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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Setting a "Replacement Level" for Music

Joe Posnanski wrote about a fun concept the other day in a mailbag-type piece. One of the questions dealt with Bruce Springsteen (Poz’s favorite rock star) and jokingly asked for his WAR. For those who don’t know baseball, WAR is a newer stat called Wins Above Replacement that tries to measure the overall contribution of a player. Since this is a pop culture spin-off of a baseball site written by a huge music fan, this seemed like something I should write about.

I love this concept as a thought experiment, but Joe touches on a good point: what is this hypothetical replacement-level musical artist? In baseball, the hypothetical replacement player is the type of player you could just find anywhere in the minor leagues. Your Aaron Mileses*, your Joe McEwings, and what have you. Can the concept hold through in popular music?

*No idea if I pluralized that correctly.

I mean, in theory, it could. There are tons of bands just playing music, filling bars and concert venues across the US and world every single night. Maybe that’s our hypothetical replacement? And it would make sense, to some extent; as in, the replacement band is just your average, run-of-the-mill Beatles/Led Zeppelin/whoever cover band, and you work your way up from there.

But that’s less fun, to just set the bar at some level where there isn’t a famous example to point to. Let’s look for a more notable band to use as a yardstick. Start with Joe’s choices, for instance. He picks Hootie and the Blowfish and Huey Lewis (presumably with the News) as his hypothetical “Replacement Bands”.

I don’t think either makes a good choice for what we’re looking for. It’s hard to say what we’re using as our standards, between factors like sales, influence, quality, etc. Obviously, quality is a little harder to measure, and influence is a little more nebulous, but we can take a sort of holistic approach to this. Either way, I think it’s hard to argue either fits.

Huey Lewis and the News have over 30 million sales and are one of the top 200 selling groups of all-time, according to Wikipedia. Obviously, sales are good, and that means they reached a lot of people. Two albums reached number one (one of which went 7 times platinum), as did three singles. They’ve had three greatest hits albums and a 25th anniversary live album, so obviously people care about them. They have a few awards and nominations, including a little Grammy attention. They also have at least some place in pop culture, including major parts in things like “Back to the Future” and “American Psycho”, among other things. Quality is difficult to argue, but I think they’re good, and they seem to have appealed to a lot of people.

Hootie and the Blowfish are seen as the quintessential “Oh yeah, those guys” band, but I’m not sure they fit either. Believe it or not, they actually had two #1 albums, one of which (Cracked Rear View, the only one anyone will remember offhand) went platinum 16 times. Also, that album produced three top ten hits to start of their career. On top of that, lead singer Darius Rucker has since been pretty successful in the country music industry. So I don’t think they qualify either. Again, quality is a little harder to argue, but they at least seemed pretty popular (I have a little less experience with them than I do with the News, but Cracked Rear View definitely has some decent songs).

So what would my hypothetical Replacement Level band look for? I’d look for a one-hit wonder, probably. One that had a song many people knew, but not much else. Maybe A Flock of Seagulls? They were more popular in their native UK, but in the US, that’s not really the case. They were definitely a player in a scene that was popular at the time (New Wave), so there’s that, at least. Or maybe a group with an absolutely massive hit that really wasn’t part of any musical movement/genre and was sort of just a fluke? Something like Los del Rio, with the Macarena?* I mean, for as big as the Macarena was, it didn’t really have a lasting impact that I can think of outside of just existing. No genre of Macarena knock-offs sprung up, no one really started following Los del Rio because of it (most people probably don’t even know who performed it)**, the song itself wasn’t much deeper or interesting than just being catchy, nothing really changed. The pre-Macarena world was very similar to the post-Macarena, just with one fewer line dance that everyone just sort of somehow knows.

*In a hilarious side note, the Wikipedia article for the Macarena is longer than the one for the group that wrote and performed it.

**Another side note, Wikipedia says that Los del Rio only released six singles. One is the Macarena, two are remixes of it, and one is the abomination known as “Macarena Christmas”.

Maybe I’m being unfair to those bands, but I think that’s a pretty good baseline for a “Replacement Artist”, a musician or group known pretty much entirely for a single song that’s not really an overwhelming classic. Of course, maybe this is a sort of unanswerable question; that is, as soon as the public knows of a band, they’re no longer “replacement-level”. I could very easily be persuaded of that. It also sort of falls apart when dealing with levels; how big does something have to be to be considered a “hit”? If it appears on it’s own genre’s chart but not the main charts, shouldn’t that count for something? And how would be the best way to account for a group’s quality? There’s a lot of bands that I like that generally aren’t very popular, and I would argue that they should rate as “Above Replacement Level”. And on top of that, not every "one-hit wonder" is created equally (go check out Wikipedia's list from just the 2000s to see what I mean).

But if we’re going to try and stick with bands people would actually know, this seems like a pretty good place to start. It’s all just for fun, anyway.

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