Despite the immense pressure to conform, there remain select musicians who choose to put their artistry above their industry-framed success. In their complete disregard for the approval of the masses, these musicians have experimented with their craft and ventured into sounds unknown, and in doing so, have managed to elevate their musical abilities while preserving their artistic integrity. John Frusciante, Scott Mescudi (Kid Cudi), and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) are three such musicians, and subsequently, three of the greatest anomalies of the music industry.
What do these three men have that sets them apart from the sea of conformers within the industry? The short answer: integrity. Personal and musical integrity run deep in Frusciante, Mescudi, and Vernon. These men create radical music that is reflective of their deepest, most intimate selves, and in doing so, retain their most personal integrity, as well as the integrity of the craft. Music is a higher power, and these three men tirelessly strive to maintain its sanctity. They possess an insatiable desire to honor the art of music through exploration and honesty, and demonstrate a sort of reverence only devoted to God himself. They are musicians in the purest form.
As the lead guitarist of the ultra-popular alt-rock band, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, John Frusciante was the closest thing to a modern day rock star. Despite his popularity and monetary success, in 2009, Frusciante left the Red Hot Chili Peppers in order to pursue his own music. What resulted was pure, unadulterated musical eclecticism. Combining his exemplary skills in guitar with his intense interest in electronic music, Frusciante created solo albums that are an incredible exhibition of his musical genius. These albums, which include everything from bass synthesizers to intricate guitar solos to deeply moving vocals to hip-hop samples, stand in stark contrast to the alternative-rock driven sounds of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Furthermore, they are the perfect showcase of a musician who is not content to settle for being comfortable, but instead thrives on the discomfort that accompanies artistic exploration. Even more than just demonstrations of Frusciante’s wide range of musical abilities and curiosities, these albums are the closest thing anyone can come to understanding his intricate mind. Frusciante puts his mind, his soul, and his entire being into the universe for us to listen. He does so unapologetically and intimately, sharing with us things that cannot be put into words, only into sound. Though these experimental sounds garnered far less popularity than his songs with RHCP, they represent something that Frusciante was unable to attain previously: actualized artistry.
In 2014, Noisey published an article written by Ezra Marcus, in which he interviews Frusciante about his music and how it intertwines with his life. In this interview, Frusciante said the following: “as far as having a desire to get attention from people for making that music, as far as wanting to use it to maximize the amount of money that I’m gonna get from it or something, I just refuse to think that way.” Frusciante does not make music to please others, but instead to please himself and to maintain his sanity. Frusciante is not content to make music that brings him monetary success, but keeps him stagnant in terms of his growth as an artist. And this is what sets him apart as an anomaly.
An additional exhibition of an actualized artist is Scott Mescudi. Similar to Frusciante, Mescudi, otherwise known as Kid Cudi, achieved huge popularity and chart-topping success early on. Beginning with his debut album “Man on the Moon: The End of the Day,” Kid Cudi was well received by the masses, as demonstrated by his song “Day ‘N’ Nite,” which peaked at #3 on Billboard. Following the success of his two “Man on the Moon” albums, in 2015 Kid Cudi released the album “Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven.” The creation of this album came from a place of “wanting to explore different musical realms,” and with his eclectic use of sounds, Kid Cudi does just that. Straying away from his typical, well-received rap style, Cudi instead utilizes his signature melancholy vocals in conjunction with a previously unexplored exhibition of guitar and bass. “Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven” is vulnerable, emotion-filled, and utterly distinct, yet was vilified by critics and fans alike as Kid Cudi’s worst album to date. With his past successes, Kid Cudi had established himself as dependable, predictable, and enjoyable, but proved himself more than that with “Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven.” He proved himself radical, experimental, and willing to expand his musical abilities through exploration of his sound. In describing “Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven,” Kid Cudi said it best himself: “This album is 100% the purest form of [his] artistic self.”
Where eschewing their popular, predictable sounds in favor of radicalized, experimental sounds has brought critique to Frusciante and Kid Cudi, it has brought praise to Justin Vernon. Lauded by Kanye West as “his favorite living artist,” Justin Vernon– aka Bon Iver– has proven himself not only an incredible talent, but an embodiment of artistic experimentation and integrity. Though predominantly known for his achingly beautiful folk songs, Vernon opted for a new, equally as intriguing sound in his 2016 release “22, A Million.” Fusing his distinct vocals with both electronic and instrumental sounds, Vernon created an album that displayed his willingness to experiment with his sound while also achieving chart-topping success. “22, A Million” received high praise: #1 on Billboard Charts and the 2017 Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album. With his artistic integrity and his popular success, Vernon stands as a beacon of light for musicians and the music industry as a whole.
Though the negative reviews of John Frusciante and Kid Cudi represent a fatal flaw in the way the music industry has evolved, Justin Vernon and his chart-topping success present a hope for the future. While each of these men is a flashback to the distant past of artistic experimentation, Justin Vernon is hopeful flash forward. He represents the potential of the music industry and the general population to recognize and appreciate a heightened sense of musical exploration.
As Kid Cudi says, “creative bravery is rare in mainstream music.” In their displays of incredible creative bravery, John Frusciante, Scott Mescudi, and Justin Vernon epitomize what it means to be a musician. These men display a sense of artistry and independence that worries not about what will get them the best sales, but what will elevate them into better, more innovative artists. They understand that in order to reach the pinnacle of artistic ability, they must be willing to venture outside of their comfort zones and explore sounds with which they are unfamiliar and untrained. They have retained their integrity as artists, musicians, and innovators in an industry that is designed to condone musical conformity. They show that the boundaries of music-making will continue to be tested and radicalized. And above all, they display the sign of true musical genius: they create music that is abstract and unwaveringly their own– a challenge for the musician, the listener, and the industry.