When I was young, battles of the bands were a teenage rite of passage, an awkward attempt to apply the logic of sports to the rock arts – albeit the logic of arbitrated individual sports, like gymnastics or figure skating, and not of the face-to-face battle sports. Later, I participated in a few bar-sponsored, multi-week rock tournaments. Musicians have been known to drink a little. Fill a bar with them on a series of winter Wednesdays and you might realize a tidy revenue on an off night.
But such battles have come to constitute a disturbingly large share of the music industry’s A & R model. American Idol has an impact far beyond the annual minting of a few new celebrities. It perpetuates a variety of fruitful, resonant Chosen One myths: that super-being celebrities are recruited from the rabble, and thus everyone has a chance; that opportunity is not dead, and that brilliance, no matter how obscure and unknown to itself, will rise; that television and the Web offer secret passageways behind the velvet rope; and most importantly, that the truth of talent is tested and determined in two ways – first, by the wisdom of crowds, and finally by the hooded panel of experts and their secret rubrics.
Consider team sports. Now there’s some organic competition for you: competition as life philosophy. It is not just between teams but also within teams: competition for roster spots, for playing time, for roles of leadership. So deep is the penetration of the competitive ideal that even the structure and progress of the self mirror the dialectic of competition. “Push yourself, punk; good enough is not good enough!” “I can’t, I can’t!” “Never say ‘Can’t!’” Or whatever.
Reverse the image, however, and team sports reappear as an arena of total accord and harmony. Underneath the adversarial surface, all the jocks agree on core values: what is important and desirable; codes of behavior and definitions of integrity, toughness and sportsmanship; what the rules are; how to organize and communicate. Uniforms bespeak a gleefully subordinated individuality.
And sports enjoy the definitive agreeability: outcomes, who won and who lost. Winners and losers are the natural fact that everyone must allow and that, with rare exceptions, no one can dispute. Sport, virtually alone among the culture realms, seems to exemplify a true, results-oriented meritocracy, an objective wheat-from-chaff separator and cream-rising system.
Competition in the arts is sloppy and toxic by comparison. It is mostly underground, and it is lawless. Critics and marketers influence perception, taste and outcomes in a way that makes sports journalism look like idle chatter. Collusion, favoritism, sabotage and the politics of reputation are the norm, and occasions of outright bought success are not unheard-of. Could the arts benefit from the stringent institutional structures of sport?
Well, no. They can’t access that value. It’s off-limits, out-of-character. Certainly the arts are competitive; in some respects they are a more genuine battlefield than the artificial, staged antagonism of games. Arts competition, like geopolitical competition, is for actual, limited resources: hearts and minds, bandwidth, the apparatus of production and distribution. So art has the fierce competitive spirit in spades; what it lacks is the deep, underlying agreement and unanimity, the consensus on definitions of value and success.
You can lay out a seemingly sensible, consistent and balanced rubric for evaluating live performance easily enough. Why, I’ll do it now:
– Musical talent
– Crowd approval, measured in decibels
But this is merely the form and structure of competition, with none of the ground-level accord that it requires to work in any meaningful way. What exactly is “creativity,” and who knows how to measure it? Not quite the same thing as measuring your time in the 40-yard dash.
The last time that I played in a rock tournament – with a band that never played another show – I failed to advance out of the semis, unsurprisingly. One of the other non-advancing bands was a hardcore, profundo, screaming cookie-monster death-metal band that had its act together in a big way. In memory, its members were all huge, hairy and strong, like actual monsters. They played with cutthroat precision and sulphuric passion (few people realize how light a touch that style of music actually requires). Their hair spun in synchronized windmills. They were meant for much bigger stages than this one, and they knew it.
And I think that everyone probably knew that they were the tightest and best band that night, judges included. If it had been a football game, my band would have lain in bloody piles, awaiting the next available stretcher. But everyone also knew that – for reasons that could not be articulated, assumptions that were not made explicit in the rubric – this band would not pass. Messy arts; you can’t be sports. No one can agree upon what you are. That is your burden and your beauty.
The joy of battles-of-the-bands lies in the pageantry, the prizes, the diversity of talent and disparity of experience that comes out for them. Take the battle part, the winners and losers, with a grain of salt.
The Ulster Board of Cooperative Educational Services’ Pre-University New Visions Performing and Visual Art program (PAVA) is producing a battle of the bands to showcase the musical talent of the Class of 2014. The competition will happen at 8 p.m. on Friday night, April 19 at the Rosendale Theatre on Main Street in Rosendale. Bands (any musical group of two or more members) must have at least one high school student from an Ulster County high school, and may have adult members as well. All genres are encouraged to participate: Bach to rock, hip-hop, a capella, jazz, blues, folk to funk. Bands must submit an entry form by March 19; requests should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.