IT’s Not You, It’s Me. Breaking up the band
“You go through things like we went through as a band, and people started to split apart, become more like oil and water. But early on, you see the sweetness that was there. It was the three of us against the world, trying to establish ourselves, and that’s the experiment of a band.”
– Andy Summers, The Police
What’s in the making of a band? The magic? I’ve always wondered. I’m sure it’s different now, but it used to be a group of people that played various instruments, cramming into a garage, refining a sound. At some point touring, eventually getting signed, cutting a record, and boom! Fame and fortune precedes, right? Unfortunately, collaboration can eventually turn to competition for most, whether it be fate or the forbidden fruit of fame. Once tasted, it no longer becomes about what is best for the group, but rather what is best for one’s own career, looking out for number one. Was it selfish for Michael Jackson to leave Jackson 5? Maybe, but who cares, we wouldn’t have “Billie Jean” if that were the case… Hell, we might not even have the moonwalk. However, it’s not always that cut and dry, unfortunately.
Looking back at bands and groups that mattered, it’s rare to see them still performing together (outside of reunion tours). It makes one, wonder why is it that these members were willing to risk compromising the the lightning in a bottle between said parties. Is it a conflict that happened behind the scenes, an agent, or an offer made that they can’t refuse? Fans are often struck with confusion when their favorite group announces their split. Ultimately, it’s important to look at why these groups and bands are no longer sustainable.
IT WAS MEANT TO BE
Let’s start with the ’60s. A period where the idea of a female pop icon was still an unrealized concept until Diana Ross left The Supremes, and embarked on her fruitful journey as a soloist. It’s hard to convey just how big The Supremes were at the time. In total, the group had achieved 12 No.1 hit singles and were the first musical trio to have five songs in a row hit No.1. The success of The Supremes drew attention to the unique voice of Diana Ross, and Motown (well aware of this) carefully planned an eventual split from the group by launching Ross’ career as a solo act. The writing was on the wall when “Someday We’ll Be Together” was released as a Supremes’ song, but only featured the vocals of Ross.
After leaving the group, Ross embarked on a fairly successful solo career (I use the term “fairly” only because she would never again reach the same type of chart success, but her penetration as an icon with hits like “Ain’t No Moutain High Enough,” “Upside Down,” and “I’m Coming Out.”) She would star in a movie based on Billie Holiday titled Lady Sings the Blues, which she was nominated for Best Actress, and has appeared in other shows throughout her career. Ross went on to develop numerous professional relationships along the way, aiding the careers of artists that we recognize now as legacies. As a result, she remains a significant influence for those in the music industry today.
“I just needed freedom, to express myself”
– Justin Timberlake (on going solo)
Justin Timberlake had solid beginnings; appearing on Star Search and on The All New Mickey Mouse Club as a child. He would later become a member of one of the most iconic boy bands to date. Formed in the mid-’90s, *NSYNC produced three studio albums and over 18 singles with Timberlake as one of the two lead singers and the youngest member of the band. Like Beyoncé and Zayn Malik, Justin Timberlake gave his reason for splitting from *NSYNC, and why he felt it was in his best interest to do so. He recalled, “We were on a stadium tour, and I just felt like the whole thing was too big. It started as a fun snowball fight that was becoming an avalanche. And, also, I was growing out of it. I felt like I cared more about the music than some of the other people in the group. And I felt like I had other music I wanted to make and that I needed to follow my heart.” The band split up in 2002, the same year that Timberlake released his first solo album, Justified, in which he would win two Grammys for. In this case, a desire to take a different approach contributed to the end of a band that broke many hearts of teenage girls all over the world.
Justin Timberlake has released three studio albums, which have been certified as platinum, and he just released his long-awaited fourth album, Man of the Woods. The most impressive thing about Timberlake lies in the size and scope of his talents; not only as a live entertainer, but in acting as well. He has appeared in multiple movies, taking on lead roles in films like “Alpha Dog” (2006), “The Social Network” (2010), and “Friends With Benefits” (2011). Overall, Timberlake has received 165 awards and about 459 nominations. He also just performed for the halftime show of the 2018 Super Bowl, which he has previously performed alongside Janet Jackson in 2004 (the infamous wardrobe malfunction). The amount of success that Timberlake has achieved as a solo artist surpasses any expectation of success in his career as a boy band member. From an early age, it seems that he has always been destined to not only leave a legacy for the future of pop solo artists, but also to continue to stay relevant in the ever-changing image of the pop genre.
