Previously posted on last.fm, 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.