Column: A Society Of Music (But Hold The Instruments)

What happens when we take the “live” out of “live music?”

“No trickery. No choice, but no trickery,” said Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Flea after their 2014 Super Bowl halftime performance.

His now-viral words refer to the fact that the bands’ instruments were unplugged during their guest appearance with Bruno Mars. Instead, they played along with a pre-recorded track, per demand of the Super Bowl committee.

In other words, the Super Bowl committee decided to not let a celebrated, time-honored rock band play their instruments in fears that something would go wrong. If there’s a more widespread act of blasphemy against the entity of music, let me know.

While many point the finger at RHCP for taking the ‘live’ out of a ‘live performance,’ the blame is largely elsewhere. They made a compromise because of the monumental opportunity they were given.

Instead, once again, the blame belongs to the faceless.

“The faceless” refers to the network executives that, for some reason, are allowed to make decisions that sacrifice musical integrity in return for hopes of higher TV ratings.

These are the same people that forced Beyoncé to lip-sync at the 2012 presidential inauguration; the ones who were too afraid to let Eminem put down live vocals during his 2013 SNL performance. All of these corporate decision-makers know nothing more about music than the fact that if you do it wrong live, it can hurt their ratings. Yet they continue to regulate televised music performances unquestioned and unchallenged.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ case is only the most recent, but it’s not at all a new issue. For years, network executives have attempted to strip artists of their creative licenses, and in the past, artists have had the audacity to fight back.

The most infamous case of rebellion came from Nirvana. They were performing on “Top of the Pops,” a U.K. music TV show in which artists aren’t permitted to play live, instead having to sing and play over a pre-recorded track. In response, frontman Cobain and his grunge-rock crew stomped on the show’s jaded musical ideals.

The band didn’t even pretend to play their instruments, instead jumping around on stage while Cobain sang “Smells Like Teen Spirit” a comical octave lower, even trying to swallow the microphone at one point.

For artists everywhere, this was a historic moment. Everyone recognized how ridiculous the show’s live music policy was, but it took a punk-idealist mind like Cobain’s to publicly point out how senseless it was.

Sadly, that was the last well-known act of defiance, and since then, the situation has gotten more and more dire for artists. Now, when a musician performs on television, it’s no longer in the name of art. It’s in the name of profit.

I can’t blame the Red Hot Chili Peppers for performing under those circumstances. If the Super Bowl invited me onto the halftime show to perform with over 100 million people watching, I’d play/not play anything they asked me to.

However, I am not a brave man. Cobain was a brave man. He showed the network and the world that rock and roll isn’t about pre-recordings. Rock and roll is about performance, about defiance, about expression.

If more musicians don’t adapt Cobain’s mindset, we may lose those ideals forever.

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