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How Phil Collins became cool (no, really)

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Critics, fans and peers turned against Collins in the 1990s and 2000s
In August 2020, a YouTube video featuring Tim and Fred Williams, 21-year old twins from Gary, Indiana, went viral. In it, the two young men were listening to Phil Collins' 1981 hit song "In The Air Tonight" for the first time, commenting as they went along. They listen intently for the first few minutes, their heads bobbing along. Then Collins' drum fill with the famous gated-reverb starts and they are astonished. "I ain't never seen anyone drop a beat three minutes into a song," Fred explains. When the song concludes, Fred cries: "You killed it Phil!"

The video was viewed millions of times and shared widely on social media. In the Air Tonight immediately went to number one on U.S. college radio stations. The Guardian and The New York Times covered the video, praising not only Collins' iconic song but celebrating his solo career as a whole. This was a marked departure from only a few years earlier, when his solo work was dismissed by critics as cultural junk left over from an unloved earlier era.

So what has changed to make Collins cool and relevant again?

To answer this question, we examined the trajectory of Collins' solo career from 1981-2020, identifying changes in the tone and critical appraisal of Collins. There was admiration at first (1981-1991), which turned into derision (1992-2009), followed by rediscovery and an unironic sense of cool (2010-present). We analysed each phase by drawing on work in the field of cultural studies that examines how cultural producers or products become considered truly great.

The highs and lows

Following the ups and downs of Collins' long career in music enabled us to identify a N-shaped curve of artistic trajectory, which we labelled the "Phil Collins Effect."

The effect describes how changes in the way fans, critics and peers view an artist and interact with their work can affect the artist's critical and commercial status. The…
Andre Spicer, Michael Beverland, Pinar Cankurtaran
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