Would “Exile on Main St.” have survived Twitter?

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The build-up to the May 18 re-release of Exile on Main St. has been nothing short of astonishing especially for an album that received mixed reviews on its release in 1972. Jimmy Fallon hosted Rolling Stones Week culminating in the premier of a new documentary about the band, Stones in Exile (coming to DVD in June). Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair were among the publications devoting heavy coverage that amounted to the re-christening of what is now remembered as one of the greatest albums in rock.

In truth, Exile on Main St. was an acquired taste on its initial release– a sprawling, messy album that took some time to understand and appreciate, which helps explains why it took years for the rest of the world to catch up to it. As Mick Jagger said recently to a typically cranky Greg Kot, “What’s interesting about it is that it has so many sides to it, so many different musical styles, very bluesy, and it has soul, gospel, and the other quirky little bits that perhaps you wouldn’t have put on a record with only 12 songs . . . Which perhaps explain why it wasn’t immediately reviewed as stunningly wonderful. But after a while, people get to appreciate the breadth of it.”

Which prompts me to wonder: how would Exile have fared if social media — especially Twitter — had been around in 1972? It’s not an inconsiderable question given the knee-jerk nature of Twitter and its ability to build up or derail a brand in a matter of minutes. Here’s what I think:

  • We have no reason to believe that the initial reception among the critical elite like Rolling Stone would have been any different: mixed. However, under pressure to meet harsher deadlines in the digital age, I think the reviewers would have been less thoughtful in their analysis than they were in 1972.
  • The amateurs (like me) would also have had our say. And I’m sure there would have been a good deal of meaningful insight offered. But more likely, given the polarizing nature of the album, we would have witnessed a loud, nasty argument between Stones haters and Stones loyalists with little interesting discussion of the music itself occurring. Some amateurs would have taken the time to link to reviews on Twitter and Facebook in order to open doors for more conversation. But I suspect the album would have inspired many emotional replies bereft of enlightenment. Remember, by this time, the Stones had been around 10 years and had no problem inspiring love and hatred.
  • The Stones themselves would have been oblivious to it all. By 1972, their status as celebrities had far transcended their notoriety as rock stars. The Stones had become a self-sustaining entity answerable to no one but themselves.

I say all this not to take pot shots at social media but to put its value in context. To wit:

  • There is no questioning Twitter’s value as a mechanism for broadcasting important news, curating content, and being responsive to customers, fans, etc. But Twitter leaves much to be desired as a forum for meaningful discussion — especially for anyone creating content that takes time to appreciate, whether you’re an author, speaker at an event, or musician. At events like SxSW, too often we have seen Twitter become a mechanism for mob rule and empty-headed criticism. I cannot see how any speaker should care much about initial reactions on Twitter anymore. It’s the thoughtful analysis delivered after you’ve had a chance to digest and analyze new information that matters.
  • I don’t care what the pundits say about consumers being in control. We are more empowered. But we are not in control. Some brands are just too big, too powerful, and too indifferent to care about how many Twitter followers they have. And in some instances — notably the world of art — I applaud the indifference. Artists cannot be led around the nose by fans if they are to grow. (In other cases — notably the world of commerce — we would like to be in control but are not. Do we really think the notorious “United Breaks Guitar” video is really going to turn things around at United Airlines? Think anyone at BP cares about no-names like me whining on our blogs about inconvenient oil spills?)

Where I think social media can play a major role in the world of art is bringing our attention to newer, emerging artists — musicians, authors, and the like whose options for gaining public attention are shrinking as the music and publishing industries wither away. Bringing attention to the next Exile — now that’s a role anyone can and should play.

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