The Specifically 21st-Century Silliness of the Rock Hiatus

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Last week’s single best headline came from the A.V. Club, who revealed on Thursday, “After four agonizing months, Foo Fighters call off their hiatus.” We weren’t entirely surprised by this news — we can’t imagine Spiritual Forefather of Nice Guys of OK Cupid Dave Grohl depriving his loyal fans of his regal presence for long. Still, the whole thing rather exemplifies the silliness of the “hiatus,” a largely 21st-century phenomenon that used to be called “bands doing other stuff for a while” or “bands taking two years to make an album.”

The Foo Fighters’ hiatus isn’t even the shortest we can remember — that honor goes to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, who went on hiatus for three whole weeks in 2009 before returning in a blaze of publicity. And if you’ll excuse us waving our walking sticks for a moment, this is something that just didn’t happen in the old days, because the hiatus is essentially a post-millennial invention.

That’s not to say that the actual idea of a band taking some time off is new, of course. Bands — especially bands that had been together for significant periods of time — have been going on hiatuses, such as they were, for as long as it’s been viable to make a living out of music. The nature of the creative process is that bands often need time away from that process (and one another) in order to recharge metaphorical batteries, etc., especially if touring is also involved. The Rolling Stones, for example, effectively go on hiatus after every tour, and have been doing so for decades. They just didn’t (and don’t) make a song and dance about it.

So where did the whole “hiatus” thing come from? Part of it, one suspects, is a product of the information-thirsty society in which we live. Whereas once we’d expect to just not hear from a band for months or years on end, now we expect to be tweeted at incessantly, and informed as to what’s exactly going on. As such, bands these days make official announcements that they’re not doing anything, rather than just, y’know, not doing anything for a while.

But equally, there can be a certain cynicism about it, a way of manipulating the news cycle as well as feeding it. Announcing a hiatus is a way to stay in the public eye without actually doing anything — as Aux’s Tyler Munro argues here, “Going on hiatus creates two news stories nobody cares about, one to announce it and one six weeks later to say, ‘Sike!'” That piece was written two years before the whole Foo Fighters debacle, but it could have been written yesterday. As Munro points out, the hiatus is often accompanied by a shiny, new best-of compilation, or some other sort of consumable product to which the announcement conveniently draws attention.

Clearly, it isn’t always this way. There are legal implications to a band actually breaking up, especially if they’re a band that has actually made some money and/or accumulated a bunch of shared equipment over the course of their career. In many cases, it can be easier to just go on “indefinite hiatus” and dodge all such things. But then, bands have lawyers and accountants and advisers and other people in suits to deal with such matters, and in any case, doing so rarely requires a public announcement.

If the epidemic of pop-music hiatuses is genuinely a case of bands wanting to let their fans what’s going on, then sure, that’s a lovely gesture. But we can’t help but notice it’s rarely low-level indie bands or artists — those most likely to have a genuine engagement with their fans — who bother with the whole hiatus thing. No, it’s the likes of the Black Eyed Peas or the Foo Fighters or Good Charlotte or Creed or The Killers, all of whom will no doubt either milk the attention and then return for a lucrative tour, or have — surprise! — done so already. Ultimately, the whole thing smells funny, and it leaves us wondering: why can’t bands just either break up or not break up like they used to do?