Reflecting on the rock spectrum of group breakups, Eric Clapton’s departure from the band Cream aided the development of his solo career. Due to what he claimed was the desire of members in Cream to “show off,” the band began to suffer internally. However, Clapton’s skills as a guitarist and vocalist in Cream drew the interest of not only the public, but also other great artists in the music industry at that time. His friendships with Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles created a window of imagination that is reflective of the varying style of Clapton’s solo work. The success of the solo careers, especially of Ross, Jackson, and Clapton, highlight the potential of group members regardless of the genre.
More often than not, the public is shielded from the conflict that occurs behind the scenes and rarely does the actual mess spill onto the street. We don’t always hear about arguments over lyrics or the random groupie. Even when bands or groups split, comments made usually seem amicable or very neutral.
Rarely has a band breakup been as publicized as the ’90s Brit rock band, Oasis. The battle between the Gallagher brothers was what basically ended the group, while stories of the behind the scenes fights, both verbal and physical, became the stuff of legends.
Oasis shot to the highest levels of success in the ’90s. Unfortunately, jealousy, personality clashes, and the infamous “creative differences” would end up destroying the group just as quickly as they became a success.
Obviously, financial reasoning remains a huge factor in wanting to pursue a solo career, at least initially, but we don’t see many artists claiming they left their band to make more money. Instead, the claim for the split revolves around creativity. Nonetheless, true creative differences can also be conflicting enough to establish a gap within a musical group. These differences may be based on the growing ego of a member of the group combined with the desire to move outside of the creative boundaries established within their current band.
“I’m not a nice person when my wishes have been gone against. If they’d voted for another song, I’d have gone completely off it. I’ve actually done that in the past. I’m quite horrible.”
The conflict between Sting and other band members of the band, The Police, is another one for the books. In this case, unfortunately, Sting and his ego might have been right.
Sting remains in the category that was clearly just “too big” for the group. Without Sting, The Police as a band were basically screwed, and he knew that; he held production on the band’s fifth album hostage, refusing to lay vocals down. This isn’t meant to take away from the talent of Stewart Copeland or Andy Summers who both went on to moderate success post Police, but not anything to the level of Sting.
It’s not always easy to give someone the benefit of the doubt. Even if Sting is an iconic talent, and it’s clear that he is and was. Sting was, in fact, too big for The Police. Andy Summers highlights the image of Sting as a leader in this interview, and mentions how he often followed what it was that Sting planned to do. He said, “We were at the point where Sting was pursuing his songwriting, so most of the songs were going to be his songs, but Stewart and I got one each.” Well, at least they got one each, right? It seemed to no longer be a unified deal, besides the fact that they played together, Sting usually took control. Drummer Stewart Copeland remarked, “We were lucky we had him for eight years, five albums of songs before he couldn’t stand it any longer.”
Zayn Malik was the first member to leave the pop sensation group, One Direction, prompting the other members to carry on what they could until they all disbanded and started solo careers. Apparently, Zayn claimed that he was ready to start making “real music,” which was to be done on his own, and away from his image as a member of One Direction.
It’s actually going really well for the majority of the members with Harry Styles’ song, “Sign of the Times,” charting while starting his acting career in the film Dunkirk. Liam Payne released his hit single, “Strip that Down,” Niall Horan also released a hit single,”Slow Hands,” and finally Louis Tomlinson released his new music. The 1D members act as a happy example of branching out and obtaining their own success, which is significant because this rarely happens.
THE FAILED SOLO ACT
Why don’t people just leave their groups more often, then? The other side of the coin is embarking on a massive and risky endeavor without the support of said band, and whats worse? Failing.
Consider members that are successful vocalists, but failed as solo artists. If you’ve never heard of Freddie Mercury’s solo album, Mr. Bad Guy, which was released on April 29, 1985, it’s okay… No one really seemed to take an interest in the more dance-oriented direction of Mercury’s solo album versus his reputation as the mammoth rock vocalist he had become with Queen. Mercury would return to his roots and rejoin Queen, something that the rock world will always be thankful for.
Another member that attempted to disband in hopes of success was Scott Weiland, who is known for his soulful rock n’ roll vocals and reputation with the Stone Temple Pilots. Weiland’s voice was a sonic banner for the LA rock scene of the ’90s. Unfortunately, it seems, Weiland was partly influenced by his self-destructive tendencies and substance abuse issues (which would take his life in 2015), pushing him into a solo career that wasn’t meant to be. Weiland’s solo efforts reflected more of an indie rock feel with a splash of the blues, and sadly he wasn’t able to crack the barrier of success he had achieved with STP. With the failure to establish himself as a soloist, Weiland returned to his role as a vocalist for STP.
