At least in one regard the Fab Four beat the Glimmer Twins in the Beatles vs. Stones battle: They broke up while they were still young and handsome. The Rolling Stones, on the other hand, have insisted upon longevity — and we’ll have none of that.

Making jokes about how old the Stones are, or the apparent immortality of Keef, started in the ’70s and have been unrelenting ever since, yet I guarantee you that if they announced tomorrow that they were playing five nights at Wembley they’d sell out every show — and we’d be there front-and-center if we could scrape together the cash.

3. Pearl Jam

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PJ sort of came out of the gate hated for their popularity. The grunge era was all about hating corporations and The Man and yada yada yada. Although Nirvana, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains all were on major labels, too, Pearl Jam for some reason became the Seattle whipping boy for corporate grunge.

The band did a lot of damage control with their second album, ‘Vs.,’ refusing to make any videos and not retreading the same sonic ground covered on ‘Ten.’ All these years later, though, PJ’s popularity renders them an object of scorn in some circles.

4. Led Zeppelin

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There’s no band on this list that’s more musically gifted than Led Zeppelin. Whether you like your music rootsy, bluesy or heavy, the mighty Zep have you covered. Where else are you going to get mandolin, glass-shattering high notes and hammer of the gods drums all in one song?

All that talent, and yet from their very beginning Zeppelin were scorned by the critics while packing stadiums. Never has a band been so wildly popular as Led Zeppelin while allegedly sucking.

Pop culture has been of no help to Zep’s legacy. You’d think that the band only recorded three songs the way the same old chestnuts keep blaring from commercials and radios. I love Led Zeppelin, but if I never hear ‘Immigrant Song’ or ‘Rock and Roll’ again it will be too soon. In Zeppelin’s case, it’s not that the band suffers from its own popularity so much as the popularity of a few songs in their catalog.

Do yourself a favor: If you like acoustic bands, pick up ‘Led Zeppelin III’ and give it a close listen. If you still think Zeppelin suck, I’ll … well, I don’t know what I’ll do. Probably just shrug.

5. Jack White

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Who didn’t love the White Stripes? They were cool, funky, visually interesting — and Jack White wrote killer hooks. But please don’t ever say “doorbell” to me — I’ll be stuck with an earworm for a week.

When the White Stripes disbanded, Jack White kept getting bigger. Through his own bands, production credits and Third Man Records, White became the de facto poster boy for alt-indie music — and much like U2, he’s suffered a bit of a backlash for it.

Nothing about White’s talent has changed. The guy still makes great records and puts on a killer show.

"Good is good, regardless of whether no one has heard our favorite band or they are ubiquitous."If I have a point it’s this: Good is good, regardless of whether no one has heard your favorite band or they are ubiquitous. Don’t be embarrassed to like Coldplay, Green Day, Nickelback or Taylor Swift just because they’re enormously popular. If those artists do something for you embrace them, and if they don’t then dismiss them based on their lack of musical merit. Don’t let something as fickle as popularity affect your playlist.

Unless we’re talking about Phil Collins. But we’ll save that for another essay.

Next: 8 Reasons Record Stores Beat Online Services

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