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What Are We Supposed to Expect?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

What Are We Supposed to Expect?

The other day, I was doing some reflecting. Specifically, I was reflecting about the album which our very own Roger Gelwicks declared was "set to frustrate, enthrall, and polarize in 2013." Even more specifically, I was reflecting on the highly combative response to this website's published thoughts on said record.

Yes, I was reflecting on Skillet's Rise.

In particular, there was one commenter that stood out among the dozens of people that voiced their... thoughts... on the record and on the two reviews. I perused all of the comments and saw that this person had asked the same question no fewer than five times in his various posts and comments, in defense of the criticisms against an album that he obviously held in a much higher esteem than the reviews did.

"What were people supposed to expect?"

That got me thinking; how much do our expectations shape what our thoughts of an album are? I could expand the question to encompass even more of the philosophical landscape of life beyond music, but for sake of simplicity and length, I'll leave it at that. Take Skillet as the prime example: to most fans, Rise was either the third or fourth (or, if they were really late to the bandwagon, only the second) Skillet album that they had heard. They knew Skillet as a modern symphonic rock band geared mostly towards difficult problems and life situations of youths and comforting them with nostalgia and encouragement, sometimes even directing their worries and fears towards God. So, of course, they would expect Rise to sound like that! And since they became fans during that era of Skillet's life, they were obviously fans of that "sound" for one reason or another, and so their excitement was directed towards a Skillet album that had generally similar themes (which Rise did). So the final result is an album that, with a little variance here and there and without doing anything too unexpected, satiated the appetites of their biggest fan base (much to the chagrin of the "original panheads" that grumbled about Skillet retreading old ground from Collide and Comatose in Awake and Rise).

But what if Skillet would have made some drastic changes? What if they felt that they wanted to stretch themselves musically and personally? What if they went against all expectations to make the piece of art that they truly felt led to make? What if they would have made a Project 86-like hard rock album instead? Or, what if they made an Anberlin-like alt-rock album? Or they went the Relient K route and made a random pop album? Or a rap album? Or metal? Or folk? That would have surely put a damper in the expectations of those fans, wouldn't it? Especially if their voyage into new territory resulted in floundering. Would any fans buy that album? Would they even still be a fan? Well, many might, but I think most would feel like they had been "betrayed" and leave the bandwagon.

But here is the kicker: what if Skillet had made drastic changes and the resulting album was simply phenomenal? Profound lyrics (if there were any at all). Completely original. Impeccable musicianship. A complete masterpiece in every respect, and far superior to anything they had ever done before. But would the fan reaction be any different?

Of course not.

Maybe some critics would recognize that album for what it is, but the critics have their expectations too. They can feel betrayed too. Same with record labels and others in the music business. The fans and critics and businessmen that recognize the brilliance of the album will stay. The rest will probably move on to things that are more... profitable... in some way, shape, or form. It doesn't matter in the end what the final product is if expectations are not met. In the music business, it is dangerous not to meet them, and can even mean financial suicide. It is the reason why people like Adam Young can take his dazzling project Owl City and turn it into just another pop act. Or why artists like Sanctus Real and Hawk Nelson are now inevitably pigeonholed into one melting pot of contemporary sound. Or even, conversely, why so many more artists nowadays are leaving record labels and record deals and going independent.

So what do we expect bands like Skillet to do?

Make an album that the fans are satisfied with. That is the bottom line. In many cases, particularly with a band as popular as Skillet, it is even the only line. The fact is that so much of music criticism nowadays is simply judging how well a band or album or song met, exceeded, or failed to live up to expectations. I'm guilty of it, and I doubt there is even one person on the JFH staff that also isn't at one time or another.

But it ought not to be this way. The fans don't own the music. Record labels don't make the music. The artists are fully accountable for what they make. There is a reason musicians are called "artists" in the first place; they make art. Art does not include expectations. Expectations are what originally caused Stryper to lose popularity and break up. Art does not include money. Rich Mullins' worldly possessions after he died fit into 80 cubic feet. Good art has a value far beyond money or expectations. Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime. Mozart died penniless and was buried in an unmarked mass grave. Larry Norman didn't even have an audience for his music!

At JFH, we try to make it our sole expectation of the artists we review to make great art with creative integrity. We therefore judge and critique music in that light. We believe that by making great art for God, the artists are giving greater glory to God than by simply making something that is merely marketed to glorify God. Yes, these artists are making their living through music. Yes, the songs can potentially be ministry tools, or help someone personally get closer to God. We don't judge that. We can't judge that. If we expect anything else from the artists we review, we will not be fair to the artistic integrity of either that particular artist or other artists.

So what do we expect Skillet to do? Or Relient K? Or Casting Crowns? Or Chris Tomlin? Or For Today? Or (insert your favorite artist name here)? We expect them to make great art with creative integrity, whatever that may look like for that particular artist. And if we don't think they did, it will be adequately reflected as such.

