When Taylor Swift released “Look What You Made Me Do” earlier this year, along with the announcement of her new album Reputation, the optics couldn’t have been worse. Aside from a song that borrowed from Peaches and a video that borrowed (shamelessly) from Beyonce, “Look What You Made Me Do” recast Swift as a villain—a perhaps intentional move, but one that essentially proved right all of her critics. As much as she tried to reframe the conversation, she still clung to the idea that she was the victim. Which is hard to buy when she’s twirling pearls in a bathtub, looking like Melania Trump on the cover of Vanity Fair Mexico. It didn’t do much to quell the rumors that she might in fact be a Trump supporter, and suing a blogger over a post connecting her to the so-called alt-right (a connection the white supremacists chose to make on their own) wasn’t helping matters.
Taylor Swift isn’t the first rich pop star to lose the plot. In fact, whether or not her reputation is tarnished, the album Reputation is still on its way to be the best selling album of the year. But through the ages, there have been a long list of celebrity musicians who lost their sense of self-awareness, lost touch with their audience, or simply didn’t realize that it was time to stop talking. Being out of touch is rarely enough to kill a career, but it can definitely chip away at a sterling reputation. And though the music industry is nowhere near as bad as Hollywood when it comes to separation from anything outside their bubble (they do perform in front of people nightly, which probably helps) it’s all too easy for rock stars to be absorbed by their own egos or poor judgment. I assembled a primer of 15 cases of musicians losing touch and losing the plot.
The conventional wisdom about Morrissey, at least in the ’80s, was that his lyrics spoke to a particular sort of youthful melancholy—a near-universal sort of gloom. I suppose nobody bothered to tell Morrissey, who’s spent most of his time antagonizing anyone that isn’t also a white-male-vegan rock star (exception: Robert Smith, who also thinks Morrissey’s a dick). At first he was sort of amusingly crotchety, declaring dance music the “refuge for the musically deficient.” Then he just got kinda racist, calling Chinese people a “subspecies” based on their treatment of animals. And his preoccupation with being the world’s worst animal rights advocate left him with no compassion for other human beings, in 2011 saying the Norway massacre was nothing compared to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Morrissey’s full transformation into that-uncle-who-doesn’t-realize-he-says-racist-shit was complete in March when he sold t-shirts on tour with a picture of James Baldwin and the old Smiths quote, “I wear black on the outside/Because black is how I feel on the inside.” Oh, jeez, Uncle Moz is walking this way, quick, pretend to talk about something interesting.
1994: MC Hammer goes hardcore…sort of
It’s hard not to feel bad for Hammer. His friends took advantage of him, he was losing money faster than he was getting paid, and the G-rated appeal of “U Can’t Touch This” just wasn’t what audiences wanted in the mid ’90s. By 1994, hip-hop was dominated by Dr. Dre, 2Pac, Wu-Tang Clan and Ice Cube. So what’s a guy like Hammer to do? Rebrand! Only it failed miserably. Not only was Hammer simply not very good at pulling off the hardcore act, it’s painfully transparent just how little his heart was in it. On his 1994 single, “Pumps and a Bump,” he’s doing his best to try to be a badass and objectify women—the video features what seems like 100 girls in bikinis around his pool, for instance (I imagine the conversation went something like this: “Remember ‘Rump Shaker’? Let’s do that again”). It also features Hammer in a Speedo and, sir, we kindly ask you to put that thing away. The whole thing is awkward and weird and uncomfortable, and when you realize that he goes out of his way to avoid swearing, it feels even more like a poor calculation. So perhaps it wasn’t so much that Hammer was out of touch with the landscape of rap at the time, but certainly not in touch with his own capability in pulling it off.
1998-present: Mike Love hijacks the Beach Boys
Long before Black Flag was embroiled in an intra-band feud that led members to start separate versions of the same band, The Beach Boys were undergoing a hostile takeover. Following the death of original member Carl Wilson in 1998, Mike Love and bandmate Bruce Johnston were given exclusive license to tour as The Beach Boys, following a legal dispute with Brian Wilson over defamation claims. Love, songwriter behind “Kokomo” and officially the Worst Beach Boy, subsequently tours with a version of the group that features John Stamos. (Uncle Jesse on the drums ladies and gentlemen!) It gets worse: While Love and Wilson briefly reconciled in 2012 for a new album and tour, Love ended up firing Wilson and bandmate Al Jardine. Because when people go to see The Beach Boys, they want the guy who wrote “Student Demonstration Time,” a member of the Full House cast, and that’s it. Then the Beach Boys played the 2016 Republican National Convention (without Stamos, to be fair). You know, when Trump was nominated. Yeah. Make America Kokomo Again, I guess.
