Culture

When good actors become terrible musicians

Jeremy Renner, Kiefer Sutherland, and Russell Crowe, to name a few, have pivoted to making barely listenable music steeped in the milieu of personal turmoil.
Culture

When good actors become terrible musicians

Jeremy Renner, Kiefer Sutherland, and Russell Crowe, to name a few, have pivoted to making barely listenable music steeped in the milieu of personal turmoil.

There’s something novel, if not quite unprecedented, about the cultural space Jeremy Renner is inhabiting right now. Fresh off a sizable role in the highest grossing movie of all time, Renner is at least partly all of these things: an outdoor lifestyle brand sponsored by Amazon, the star of an upcoming Hawkeye series for Disney+, and a Jeep pitchman. He, or possibly a team of admins, also preside over the official Jeremy Renner app, a bizarre and obsessive community for fans to catch up on exclusive content, share horny Renner memes, or find out when it’s Rennsday. (Typically this falls on Wednesday, but sometimes it does not.)

Once in a position to inherit the keys to two of the most venerated modern action franchises, before each of the original stars reclaimed their roles to varying results, Renner isn’t quite a leading man, but he’s pretty close. So it’s riveting to see him earnestly pursue the role of rock frontman, already releasing four singles this summer. One single, “Main Attraction,” sounds like AWOLNATION fronted by the Michelin Man. Another, “Sign,” suggests that he’s jockeying to go on tour with an Amy Winehouse hologram.

Renner isn’t alone in this sort of musical exploration. Over the last decade or two, actor guys of a certain age — including, but not limited to, Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Costner, Idris Elba, David Duchovny, Russell Crowe, Johnny Depp, and so many more — have covered similar ground. From afar, most of these men share a number of things in common: divorce, little discernible musical talent, and the protection fame can provide you from failure. Women in Hollywood with scant musical background also attempt the pivot — Renner’s Avengers costar Scarlett Johansson, also Rita Wilson — but it’s often a slightly more winning enterprise, and is less steeped in the milieu of personal turmoil. For these men, this is what midlife crisis looks like when you've run out of luxury items to acquire or anyone to keep your impulses in check.

Every actor has a different level of commitment to this hobby, but you can usually gauge their investment based on whether their Twitter avatar features them howling into a microphone or a pensive press photo. Kiefer, Jeremy, Duchovny, and Jeff Bridges are all committed artists. Idris Elba is still a movie star for now. Russell Crowe is Roger Ailes. The sweet spot is being able to navigate both spaces without claiming either one as your focus, but there are few active entertainers viewed as equally credible at both. The two Jeffs — Bridges and Goldblum — have been able to leverage their meme currency and oddball spirit into well-received albums that color outside the divorced guy rock canon. At the other end of this continuum sits Hollywood Vampires — the supergroup which rotates between Johnny Depp and what appear to be wax figurines of Joe Perry and Alice Cooper on vocals — and their cover of “Heroes,” which Depp brought to the late night circuit.

The first true taste of Renner’s rockstar aspirations came from “Heaven Don’t Have a Name,” his almost-debut single and my personal song of the summer. The title and artist name are doing a lot here, but barely scratch the surface. Heaven does have a name — it’s heaven — and as someone on Twitter recently pointed out, you can choose to read some self-destructive tendencies from the single artwork. On the track, Renner is all stomping, rafter-aiming bombast, but his performance aligns more closely with I Think You Should Leave’s absurdity. Despite being released nearly a year prior as a collaboration with producer Sam Feldt, “Heaven Don’t Have a Name” didn’t begin to realize its potential until a behind-the-scenes teaser video arrived on Twitter.

As it opens, Renner strings together some syllables I’ve never really heard in this particular order. While the Genius page suggests one line as “so unpredictable,” I can hear nothing but “so papa dick a doo I’ve gotta te-eh-ell you,” and refuse to entertain any alternatives. That he followed this up with three more singles, cribbing from Imagine Dragons just as much as Motown, and a psychedelic Jeep ad campaign built to spotlight the songs, has made this a weird time for Renner. This is saying a lot, considering, again, that he runs his own app.