-- Mark Rice, Writer

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1. JJ+Francesco said...

How'd I know what this was gonna be about, even 2 months later? lol ;)

Look, I agree with most everything you say. You make many valid points. My only contest is "art does not include any expectations." Objectively, this is true. But reviews of the quality of any art are quite subjective, and as you said, that often includes expectations one has. If one expects Skillet to radically change their sound, there arguably isn't anything they can do to have you view their art in a favorable way unless they do radically change themselves. On the other hand, if a band isn't expected to radically change, they can put out an album that is very similar to their previous album, but if they can still have their art praised and the similarities to previous works written off as understandable. I've seen that done here as well. And I think that is what sparked much of the conversation on the Skillet review. It wasn't that Skillet's art was found not good, but I think more that it felt like Skillet's art wasn't being reviewed much at all. It felt like pure expectations, with Skillet being criticized more for not living up to some musical image than for actually putting out bad music. Ideally, your article is spot on. It shouldn't be this way. But personal expectations always tend to factor into a review if there's any prior relationship with the artist going in.

What defines "great art with integrity" varies from reviewer to reviewer, and it's often defined more by a failure to meet specific expectations that aren't really looking for artistic integrity. I think if Skillet had been merely criticized for certain things not working, there'd have been less backlash. I think the problem came in that the entire review seemed to give Skillet negative points for not changing their sound enough, and I believe many felt this was not an expectation evenly held against many veteran bands. If I didn't know Skillet, I don't feel like the review really explained to me where exactly they lacked creative integrity.

Of course, the article was among the more commented posts on this site I've seen. And people talking about your work is arguably always a good thing. So I suppose it's good that a review stirred so much conversation. It got people talking, so I believe it was a job well done on that front. And I think it's also good that people have such high expectations for a JfH review, that when they feel one doesn't meet those expectations, it's reflected in their comments.

Although, hopefully since it's nearly 2 months later, this old topic can be put to rest. ;) The comments seem to have finally settled somewhat. With some hot releases on the horizon, something else is bound to stir folks up. Might be best to let sleeping dogs enjoy their nap.

2. MikeFrost said...

Mark, that's it. I am a 57 yr old Lutheran pastor and I am a Skillet fan. No, strike that - I am a HUGE Skillet fan.
You have nailed it - and me. I expect Skillet to sound like the Skillet I love. However we might describe it, this is the kind of music I enjoy listening to.
Sometimes I will listen to, and enjoy, rap and even metal but rock in the style of Skillet and Red and Fireflight is my real love.
I accept your reviews from a "purely" artistic point of view and I read them with appreciation. But I still want my favorite artists to sound like "I expect" them to.
Is that a bad thing?

3. Gabriel+Jones said...

I've heard it say that Skillet is the Nickelback of Christian music.

By no means is that a compliment.

It's meant to say that they have become a generic band. Sticking to what people like without taking any huge risks. I was there when Skillet was playing in 100 degree heat at noon at Creation East as a 3 piece band. I am so happy for their success but as a fan I do prefer their old stuff.

I come to not expect much from them as far as satisfying my musical wishes (although I will admit that "Rise" is better than their last album). TobyMac is in the same camp. That's what happens when groups/artists try to make radio friendly stuff.

I'm not going to write a novel, but I could.

4. M Rice (JFH) said...


it's not a bad thing to want your favorite artists to sound like how you "expect" them to. In and of itself, there isn't anything wrong with that. The problem is simply that our culture and the culture of the music business have come do demand that a certain sound is achieved in order to be financially successful, and since most artists are making their living by these means, they are more or less forced to cater towards whatever will make their finances and fans most secure (and they usually go hand-in-hand). Thus, the "wanting" and "expecting" that we feel in regards to a certain artist is translated into "demanding" and "tell the artist to make the music people like (rather than the music they actually WANT to make), or die." And so we demand that artists listen to us, the artistic inferiors, and make the music that we want to hear without regards to any sort of art form.

We are mere listeners. The artist has the map, the steering wheel, the brake, the accelerator, the destination, etc, and we are just along for the ride. The moment we start telling the driver how to drive and where to go, we're out of place and, almost certainly, the quality of the driving will diminish. I love Skillet and I am so-so on their recent stuff, but for better or for worse, I'm gonna let them keep doing what they're doing and continue supporting them as a fan. And I plan to do the same for all the other artists I happen to be a fan of.

5. Nathan Freeman said...

I definitely think it is worth pausing to contemplate what exactly it is that makes us happy (with regard to music or otherwise). For most of us, we can recall how something made us feel once and want to experience that again. For some reason, the thing that did it before doesn't do it quite like it used to, and so we look for something "new". This new thing should be similar to the thing that wowed us before, but new enough to surprise us into another "wow" moment or two or more... The comfort of familiar and the intrigue of novelty. Music, movies, food, church services...