There are the artists that have always seemed destined to become more than a member of a group, and the artists that have been fated for greatness beyond the scope of groups. This, of course, includes John Lennon, Beyoncé, and the king of pop himself, Michael Jackson. It is possible that these artists also share the same reasons for leaving groups as the previous artists mentioned, but these in particular far surpass what is expected of solo artists.
“I couldn’t put my finger on one reason why we broke up. It was time, and we were spreading out. They were spreading out more than I was. I would’ve stayed with the band.”
The Beatles disbanding was one of the biggest heartbreaks in the music industry at the time. The breakup was a result of conflict between John Lennon and other band members (especially Paul McCartney), experimentation with drugs, and the burning desire to produce different types of music. Lennon had always been the introverted member of the group, and the internal struggle of discovering who he was often led to conflict with his band members. McCartney and Lennon began to clash regarding lyrics to songs, as Lennon considered the music that McCartney was producing to be “granny music.” Lennon had wanted to be free from the limitations of the group, even though McCartney strongly contested the breakup.
The band took a break in 1966, and Lennon had a little sense of freedom. This is what Lennon credits with his thought process shifting to a life outside of The Beatles. When the group returned to producing music, it was not the same as it was before. Although Lennon’s lover, Yoko Ono’s, presence was seen more as an interruption to other members of the band, it was not the only factor contributing to the conflict (some Beatles die-hards might argue). Lennon’s style was already shifting and his relationship with Yoko Ono, let’s say, “inspired” him to pursue his style of music. It is reported that “the first time she spoke in the studio, offering John advice on a vocal, the room fell silent. Then Paul said, ‘Fuck me! Did somebody speak? Who the fuck was that? Did you say something, George? Your lips didn’t move!'” Clearly, the other members weren’t too thrilled about Lennon bringing his love interest into the group. Whether they realized it or not, Lennon had already expanded beyond the music that The Beatles were producing. Not forgetting that dropping acid, snorting coke, and injecting heroin also could have easily contributed to Lennon’s motivation for leaving The Beatles and pursuing his new style of music. Eventually, Lennon’s lack of connection with the band and eagerness to establish his voice the way he wanted, led him to pursue his own career.
When Lennon’s album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970) was released, it was praised by the public and initiated his popularity as a solo artist. His music was deeply personal with singles like “Mother” and “My Mummy’s Dead” that reflected his feelings of rejection and loneliness that he had as a child. He becomes in tune with his emotions and uses them to creatively construct this album, unconcerned with how the public may take it. Aside from his personal feelings, Lennon’s political views greatly impacted his music and led to the release of “Power to the People,” as well as other songs where he denounces fascism. In fact, Lennon placed himself in the middle of many political movements. He carried this passion to produce one of his most remembered and famous albums, Imagine (1971). Lennon incorporates anti-war lyrics, and calls for peace with the headliner, “Imagine.” This song would be used for many anti-war movements over decades. Lennon has won over four Grammy’s, including the Lifetime Achievement Award. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame posthumously in 1994 where he recognized for his originality in songwriting and the impact it carried onto society. It’s hard not to drift off and wonder what Lennon would have accomplished if his life wasn’t tragically taken by a crazed fan in 1980.
“While my sister was on stage, killing it like a motherfucker
I was enraged, feeling it like a motherfucker
Bird in a cage, you would never know what I was dealing with
Went our separate ways, but I was happy she was killing it”
-Kelly Rowland (her lyrics from “Dirty Laundry”)
Beyoncé’s reputation as “Queen Bee” solo artist rose from her popularity and sometimes, reported infamy, as the lead singer of Destiny’s Child. The group was raked with conflict in the early years as two members, LeToya Luckett and LaTavia Roberson, claimed that Beyoncé was favored and receiving all of the attention, which is understandable seeing as her parents managed the group. When those two members left in 1999 after claiming that there was a disproportionate share amongst the members, Destiny’s Child added group member Michelle Williams the following year; they remained a trio for the rest of their career together.
The problem seemed to be finding other members that were content with playing backup to Beyoncé. Once the group was on the same page, they went on to sell over 60 million records together and were named one of the greatest musical trios to date. From the beginning, it was clear that Beyoncé would be the earner in the group and the main focus. While in the group, Beyoncé appeared in the film, Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002), contributing to the film not only by acting, but also by adding to the soundtrack. She then released her first solo album, Dangerously in Love, the following year and immediately ascended back to the top of the charts. The album went on to win five Grammy awards, and sparked the beginning of Beyoncé’s success as a solo artist. After 16 years of performing together, Destiny’s Child released a statement in 2005 on why they decided to disband: “After all these wonderful years working together, we realized that now is the time to pursue our personal goals and solo efforts in earnest… No matter what happens, we will always love each other as friends and sisters, and will always support each other as artists.” Clearly ending on amicable terms, the ladies decided to pursue their own careers.