2002: Everyone who’s ever collaborated with R. Kelly
I’m being generous here in letting everyone who worked with R. Kelly in the ’90s a pass (despite his illegal marriage to a 15-year-old Aaliyah), but by 2002 it should have been clear to most people in the music industry that R. Kelly was a pretty creepy dude. By the early ’00s, allegations of statutory rape and child pornography had become public knowledge. And though he was never convicted, Kelly’s story only got worse over time. Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jim DeRogatis has been covering the story for 17 years and there are countless women who have accused R. Kelly of predatory sexual behavior. And though he’s still not in prison, the decades-long pattern is enough to know that Kelly’s not the kind of dude you want in your circle. Not that sharing a credit or making a buck off of a garbage human was a problem for Ludacris, Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z, LL Cool J, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga or The Pitchfork Music Festival. Or Chris Brown—oh, wait…
2006-present: Weezer. Also, people expecting more of Weezer.
In the mid-’90s, Weezer were a promising young buzz band with a major label deal and a producer’s credit from Ric Ocasek. But not long thereafter frontman Rivers Cuomo withdrew from music, first attending classes at Harvard and later becoming sort of reclusive and isolated. So when the band returned with the reasonably decent 2001 self-titled “Green Album,” things seemed to be more or less back to normal. Or so it seemed. But within five years they had sunk to their lowest artistic depths with Make Believe, which launched a new personal-worst single, “Beverly Hills” (which is basically Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker”). Ah, but they weren’t done yet. The bafflingly terrible self-titled “Red Album” followed in 2008, and then the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me awfulness of Raditude. Raditude was, essentially, Cuomo’s midlife-crisis album, featuring Lil Wayne and a song called “I’m Your Daddy,” which is as cringe-inducing as it sounds. Plus “The Girl Got Hot,” which is just further reinforcement of the creepy toxic male behavior inherent in Cuomo’s lyrics, which only sound grosser the older he gets. Cuomo and company sort of redeemed themselves with Everything Will Be Alright in the End and the self-titled “White Album,” which may have been enough to justify the horrendous track record leading up to this point. But at this point it’s worth asking whether two decent albums is worth wading through a decade of trash.
2008: Chinese Democracy
Guns ‘n’ Roses were as ubiquitous as rock bands got in the early ’90s, playing massive festival shows in support of their two-CD Use Your Illusion set and littering MTV with epic-length videos of its singles. It probably should have occurred to anyone who saw “Estranged” (which is a pretty killer song, for the record) and its swimming-with-dolphins footage that Axl Rose was no longer living in the same world that the rest of us were. Naturally, any efforts to try and follow up those albums (not counting covers album The Spaghetti Incident?!) would prove difficult. Rose scrapped material, fired and hired members and essentially ended up being the last man standing, tinkering away at his masterpiece for more than a decade with very little to show for it, until finally the album surfaced in 2008 with a notable world record attached to it: It was the most expensive album ever made. And it was…alright? Certainly not a disaster, but it also wasn’t up to the heights of the band’s past glories. In the end it was Rose’s Spruce Goose, a symbol of one man’s hubris that could barely even fucking fly.
2008-present: Billy Corgan
Billy Corgan is better at tarnishing goodwill than most artists in rock music. He built up a reputation for being a dictator in the studio, and for a while at least, it worked. Siamese Dream remains one of the best albums of the ’90s alt-rock era, and it’s one of the prime examples of obsessive perfectionism actually working out (unlike, say, Chinese Democracy). But sometime after the first dissolution of the Smashing Pumpkins and the formation of Zwan and the subsequent reunion of Smashing Pumpkins, Corgan began to detach from reality in truly alarming ways. He dredged up a jokey insult from a 1994 Pavement song more than a decade later presumably to rekindle a feud that never really existed. He put more effort into his pro-wrestling enterprise than his music. When he did focus on his music, it came out an all-day live-streaming raga inspired by Siddartha. And eventually he was a guest on Alex Jones’ Infowars to complain about social justice warriors, though based on his wardrobe you’d think he was just looking for a burning trash can to warm his hands. Corgan might deserve a little credit for realizing his absurdity, however; he recently rebranded to William Patrick Corgan, which suggests he might realize that he was too far gone. But then again he recently defended Nickelback. Might I suggest “William PC” next time?
