Last week, I made my way to the Hard Rock Cafe in Worli to see what happens to bandwagon-jumping rockstars once the music industry moves on to the next trend. Yes, I’m talking about Puddle of Mudd, the band whose frontman, Wes Scantlin, has made a career out of looking like, and kind of sounding like, Kurt Cobain. I didn’t exactly go in with high expectations. I have no love for Puddle of Mudd and their contemporaries in the third wave of post-grunge — rent-a-bands that were picked up and marketed extensively by major labels trying to wring the last dollars out of the grunge phenomenon long after the movement’s death in 1994. The fact that in the past decade, the band has made more headlines for Scantlin’s rockstar tantrums, arrests and for getting booed off stage than they have for their music didn’t inspire much confidence either.
But even I wasn’t prepared for what I saw on stage — a competent live band let down by a frontman who no longer gives a damn, for his music or his audience. Not only did Scantlin lip-sync his way through many of the songs in the set, he made things worse with two petulant onstage rants about how he was being wrongly accused of lip-syncing. It was an act of such brazen shamelessness that I almost applauded. It would have been less insulting to the audience if he’d just straight up declared that he was only here to collect the paycheck. You’d think Rs 2,000 a pop would at least buy you that much honesty. I’m afraid not.
Scantlin and Puddle of Mudd are just the latest example of a phenomenon that has captivated me for years — that of India as a hospice for terminally ill Western pop careers. It’s not a new development, we’ve been paying through our nose to watch mediocre one-hit wonders and ageing has-beens for decades. In pre-MTV and pre-internet India, the only acts it made financial sense to bring down were classic rock dinosaurs that everyone and their fathers had heard while in college. As the Indian audience for Western music expanded, and we evolved into a regular touring destination for contemporary international acts, I thought that would change. I was wrong.
The list of artists on desi nostalgia life support has expanded from legitimate one-time stars like The Scorpions and Deep Purple to acts that properly belong to the dustbin of history — like Puddle of Mudd, Switchfoot and the Vengaboys. As the indie scene grows bigger and bigger, attracting artists like Flying Lotus and Mogwai, it is paralleled by the growth of this zombie industry of promoters and venues that plunder the music industry’s graveyards for dead careers to revive and make money off.
The live music hospice industry has only expanded. From one off shows, now we have five-city tours. And the list of artists on desi nostalgia life support has expanded from legitimate one-time stars like The Scorpions and Deep Purple to acts that properly belong to the dustbin of history — like Puddle of Mudd, Switchfoot and the Vengaboys. As the indie scene grows bigger and bigger, attracting artists like Flying Lotus and Mogwai, it is paralleled by the growth of this zombie industry of promoters and venues that plunder the music industry’s graveyards for dead careers to revive and make money off. It’s morbid, tragi-comic and for a music writer like myself, utterly fascinating to see all this happening up close; to try figuring out what makes it tick. What motivates these artists to continue flogging a dead horse for decades (in Scantlin’s case, I think it’s a mix of delusion, and the tens of thousands of dollars he owes in back-taxes)? Do the promoters think this is really a sustainable business model? How long will fans continue to pay through the nose for an experience that only sullies theirnostalgic fantasies?
Recently, I’ve been thinking of where this zombie industry could end up. Could “Big in India” be the next “Big in Japan”? For those who don’t know, “Big in Japan” refers to the curious phenomenon of Western acts being inexplicably popular in Japan while not even being able to break into their own country’s charts — either because they were never popular at home or because their careers have flatlined. Examples include The Scorpions, The Ventures, Marty Friedman post-Megadeth, and Avril Lavigne. In fact, many artists managed to use their “Big in Japan” status as a springboard to success back home. The absolutely horrendous Cheap Trick managed it, thanks to their multi-platinum live album Cheap Trick at Budokan. The phenomenon was so widely acknowledged that references to it made it into a Tom Waits song and the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, and a 1970s UK punk band named themselves after it. Sadly for modern day acts, the Japanese music audience is much more discerning now, and possibly hipper than the Anglo-Americans. So acts like Puddle of Mudd and Switchfoot have to look further afield for benefactors willing to back their dying rockstar dreams. Maybe, just maybe, India could be their second home in a few years. Right now we’re just able to keep them on life support. But with the backing of venues like Hard Rock Cafe and the growing horde of cash-rich yuppies whose taste atrophied in high school, we could be the promised land that gives them a second shot at achieving middling mediocrity. Hell, we could be the launchpad for the 21st century version of Cheap Trick. It would be sweet, sweet payback for all the horrible music and trends the West has foisted on us. A proper turning of the tables, and all made possible by the economics of yuppie nostalgia. Just the thought gives me goosebumps. Forget “Make in India” and “Digital India”, the future is “Big in India”!