Content from the Jeremy Renner app, regrettably.

Content from the Jeremy Renner app, regrettably.

Content from the Jeremy Renner app, regrettably.

Renner’s an outlier both in circumstance and his pursuit of dynamic, centrist pop rock. His relationship to genre is just porous enough to slot into Spotify’s “The New Alt” playlist, which draws nearly a million subscribers. At some point between the release of “Heaven Don’t Have a Name” and “Main Attraction” landing on The New Alt, Renner was likely the only account with Robert Downey Jr., Queen, Joni Mitchell, and Steve Aoki listed as related artists.

This is a slight contrast to the rootsy, tepid outlaw cosplay of other actors-turned-artists, who mostly dip into Americana and classic rock revivalism, though their performance of heartland masculinity resides a bit closer to Kid Rock’s Hey Authority than Johnny Cash flipping off the guards at San Quentin. There’s an unspoken understanding that these guys are rebelling against something, even if it only amounts to their current or past wives. This allows for some extremely divorced behavior — posts cataloguing tour life both alone and with the boys, a song called “Not Enough Whiskey” — and a break from the industry that would rather outfit them in glasses and a Cornell hoodie than a blonde mullet. This sort of rockstar mythology isn’t what it used to be, but it hasn’t disappeared — it just plays to a smaller niche of music fans.

And so the actor-musician gets to have it both ways, taking their roots rock Westworld tour to spaces both too large and small for their stature in the entertainment industry. In Pittsburgh, it's not uncommon for the star of 24 to perform at a venue called Jergel's Rhythm Grille, where a local Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute act or Scott Stapp might also play, even if their daily lives all differ significantly. Although these projects may never achieve any reasonable metrics of success in the music industry, the fans will still come, and even if they don’t the actors can afford the existential blow, because they’re already successful somewhere else. It’s a similar novelty to, say, Channing Tatum or 50 Cent autographing bottles at the local wine and spirits store.

Living out these heartland fantasies in the post-boom period of one’s acting career is hardly a ladder-climbing choice. The actors’ self-funded musical efforts bear the same minimal public demand and broad financial latitude as Howard Schultz flirting with a presidential run, which means nobody should feel too bad for clowning on their vanity. “The whole idea of the band was that it might lead to a more authentic chance for me to connect with fans across the country and around the world,” Costner said of his band Kevin Costner and the Modern West during a Toyota Tundra promo. “It’s just really me having the chance to be in front of people for two or three hours where I couldn’t be interrupted with an autograph or a selfie.” They’re still leading men, mediocrity be damned, and get to enjoy a more intimate kind of adoration, even if there’s some lingering get-off-my-lawn undertones.

Sutherland, for his part, is cautious about the “stigma” of actors who rock. He’s owned and operated the independent label Ironworks since the early aughts with artist friend Jude Cole — Michelle Pfeiffer’s brother-in-law. As Sutherland recently told Yahoo! Entertainment, he shopped some of his own songs to major labels for other artists to record. When, he implies, they politely advised him to keep them for himself, Sutherland was skeptical of a career pivot, but Cole was able to convince him. “We were both very aware of what happens to actors who do music,” he said.

What does happen, exactly? He seems to be cautioning against a steep decline into irrelevance or worse, but the reality is almost never so uniformly bleak. Sutherland ignores that music is more of a symptom than a cause of their demoted standing, a pivot that usually comes after the starring roles dry up, and personal upheaval sets in. But when the TV parts and supporting roles don’t scratch the performing itch, there is always a small, adoring audience ready to watch them jam. Much like heaven, this transitional period don’t have a name, but they make it look more fun than whatever’s coming next.

Shawn Cooke is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. He previously wrote about Frankie Muniz for The Outline.