We talk a lot over here about the ability and productivity of mixing and matching. It seems that every combination of two or more things is sacrosanct in this neck of the woods. Therefore, the thought for today is what happens when mixing and matching goes wrong? Now there’s two types of wrong mixmatch: the kind where the match is just a little off and some people might like it, others may not, and the kind where the match is so off that almost no one in their right mind could possibly conceive of liking it.
Case in point…I like eating hot sauce on cheddar cheese. Now that’s a slightly odd pairing, but I’m basically certain that there are a lot of people out there who either enjoy it or would enjoy it if they were to think of trying it. It might be a little weird, but a lot of people could enjoy it given the chance. But what about dunking oreos in orange juice? I’ve never seen anyone do that, it sounds disgusting, and I don’t know anyone who would even try it. Another example…my aunt likes to chew ice that she’s put salt on. I always considered this out of the ordinary, but I can imagine hundreds of thousands of people the world over enjoying it. But I’ve never seen anyone that enjoys the taste of Snapple Peach Iced Tea after they have brushed their teeth. That’s a mix that just doesn’t match. Or, as they like to say in my office, “That dog don’t hunt.”
So how does this relate to music? Well my pet rant today is what happens when good bands mix themselves with horrendous band names. There’s not a whole lot, if you’re an artist in the music business, that you can control. You can control the music that you make to start out with, but you can’t really control if you get discovered or not. Once discovered, it’s very possible you lose control over the music to some extent. You can control the gigs you play but not the crowds they bring in. The band can control who’s in it, but can’t control what the people involved actually want to do.
But there is one thing that every band has absolute control over because it exists long before the gigs and the labels and the fans…the name. Every band chooses their own name, and they have to do it before they even play a gig. And whether we like it or not, a lot of people (especially those of the American Idol fan club ideology) can and do judge a book by its cover. I mean, millions of people every year tune in and think that because some nobody from one of the fly-over states can sing cover songs, they deserve to have their own musical career. But that’s a rant for another post. But one of the first things, if not the first thing, that anyone hears about a band is their name. And once a band has become popular, usually in large part due to word of mouth, the name is near impossible to change with the same force of the original output.
So why then do good bands mix good music with bad band names? It’s an almost surefire way to make sure you’re either never discovered or taken as a joke. Some band names are catchy, but if the music doesn’t back it up, once that catch begins to fade, the name becomes sticky, a wad of gum holding the shoe sole of the band’s future to the pavement of its past. There are several types of naming sub genres I’ve identified for this little rant, and I’m going to examine them from glorious top to ignominious bottom: the popular/easy/immortal name, the easy to shorten name, the cumbersome name and the impossible name.
First let’s take a look at names that are immortal for one reason or another. Names that stick, roll off your tongue, entice someone who hasn’t heard them to listen to them, and names that are in some cases so simple that their mere ease of remembrance helps spread the band’s popularity. Obviously in some of these cases, the popularity of the band and their music helped to immortalize the name, but in others, the way the name is framed helps. The Beatles (clever because they’re not the Beetles), U2, The Doors (a reference at the time, I believe, to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception), Hieroglyphics, Beck, Atmosphere, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Radiohead (who most people may not know is actually a name of a Talking Heads song.) The list of these names goes on and on, simply because there are a lot of good bands with great names. I’m sure you can think of at least three between now and the next paragraph. The names are most often short, to the point, descriptive, easy to remember and fitting for the band. Names of artists also fall in here like Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell and John Lennon.
Then you have the easy to shorten name. These names can sometimes be long, but the band’s music and the form of the name justify the creation of an easy and acceptable abbreviation. The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Jimi, Jimi Hendrix), Del Tha Funkee Homosapien (Del), Death Cab For Cutie (Death Cab), Creedence Clearwater Revival (Creedence), Dave Matthews Band (Dave Matthews, DMB), Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (Bruce Springsteen, The Boss). These names have great staying power because often the whole name has more impact, but the shortened name is just as effective.
Now let’s look at bands where the names got them some recognition, but then became a heavy burden or joke once the gleam of their first hit single faded. Bear in mind that these people may or may not still put out good music, but their credibility is constantly under scrutiny because why should you have band names like these if every song isn’t a hit? The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Hootie and the Blowfish, Insane Clown Posse, Frou Frou, Goo Goo Dolls, Jefferson Starship (how can you take it seriously when they changed from Jefferson Airplane just to be more modern? That in conjunction with a different band line-up killed every song but “We Built This City” for them) and Young MC (how can he ever grow up?)
These groups were all groups with some very good music at one point or another in their careers, and yet all of them faced intensified scrutiny later in their careers that was hard to overcome with the band names they had chosen. After five or six years, Hootie and the Blowfish might still make some good music (some of the tracks off their second album, Fairweather Johnson, were pretty good), but it had become a joke to listen to “Hootie.”
And then, you have the worst possible combination…a group that hasn’t been discovered, has no clear cut radio single for the masses to easily digest, and has a name that makes you not just want to not hear them, but to actively avoid them. One of the foremost examples in my mind is Deadeye Dick, a 90s alternative band that had a number of songs I really liked off their second album Whirl. The songs are all solid and could easily have found chart time with the other rock bands of the time, but the name helped crush them. Sure, it’s a good name for a Kurt Vonnegut novel, but in the end, books can overcome their names because it’s what’s inside that’s important. With a band, that name has to stand up to being repeated and tossed around as a prime identifier of the group.
A group like this is the entire genesis of this posting. A few weeks ago, I was asked to listen to and review for the site an album by a group called the Kung Fu Vampires. Their album was entitled Blood Bath Beyond, a clever play, to be sure, but how many people are actually going to pick up and listen to a CD by a group called Kung Fu Vampires? I wouldn’t have even thought about it if I hadn’t been handed the CD personally. The problem is, not much in the album is about Kung Fu or vampires. The beats are tight, the flows are pretty well put together, but there might be four or five lines on the entire disc that has anything to do with either of these subjects. So why alienate possible fans with a band name that is not only off topic, but in the end pretty silly? In conjunction with the album title, the whole thing looks pretty ridiculous, and unfortunately for the group, this ridiculous cover appearance could very well tank their potential to sell big. I laughed when I saw it, and after my second time through thought to myself, “This is actually a pretty decent rap album.”
So to all you aspiring musicians out there, especially those that may attempt to create something out of the MixMatch site, beware the name you choose. It can help you, hinder you, elevate you or bury you in due time, and once you’re established, it’s almost impossible to change. There’s no sense mixing bad names with good music. You might as well see how an oreo tastes in orange juice.