Muse, The Biggest Band in the World… in Britain
In Spin’s September issue, David Marchese profiles Muse—a trio from small-town England who have become one of the country’s biggest bands. They’ve recently headlined festivals at Glastonbury, Leeds, and Reading, and sold out Wembley Stadium… twice. And yet, Muse has remained relatively unknown in the U.S.—at least until next month when they’ll open up for U2 at Giants Stadium.
So why the Stateside obscurity? Well, as Spin notes, much of it had to do with common misunderstandings between the band and its U.S. label, Maverick Records. But the more germane issues have to do with larger differences in American and British tastes and the music media that feeds and informs them.
In every sense—musically, thematically, philosophically—Muse make massive rock ’n’ roll. Singer/guitarist Matt Bellamy has a soaring, mournful falsetto that falls somewhere between Thom Yorke and Freddie Mercury. And his band plays sweeping, blindingly Technicolor prog rock that falls somewhere between Emerson, Lake and Palmer and (again) Queen, but is somehow bigger, bolder, and more ridiculous that both. (For those of you already familiar with Muse, forgive the lecture.) Bellamy claims Chopin, George Orwell, and evolutionary biologist (and noted atheist) Richard Dawkins as influences for his band’s latest and most retardedly ambitious record yet, “The Resistance,” due out next month. Bellamy is one of the few rock stars who can, sans irony, say things like this: “We’d like to be remembered amongst the best bands in the history of rock.”
Muse, in other words, are rock stars in the traditional sense. The band’s belief that bigger is always better—that riffing on Chopin’s “Nocturne No. 2 in E Flat,” which the band does on “United States of Eurasia (+ Collateral Damage”),” is a bold artistic statement—is vintage pre-punk rock star.
Today, these kinds of rock stars simply play much better in England. While the U.S. passed on the band (Muse’s first record, 1999’s “Showbiz” flopped in the States, and Maverick rejected their follow-up, 2001’s “Origin of Symmetry,” after Bellamy refused to tone-down his operatic falsetto), the U.K. quickly embraced them. 2003’s “Absolution” and 2006’s “Black Holes & Revelations” sold five million copies worldwide. The British music press, though seriously weakened, still has a much stronger grip on taste-making than its American cousin, and, in a country of only 61 million people, it has an easier time rallying fans around bands and focusing their energies. This, in turn, makes rock ’n’ roll myth-making a more straightforward business, and folks like Muse, artists who live for the big-time (literally and aesthetically), feed off the energy and prosper. Bands who want to be the biggest in the world, still can be… at least in Britain.
This just isn’t the case in the U.S. There are only a handful of music mags left with a national audience (Spin, Rolling Stone, The Source, maybe Paste), and, of course, the U.S. dwarves the U.K. in terms of size and population. All of this makes consensus much more difficult to produce and sustain. Even more importantly, over the last decade—the length of Muse’s career—the Internet has become the primary engine of pop music culture in this country, thus making it even harder for tastes to coalesce around particular bands over the long term. (Much of this has been confirmed in conversations I’ve had with U.K. musicians, namely Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit.)
Furthermore, blog culture—independent, localized, eccentric—is, broadly speaking, suspicious off bands like Muse, and rock stars in general. It’s no coincidence that as the Web has become pop music’s central marketplace and debate room, so too has independent music come to dominate U.S. pop. But while America’s Jack White, Caleb Followill, and Beth Ditto are certainly rock stars, aesthetically, they’re miles away from Muse, with their schizoid light shows and three-part symphonic tributes to the birth of mankind.
Oasis—a band notorious for their gleeful embrace of rock star histrionics—met with difficulty in the U.S. for many of the same reasons. While American fans largely abandoned the band after 1997’s overblown, coke-addled “Be Here Now,” Brits, egged on by NME and other pubs, continued to follow the Gallagher brothers’ every move. (Though it looks like the band’s fans may have finally run out of luck. Noel split with Oasis last Friday, saying he “simply could not go on working with Liam a day longer.”)
Blog culture is, of course, alive and well in England. The country is chock full of musicians (big and small) who aren’t operating under the assumption that their next record will change the world. And there are certainly bands in the U.S. who would love to lead us into the fifth dimension—Of Montreal’s front man Kevin Barnes has been known to ride out on stage on top of a horse. But there are shockingly few, if any, bands left in the U.S. with Muse’s chutzpah operating at Muse’s level. And there won’t be anytime soon. The kind of rock star Bellamy represents died a long time ago.
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