Cheap Sunglasses: ZZ Top and the Price of Fame

Previously posted on, now with political addendum at the end.

The concept of the price of fame is usually applied in the sense of the personal cost to the famous, from the relatively mild annoyance of not being able to go out without being recognized, to the deep existential crises and insanity of megastars like Kurt Cobain and Michael Jackson. You could certainly argue that Kurt and Michael would have been crazy anyway, but clearly becoming famous was not healthy for either of them.

But there is another cost of fame that is a little harder to pin down, because it’s the cost that is charged to a band’s account of cool points when the band gets too famous. In some contexts, this cool-points account might be called “indie cred” or “punk cred” or (more generally) “authenticity.” I’m sure there are specific equivalents for jazz and metal and klezmer and so on, but it all comes down to the same thing.

If you are an indie kid or a hipster of any stripe, or have spent any time around hipsters, you have experienced or observed the phenomenon of the band that gets too famous for its original fans to tolerate, as if the band’s quality is dependent upon its obscurity. Of course that’s objectively ridiculous, but music fandom is no science, and people naturally enjoy music for more than its purely musical qualities. So it’s understandable why a fan might grow bitter at the object of his (gendered pronoun intentional—it’s usually guys who do this) affection’s success. Now he has to share with a bunch of bandwagoneers who weren’t there during the lean times and who can’t possibly understand what made this band really great. That’s a bit of a caricature, of course. Sometimes when a band gets famous the quality of the music really does decline, sometimes via intentional changes (the “sell-out”), sometimes because the band has started to run out of ideas, and sometimes because the band has plenty of new ideas but they aren’t very good.

With that groundwork laid, I want to posit a kind of weird argument: that ZZ Top is an underrated band today. Yes, that band that is enshrined in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, the one that played to packed stadiums and sold multi-platinum heaps of records. That band that played a Super Bowl halftime show with James Brown. I realize that the concepts of “underrated” and “overrated” are thrown around a lot, usually meaning “this band is way too good to be so obscure” or “this band isn’t good enough to be this popular.” That’s not really what I’m interested in. Instead, I’d like to talk about ZZ Top’s critical reputation and its lack of currency or buzz among contemporary hipsters, and to argue that ZZ Top is (critically) underrated precisely because of their MTV-era success.

The dominant cultural images of ZZ Top today are drawn from their hugely popular (and amusing) videos from the 1980s. Those videos featured the band as wizard-like observers to the type of little comic dramas common to videos of the period. All of the videos included the same car (the distinctive “Eliminator”) and the same group of “rock sluts” playing the role of intermediaries between the detached, supernatural presence of the band and the ordinary mortals they help. The visual and plot elements are seamlessly integrated with simple, commercial music: straightforward, danceable 4-4 bass-heavy beats (really almost disco), light synthesizers, the rough edges of the “little ‘ol band from Texas” sanded down to a palatable smoothness. Clearly, during the 80s, ZZ Top was doing a great job of branding itself. All successful pop groups are branded to a certain degree—stylistically if nothing else—but with the early 80s videos, branding (or really, re-branding) seemed to be ZZ Top’s main focus.

I say “re-branding” because in the 70s, ZZ Top was already enormously popular and well-known as purveyors of electric blues boogie. Their short, tight songs had not an ounce of fat on them, unlike the bloat-y artistic tendencies of most of their classic rock contemporaries. Listen to the breakneck riffing of “Heard it on the X,” the sweaty precision of “Nasty Dogs and Funky Kings,” or the way the simple progression of “Bedroom Thang” breaks down into an flurry of concise and intense soloing that fades out long before overstaying its welcome. This band ought to be thought of as a major influence on bands like The White Stripes, Queens of the Stone Age, and The Black Keys, and you could certainly draw some connections between ZZ Top and some elements of early punk as well (fast, loud, short songs drawing on old rock roots). For all I know, those bands do consider ZZ Top to be heroes, but I haven’t heard them referenced as such. Nor do I ever read anything about ZZ Top on music blogs, even those focused on older stuff. If I’m wrong, enlighten me.

I’m not arguing that ZZ Top ought to be thought of as one of the best two dozen rock bands in history or anything—their period of “good albums” was really too short, and if I was the kind of person who made such lists, they might not make my top 100. In any case, my point isn’t so much about their quality as their reputation. Instead of being thought of as an important influence, they are not really thought of at all in a musical sense. They are cartoons.

To illustrate my sense of what happened to ZZ Top’s reputation, I’m going to make a ridiculous comparison, a what-if involving a band that is only barely comparable to them. Suppose that The Velvet Underground had exactly the same career and (lack of) popularity that they actually had up until the dawning of the MTV era. Now suppose that, under the direction of a shrewd media advisor, they reformed in the early 80s and made a series of popular videos featuring hot video chicks and a unique and stylish car. The entire band has waxed handlebar mustaches or some other odd distinguishing feature. (See, I told you this would be ridiculous.) The music has been stripped of experimentalism; Lou Reed has reined in his avant-garde sensibilities and is focusing on writing short, catchy pop songs with memorable choruses. There are synthesizers. The band sells a bunch of records and becomes much better known for their commercially successful period than their obscure late-60s work. Now think about what their reputation (their indie cred, their hipster index) would be today.

Of course, ZZ Top and The Velvet Underground are rather different kinds of bands: VU was much more adventurous and formally experimental; ZZ Top the superior musicians. And VU never had anything like the early career success that ZZ Top did with hits like Tush and LaGrange. Certainly their influence extends in different directions. But it’s not so ridiculous to imagine an established, well-known band changing directions in mid-career and having their early work nearly forgotten, or not so much forgotten as subsumed by the greater success of later, more commercially palatable music. Think of Bee Gees or Fleetwood Mac, whose early careers are perhaps less well-known than they might be if they had not had huge later success with completely different styles of music than those they started out with.

I’m not bashing ZZ Top for their choices, either. They saw a chance to make a lot of money, and they perfectly executed a strategy to do that, trading in their
Bar-B-Q for a pair of Cheap Sunglasses. I doubt Billy Gibbons cares much about his hipster index, and in any case his band probably has a critical reevaluation in their future. Somebody at Stereogum or Pitchfork will write a positive reappraisal of Tres Hombres, and that will start the process of making it safe for indie kids and hipsters to like ZZ Top unironically.

ADDENDUM: A commenter at suggested that one reason for ZZ Top’s current lack of hipness was their friendship with the Bushes. A bit of googling confirmed that they did play GW’s first inauguration, although I’m not certain if they could be called friends. In any case, I find it ridiculous, but sadly quite believable, that a band could be quietly relegated to the realm of “unhip” because of a weak association with an unpopular president even when there is nothing overtly political about their music. I can understand not liking a band for its politics when that’s the axe they’re grinding (Rage Against the Machine, Johnny Rebel). But ZZ Top? Based on their lyrics, it seems like they’d be in favor of legalizing prostitution, perhaps more relaxed drug laws.

Is there a commandment on the left to disdain all things peripherally associated with Bush? If so, these BDS tentacles reach deeply and distant.

Sphere: Related Content

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

Get rewarded at leading casinos.

online casino real money usa