Why Are Artists So Bad At Saying Goodbye?
Are reunions merely a cynical cash grab at the expense of the pockets of nostalgic fans, or is there more to it than that?
On Friday 24th May 2019; Spice Girls kicked off their “Spice World – 2019” Tour in Croke Park, Dublin, Ireland; performing to an 80,000 strong crowd. Reviews of the show varied from a gleeful night of pumped-up pop and updated Girl Power, sound issues leaving some fans disappointed and a night of nostalgia, branding and bad British values. Suffice to say, the interest was not lacking – promoters MCD declared that the concert was worth €41 million to the city of Dublin, with an estimated 20 percent of all tickets sold held by attendees from outside of Ireland. But what was it worth to the Spice Girls? Why make a comeback now? Why at all? The effect of their ‘90s fluffy-feminism is undeniable and at a time when every social media influencer and brand ambassador promotes how “woke” they are, is it really any wonder that the Tory-touting Girl Power spokeswomen have reared their heads again in 2019?
The Spice Girls are not of course the first music industry entity to make a comeback, and surely won’t be the last. Guns ‘N’ Roses’ ironically titled “Not in This Lifetime…” Tour began in 2016 and is not due to finish until this November. The tour - featuring classic lineup members Slash and Duff McKagan for the first time since 1993 – has been a roaring financial success, grossing over $563.3 million, making it the third-highest-grossing concert tour of all time. Possible motivations for this reunion has been made public – Slash’s messy divorce proceedings having begun in August 2018, with his ex-wife Perla Ferrar’s legal team accusing the axe hero of refusing to hand over financial documents to “[manipulate] the income that he will earn in the future that could affect his future support allegations”. Former rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin has previously claimed that he opted out because his former bandmates didn’t want to share the spoils evenly. Slash himself has denied these claims in an interview with Clay Marshall, stating:
“Sitting on the outside, the Guns tour, it wasn’t ever about it being whatever it ended up being, looking at it from a dollars and cents [or] a status thing or whatever other people look at it for… The actual experience of doing it and having these amazing fucking crowds and this response to the band, and the band itself, just that whole thing was amazing. It was so cool and it was such, in a way, a validating thing for that line-up. That was that was about — that’s why it was so much fun, and that’s why we did it for so long.”
The reunion phenomenon is not exclusive to bands that made it to a mainstream audience in their heyday. Certain indie darlings whose disintegration seemed to spell a reunion would only happen when hell froze over eventually succumbed to demand or supply of cash. The likes of Pavement, Blur, Suede, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and The Stone Roses all either burned out or faded away but have all variously made a comeback over the last 10 years – but what was the motivation in these cases?
Texan post-hardcore legends At the Drive-In initially reformed in 2011. Though obviously not universal, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez was refreshingly candid about what inspired their decision, telling the NME:
“We’re not getting any younger and there’s been an offer of money every year… You can’t avoid that. You’d be a fool and politician to pretend that wasn’t part of it."
Similarly, it would be naïve of critics, fans, pundits and otherwise to think that any band that have not recorded or performed together for as long as these acts have between their breakup and reformation would not consider the financial benefit it would bring. That being said, artists cannot expect us to view such events without some degree of criticism and scepticism. Take, for example, the curious case of Rage Against The Machine; a band well known for their anti-authoritarian and revolutionary political views during their run during the 1990s. The agit-prop band’s reunion tour ran from 2007 to 2011, beginning with a headline performance on the last day of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in mid-January 2007. On why the band reunited, guitarist Tom Morello said:
“Is it a coincidence that in the seven years that Rage Against The Machine has been away that the country has slid into right-wing purgatory? I think not. It occurred to all of us that the times were right to see if we can knock the Bush administration out in one fell swoop, and we hope to do that job well.”
Fellow revolutionary rockers Refused infamously disbanded in 1998 having cancelled their first ever US tour halfway through, emotionally devastated by the awful experience of having played in half-empty venues – the last of which was chaotically shut down by local police after only four songs. In their “final communiqué” entitled “REFUSED ARE FUCKING DEAD”, they expressed their reasons for disbanding.
“It is impossible to take part of a revolutionary program when every aspect of existence has to be projected as entertainment and music, a tradition that both in expression and creation has been dead for far too long… When every expression, no matter how radical it is, can be transformed into a commodity and be bought or sold like cheap soda, how is it then possible that you are going to be able to take "art" seriously?”
Refused would too reform in 2012 to perform at Coachella, which was announced through frontman Dennis Lyzxen’s Facebook page. The backlash was immediate. Not only had the band explicitly stated that they would never reform – they did so because of their own inability to reconcile their socialist principles with being in a band in the first place. Rage Against the Machine had seen similar criticism throughout their career – being millionaires signed to a major label record deal, playing songs to fan the flames of discontent of which Morello said:
“When you live in a capitalistic society, the currency of the dissemination of information goes through capitalistic channels. Would Noam Chomsky object to his works being sold at Barnes & Noble? No, because that's where people buy their books. We're not interested in preaching to just the converted. It's great to play abandoned squats run by anarchists, but it's also great to be able to reach people with a revolutionary message, people from Granada Hills to Stuttgart.”
BBC Radio 1 DJ Daniel P Carter weighed in on Refused’s behalf, but with a different approach entirely:
“Refused helped shape the current musical landscape that we hold so dear. Their influence has been vast but at the time VERY FEW people gave a shit about the band.”
“Refused once noted that everything needed to be said had been said already. Why would they try to relive the past was a question they asked their audience? But years later the offer of some good money comes sniffing around and brings with it the temptation to meet up again and discuss things, talk through some old problems. The band do that and remember that they were bros, that they were a gang once. They then get in a rehearsal room, play the songs that were life-affirming to them and rediscover that - at one point in time - Refused was everything to them. It was their life.”
Further to Carter’s last point, Refused eventually released their fourth album Freedom in 2015 and have recently announced a fifth, War Music, to be released in October this year. Despite his previous indiscretions, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and co. have also released new music; and while Pavement have limited their reunion activity to a compilation album and a couple of high profile 30th anniversary shows at boutique music festivals in 2020, the other aforementioned indie darlings have all released new music in some form or another. So too have Soundgarden and A Tribe Called Quest, both reunions ultimately being tragically short-lived.
So why are musicians bad at saying goodbye? It’s because saying goodbye is difficult, for many reasons. In some cases, the financial reward is too good to ignore. In others, there was never much of a financial reward to begin with. Sometimes, it’s a case of unfinished business or a re-ignition of that creative spark. Sure, there may be a cash grab by playing to our nostalgic tendencies at first. It may even be the be all and end all for others, but reunion tours also give people a chance to reconnect with their youth. They provide others with an opportunity to see what came before, or what the fuss was all about before their time. In any case, nobody has any right to deny anyone a living. No one is forcing you to shell out anyway.