In Response to: ‘Phil Collins Is One of the Most Important Musicians Alive’

Posted on September 18, 2015


Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 4.51.55 PMThanks to the miracles of Facebook and the Interwebs, I came across this article on a site called ‘Shortlist’ the other day:

It’s a short piece. Read it if you’re so inclined. The gist? This Shortlist writer considers Phil Collins to be ‘one of the most important musicians alive.’ We all have our differences and I’m sure Phil Collins is a swell guy, but I mean, c’mon now.

Because I’m an asshole, I wrote the response below, reprinted here because I don’t post much stuff on this blog and my sponsor is threatening to pull my lifetime supply of cheese danish.

Response to ‘Phil Collins Is One of the Most Important Musicians Alive’

‘The only way you get this calibre of musicians playing in your backing band is by wowing the eyebrows off of your peers and gaining their respect.’ …or by guaranteeing they’ll make huge gobs of money by backing you on a ginormous world tour that puts them up in the finest hotels and out in front of millions of people.

Look, no one can deny that Phil Collins is a talented dude, and it’s certainly unfair that he’s had to endure the level of derision he’s been subjected to over the years — he doesn’t deserve it — but there are legitimate reasons why he generated such a teeming mass of twitchy, mouth-foaming haters in his heyday, many of whom still have a hard time letting go:

1. Ubiquity. At the height of his popularity, his music was simply #inescapable and you #could #not #get #away #from #it. This was in the ’80s, when it seemed like Collins could write 3 songs at breakfast, record them for lunch, and have them in the Top Ten before you could say ‘I’m not done enjoying Phil Collins’ current top ten hits, yet.’ That’s not his fault, I realize. He couldn’t help the fact that his music had mass appeal. He also couldn’t stop writing songs that kept flogging that mass pleasure zone. But it does help to explain why there was such a passionate backlash and why it still persists to this day. Which brings us to:

2. Songwriting ability. Phil Collins was a prolific songwriter, but he wasn’t a particularly good one. ‘That’s a subjective opinion,’ you say. I say it isn’t. Against All Odds? #maudlin. Brave? Yes. Also: #maudlin. Telling someone you love them and that you can’t live without them is an extremely brave thing to do. Saying it over a set of changes and with a melody and arrangement that scream ‘I WROTE YOU THIS MUSICAL HALLMARK CARD AS AN EXPRESSION OF MY UNDYING LOVE, NOW LET’S GO SIP WINE BY THE FIRE WHILE I PET YOUR HAIR AND READ TO YOU FROM MY BOOK OF UNPUBLISHED POETRY’ isn’t a particularly engaging way to express it. You love her so much? Get out your Funk and Wagnalls. Try a chord progression that doesn’t sound like it has a corner table at Melman’s Floating Dinner Theatre and Dead Fish Buffet. #Move me, or at least #attempt to move me by expressing a common emotion in some small way that is uncommon.

Obviously, taste is a moving target and, just as obviously, songs like Against All Odds resonated with millions of people. It also resonated, in all the wrong ways, with hundreds of thousands of additional people who felt that their emotional and artistic sensibilities were under assault by a new cultural vanguard (of which Collins was just one piece) that valued shrill sentimentality at the expense of all the songwriting benchmarks (Cole Porter, Tin Pan Alley, Brill Building, Motown, Beach Boys, Beatles, 60s West Coast, 70s singer-songwriters, Punk, New Wave, No Wave, etc., etc.) that had come before it. Is that snobbish? Sure. But it’s not snobbish to say that there’s a measurable standard by which songwriters can be judged, in much the same way that high school English teachers have a standard by which they instill the concept of ‘effective writing techniques’ in their students.

‘Yeah, man. But I #feel it,’ is an unquantifiable, but totally acceptable response to this argument. But if you accept that there’s any kind of standard for these sorts of things and you map Phil Collins on the big songwriting graph in the sky, you can’t reasonably put him anywhere but in the low-mid #meh quadrant, and seeing mediocrity celebrated makes some people break out in night sweats and goofy rashes. Such is life when discussing passionate matters of the heart. Understand, I’m only judging Collins on the hits, which is its own special brand of ignorance (mine). Maybe there are serious chestnuts buried below the surface. Maybe I’m missing out. Based on the hits, I’m not sure I am.