2011: Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu
You know that thing where you talk up a band to one of your friends and then you have them listen to it, and you’re watching them with intense anticipation to see their reaction, and they just kind of give you a blank stare? That’s sort of what happened with Lulu. Ahead of its release, Metallica (who hadn’t released a decent album in 20 years at that point) and Lou Reed (who’s as notorious for weird experiments as he is famous for groundbreaking rock albums) talked up their collaborative release in hyperbolic terms. Reed said it was “maybe the best thing done by anyone, ever,” which is…hoo boy. Well, it isn’t. It’s not even a good album done by anyone, ever. It’s in fact a spectacular disaster. It’s nearly 90 minutes of bad poetry and leftover Black Album riffs. But the enthusiasm that both Metallica and Reed had for it, while understandable in the sense of it being a fun experience to make perhaps, sort of proves neither had any idea what anybody actually enjoys listening to. The best defense I’ve heard of the album is that it’s at least interesting, which no Metallica album has been in ages. (Sure, Hardwired was alright.) It’s definitely interesting, if only because it’s one of the most fascinating failures of popular music.
2012: Madonna discovers social media
Madonna gets a lot of flak for stuff that isn’t necessarily fair, but even she can’t get over her self importance. Or, for that matter, her desperate attempts to stay relevant in a constantly changing world. Twitter certainly helped make those attempts more embarrassingly transparent, like when she called herself “Ratchet,” or misspelling the names of her collaborators, or comparing album leaks to rape and murder (whoa, slow down there Madge) or using a promotional campaign involving the faces of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela wrapped in ropes to promote her album Rebel Heart. (Was Morrissey a marketing consultant?) Matters were made worse with her “Turn Up the Radio” video, the plot of which is “Madonna is wealthy” and her weird stunt of kissing Drake at Coachella, which came across a little like sexual assault. So…yeah, I guess that sounds about right for in-character Madonna behavior since the ’90s or so.
2013: “Accidental Racist”
Sometimes the best of intentions can’t save an artist from their worst instincts. Certainly, when Brad Paisley and LL Cool J teamed up for their collaboration “Accidental Racist,” their hearts were in the right place—starting up a conversation about race when such a thing can be risky or uncomfortable in popular music. But this? This wasn’t the way. Paisley defending the Confederate flag? LL using the word “newfangled”? “The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin’?” (Perhaps the Mason-Dixon doesn’t carry Mojo Nixon?) It’s clumsy, it’s lazy, and frankly a title like “Accidental Racist” sounds like something rife with Freudian slurs. Sorry fellas, you’ll have to take this one again. Listen to A Seat At the Table before taking the makeup exam.
2013: Arcade Fire impose a dress code
Arcade Fire went from underdog indie heroes to superstars pretty quickly, so it’s hard to blame them for sometimes coming up with ideas that weren’t worth making it past the rough-draft phase. Like in 2013 when they imposed a dress code on their concerts. Which is always a good way to endear yourself to your fans. “Formal attire MANDATORY” read one tweet by the band, which seemed a little much. I’ve seen Arcade Fire live and they’re fun, but I can tell you after going to hundreds of shows in my life that I don’t really want to rock out in a suit. ALSO: YOU CAN’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO, YOU’RE NOT MY REAL DAD! But they didn’t learn their lesson and did it again in 2017 with their Everything Now tour.
2014: U2 invades your iPod
In 2014, everybody with an Apple device learned something that many of us didn’t see coming—the surveillance state was Bono all along. U2, the biggest band in the world, slipped their album Songs of Innocence onto everyone’s iPhone when nobody was looking, which was not only too broad of a reach (not everyone loves U2, you’re shocked) but a little creepy. Even if the album had its moments (though not as many as Achtung Baby), the polite thing to do would have been to ask people if they wanted it first.
2015: Jay-Z and a bunch of other pop stars’ TIDAL press conference
So Jay-Z, media mogul, adds to his portfolio a streaming service that does what several other free-to-cheap streaming services already do, but costs a lot more. Then he gets a bunch of celebrities onstage to make some kind of moral argument about how they deserve more money. Now, they’re not necessarily wrong—the music industry is notoriously difficult to make money in, and I’d like to take this moment to say that listeners should absolutely buy music from artists they admire, whether via Bandcamp or in physical formats. But when a self-serious group of celebrities crowd a stage for a historic moment to say “Money Please!”, that’s where I get off. I mean, what even is this?
2017: Gene Simmons tries to trademark devil horns
When discussing just how badly Gene Simmons has lost the plot, it seems trivial to limit his infractions to just the one. After all, he’s pretty gross all around, whether it’s his unrelenting misogyny, racism, support of other racists, songs about fucking teenagers—you get the idea. And yet, somehow the idea that he thought he could trademark a shape that people make with their hands just seems a little extra absurd, because it means he’s not just a shitty human being, he’s also a fucking narc trying to ruin everyone else’s fun. Look Gene, be as much of a woman-hating xenophobe on your own time, but don’t come into our space and ruin it with red tape.