These two conflicting demands combine to form our "expectations". The problem with our current high-tech world is that our expectations are no longer set at the best singer in town or even the state or country, but at the planet level and constantly updated to meet current trends.

The best advice I've heard on this dilemma to date is to Lower Your Expectations! Imagine this Skillet album coming out of that garage band that your buddies were in back in the day and prepare to be WOWED!

Worth a shot, neh?

6. M Rice (JFH) said...

@Nathan Freeman

Won't lowering expectations just make us more satisfied with mediocrity? Won't that just make artists satisfied with half-hearted efforts and strive even less for excellence? Won't that make the "music as art" problem even worse?

I think a better solution is to keep our expectations high, and then lovingly and un-judgemently (sic) let the artists know how they can improve when they fall short. Isn't that more in line with how God calls us to live our life? And how Christ lived his own life or Earth?

7. John DiBiase said...

Well said, Mark. Lowering expectations is rather sad. It does just make room for more mediocrity. If we keep lowering expectations, we'll just be satisfied with an album recorded with a Fisher Price tape deck in someone's bathroom. It's just silly.

8. JJ+Francesco said...

I don't believe in lowering expectations for musicians. I believe in reasonable and consistent expectations. Often, I feel like it's not greatness or quality that we expect but a specific set of requirements, a specific image. And we tend to confuse bad art with our specific expected image not being met. We clearly do not expect the same things from every artist. This is evident in how some artists get explicit passes on never making many changes and others get tons of flack for only making small changes between albums. I think our expectations for great art should be high. But I think we no longer are expecting greatness and are instead confusing expectations of something else with it.

9. M Rice (JFH) said...


feel like we're in an "idealism vs. realism" discussion. If that's the case, yes, you are right; what you are explaining is how things actually play out in "real life." I'm coming from the viewpoint that we are called to strive for more, and so we should make every effort to make that "reality" no longer a reality. Is even remotely possible to achieve? No, of course not, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't collectively strive for more when it comes to art. Just like sin. It's not possible to not sin, but that does not excuse us from sinning, nor is it a free pass to sin. God "expects" us to not sin, even though he fully knows that we will sin anyways. In that view of mind, I don't think "expectations" should never be fully met in regards to art. There is always, ALWAYS something that can be done better, even if people don't know what it is, (and some shortcomings are more obvious than others).

My goodness, I'm noticing a lot of parallels here between judgement of art and judgement of our (and other's) Christian walk...

10. JJ+Francesco said...

All fair points. I'll avoid discussion of sin for sanity's sake. But if we're holding to the striving for idealism, our evaluation of art needs to be more idealistic as well. It may well be that opinions on art are doomed to be a slave to expectations that aren't necessarily tied to quality, but it shouldn't be that way. If we're striving for idealism, we should be striving for consistency, for fairness, for reasonableness in all of our expectations as well. Idealism in art isn't just a one-sided thing. There has to be a balance. And I think many just felt that said balance was disrupted in the evaluation of the artist in question. Unlike with sin, when it comes to art and the critique of it, there's a lot more subjectivism involved. Striving for the ideal is good, and all sides could do to strive higher.

11. Nathan+Freeman said...

Interesting thoughts from all. I suppose I should respond in some way, so here goes:

I am in no way encouraging mediocrity. My comments are directed not at the one who creates the art, but rather the one who receives. (Creators, by all means create the very best that is in you!) As a receiver, however, if I described the dinner I eat each night as "mediocre", it would be technically true compared to available food at a fine restaurant but it would be an insult to my wife and would greatly detract from my enjoyment of dinner each day.

For better or worse, our satisfaction with a thing, be that dinner or music, depends not so much on artistic perfection from the creator but the receptiveness of the receiver. To put this in context of contemporary research, there are many TED talks on the issue of happiness and how we experience it. Dan Gilbert’s excellent research is a good place to start, and Barry Schwartz explains how having too many choices cripples our enjoyment of good things as we search for better things. Too much choice and indeed too much criticism is not a good thing.

Why then, do I frequent JFH? As a website whose purpose is to critique music, I come here as to a visitor centre in a town where every other building is a restaurant. This place gives me some thoughts and a taste of different flavours. However, to truly enjoy good food or music, I must leave the visitor centre and quality reviews behind and go and receive for myself. The key to truly enjoy what dinner or a song has to offer, is not to raise or lower my expectations but to abandon expectation altogether and dive in to the experience. Clear as mud?

12. Drew said...

When he had the big, white hair touring for Invincible: that's the first time I saw Skillet :) Alien Youth is still my favorite Skillet disc.

All I want to say is there was a Collision, then there was a Comatose, then they were Awake, now they are Rising.........anyone else see the progression here?!?

13. John DiBiase said...

@Drew - yeah, I asked John about that for a recent video interview (you can find it in our videos section). He claims it was accidental?! haha Crazy...

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