3. Superfluous musical facility. He played all the instruments on that album? Sweet fancy moses, is that some kinda crazy cool shit or what? There’s also this: who cares? I don’t, and neither should you. Celebrating a musician for playing all the instruments on an unremarkable album is like celebrating a chef for sourcing all the ingredients in an unremarkable meal. ‘That’s impressive, but I hear Jersey tomatoes are in season. Maybe you should go get some because these taste like gum.’ You want to make an album that moves people? Get some other living, breathing humans to help you make it, including some who might actually specialize in the instruments you plan on recording. ‘Yeah, but I’m using a drum machine on some of these tracks.’ Cool! Get someone else to program it!

One thing you can’t do when you’re playing all the instruments is #interact. With anyone. Except maybe the engineer who punches you in and out of every track while he checks his watch and wonders if you’re going to insist *again* on rewinding the tape yourself so that you and he can review the latest tantalizing snippet of your budding musical megalomania; a scintillating example of the ‘I play all the parts myself’ artistic process in action… You know who else plays all the instruments on his albums? Lenny Kravitz, a man whose career might best be summed up with the phrase ‘Spontaneity Takes a Holiday.’ Maybe I’m dead wrong and this is a record of staggering genius. Maybe my feet would miss my hands if my nose ran away and joined the circus.

And while we’re at it, let’s not forget that, even when he wasn’t playing all the instruments himself, Collins’ was always recording and touring with only the highest caliber of professional musicians. Musicians whose consummate, bland professionalism, combined with the consummate, bland professionalism of Collins’ songs, helped to rain a shiny, gooey shit storm of consummate, bland professionalism onto ’80s radio and culture. Maybe it seems absurd to criticize a guy for this, but it’s essential to the argument when you’re talking about #why some people still feel passionately averse to Phil Collins’ music. Was he the only bland, consummate professional in the ‘80s? Of course not. But his brand of bland, consummate professionalism was inescapable, like a giant strawberry cupcake come to life that chased you around every corner and down every alley, always threatening to rub up against you and grease over your gills with sticky strawberry goober juice.

Coincidentally, I don’t think it’s an accident that Eric Clapton’s mega-successful and deadly-dull mid-late ‘80s period began with the Collins-produced Behind the Sun album in 1985. Collins helped put together the touring unit that Clapton employed for several years (notably Nathan East and Greg Phillinganes); an absolutely top-notch group of musicians who collectively generated the kind of excitement I only encounter when I’m separating my trash from my recyclables. Not a note out of place. Totally, utterly professional. And absolutely #joyless.

Maybe you enjoy seeing highly trained musicians at the top of their game performing flawless interpretations of someone’s musical catalog. Maybe, like me, you’d rather watch someone try and catch lightning and stuff it in a jar; they might fail spectacularly but there’s always a chance they’ll succeed and create something #exhilarating. When the drums come in on ‘In the Air Tonight’? That’s exhilarating. Is it fair to give a guy shit because the rest of his career doesn’t measure up to that moment? No, it’s not. But it is what it is.

4. Legacy. The hallmark of a great songwriter isn’t sales, it’s how many of that writer’s songs are covered by other performers; how many people out there in the business of musical expression see something in a song you’ve written that they want to interpret through their own sensibilities. I’m guessing, but I’d imagine there are covers of ‘In the Air Tonight’ out there, though I have a hard time imagining how someone else could make it their own. Other than that? I seriously doubt it; there isn’t a lot of meat on those bones. As with everything else I’ve said here, I could be dead wrong.

But in the end, there’s no right or wrong way of looking at this. Phil Collins is a talented guy who, primarily due to an enormously successful period that led to over-saturation of his music in popular culture, became a divisive figure as the result of his spectacular success. Calling him ‘unfairly maligned’ or ‘misunderstood,’ even, makes sense. Calling him ’one of the most important musicians alive,’ though, is just ridiculous.

Posted in: Marginalia