Now having free reign, Beyoncé did just that… reign. She became known as a triple threat: able to dance, sing, and look good while doing it. Releasing another five albums, Beyoncé has sold over 100 million records adding to the 60 million that she sold previously with Destiny’s Child. In these albums, Beyoncé creates an alter ego for herself (Sasha Fierce) while getting wildly personal with songs about her relationship with Jay-Z. What separates Beyoncé from other solo artists is not just based on the amount of success she has acquired, but on the empowerment that her songs give to her audience, especially women and African Americans. She has been an open activist for African-American rights and embraces women empowerment. Her album, Lemonade, has been widely recognized as being an aggressive album comprised of songs to make people who have experienced betrayal to throw their middle fingers up. With receiving a total of 22 Grammy Awards and 63 nominations, Beyoncé is the most nominated female artist for the award. Her ability to keep the attention of her audience and evoke strong emotions through her music is what makes Beyoncé a well known legacy. She has left the world with a talent that is impossible to match, and it is hard to imagine what fierceness she will bring in the future of music that she hasn’t already accomplished.
“When we worked together on ‘Bad’ I was in awe of his absolute mastery of movement on the one hand, and of the music on the other. Every step he took was absolutely precise and fluid at the same time. It was like watching quicksilver in motion.”
Alas, the ultimate what if would be what the landscape of music would look like if Michael Jackson hadn’t left the Jackson 5. He started rehearsing with his brothers at the age of five, and was opening for Diana Ross at the LA Forum by age 11. Motown began producing music for the brothers to perform, with Michael as the lead vocals. During that time, the Jackson 5 were commended for their ability to appeal to both Black and White audiences through their coordinated dances, vocals, style, and their embodiment of the “bubblegum pop” image. They were the coveted “crossover” act.
The group became a huge sensation, and with Michael as the front-runner, he was automatically singled out to be a superstar. Though only 13, Michael was producing music as a solo artist while simultaneously recording with his brothers in Jackson 5. However, over the years, the popularity of the Jackson brothers began to decline, and the popularity of Michael as a solo artist soared. Suddenly, it was Michael’s songs that were topping charts, and his voice that was desired as an individual, not as part of the group. Although the group was successfully putting out music, it was clear that it would not last forever.
MJ would release four (lesser known) solo albums, while still contracted under Motown records who refused to give Michael creative input; instead, pushing him into a more vanilla and wholesome style of music. It wasn’t until his departure from Motown, where he signed with Epic records that the world would get Off The Wall; the album most commonly confused as his first album. This album is what catapulted him into superstardom, moonwalking his way into living rooms.
Leaving The Jacksons (renamed from the Jackson 5), as the majority of the group moved to Epic records from Motown, as well.
What seemed to be the dream wasn’t the rainbow for the Jackson 5, the success of the group wasn’t meant to last. Michael Jackson would emerge from family conflict and abuse as he embarked on his own musical journey. Also, what would eventually lead to, arguably, the most successful pop career of all time. Jackson reinvented the image of pop, and became big enough to be crowned the “King of Pop.” He left the world reminiscing about his iconic dance moves, sensational voice, and emotional lyrics that further pushed him to be an inspiration to future artists. Probably the best case study example of a successful transition to a solo act.
It’s safe to say that this image of bands or groups is not nearly as prevalent today as it was back then. The image of groups changing could quite possibly be the direct impact of fame on individuals. Since the music produced in rock genres was reliant on what unique sounds the group created (guitarist, bass, drums, vocals, etc.), the unity of the band was extremely important. However, as technology became more advanced and music was able to be produced at the touch of a button, the fame seemed to aim at whoever was responsible for vocals. In recent decades, the groups born into the music industry are widely considered to be “boy bands” and “girl groups.”
The rock legacy is still alive, but the prospering pop, hip-hop and rap culture are defined by solo artists making their way into the spotlight. Could this be the end of lasting group music or will bands still be considered provisional? Although groups are still formed today, it is uncertain that they will be in future years. Establishing groups could just be an “enjoy for the meantime” kind of thing, expecting it to eventually come to an end.
So, here’s to the future pursuit of solo careers. As we have witnessed the success of many artists who have come out of the shadow of their collective reputation, we can only envision what the fate of prospective groups will be.