You go to a party in Los Angeles, up in the Hollywood Hills. It's the house of a television actor. The house is bigger than any house you can ever imagine owning, even if everything in your life were to go really well. Right when you arrive you are shuffled into a little room where a dozen people are watching a man perform magic tricks. He's really good. He makes the cards disappear and reappear at will. He pulls a card out of his pants. Several people say, "Oh shit!" almost a little too loudly, like the magician just brought back their dead grandmother. Later on in the night, the television actor—a big barrel-chested guy who could physically and financially not give a shit about anything and no one would be able to call him on it—gives you a long explanation of where the term "dead ringer" came from and then asks you sincerely if it would freak you out more if you found out the universe were finite or if you found out it were infinite. This is Los Angeles. This is the second largest city in the United States. I've spent three months of this calendar year in New York City, and so I am getting used to the problems and luxuries that arise when millions of people are in the same space. You get spoiled, because any important cultural event that is appearing anywhere will be appearing in your city. Your intellectual curiosity is rewarded when, for instance, you suddenly get obsessed with a strain of architectural poetry or something and you find out that this art form was invented down the street from where you're staying and there is a performance of it tonight at the cafe in your building.
But Los Angeles has a certain different twist on this big city cultural abundance, and it involves the two factors that you instantly think about when you think about L.A.: cars and weather. The relentlessly sunny weather makes people tame and docile in a way that most people define as happiness, but which twisted artist-types like myself define as complacency and, you know, "selling out". Also, the dependence on cars to get you anywhere makes your life constantly defined by where your car is parked and how feasible is it to get to where you're going. And of course there is the constant debate amongst well-meaning friends about the best route to take to get to your destination. It's conducted with the same gravity as a discussion of the merits of home-schooling vs. private schools, but people rarely acknowledge the possibility that maybe it's not that there is a right and a wrong way to get somewhere, but rather there might just be a wrong way and another wrong way. The world doesn't exist as a duality just because we want it to. Maybe two roads diverge in a wood and neither one makes much of a difference. Or, they're both awesome. Let's keep our heads in the game.
This is not to imply that I don't like Los Angeles. When I was in Los Angeles last week, everyone I contacted said something like, "But I thought you hated Los Angeles?" And then when I met with them, they all said the same thing: "What are you doing HERE?!" I hope I am at least setting some sort of record for hearing that phrase this year. (I am also, I hope, setting the record for times in a year that I drive a car that I am not familiar with into a gas station and pull up to the fuel pump and get out, only to realize that I presumed the tank was on the wrong side of the car, meaning that I have to drive around to the other side, which would be very comical if you sped it all up like on Benny Hill. In this case, of course, there IS a duality, there IS a right and wrong side of the car and I always, invariably—kind of miraculously—choose the wrong side. Every time.)
Los Angeles was for some reason helpful in making me remember that the art we make is not about the particulars of what the painting looks like or where the snare comes in on the bridge or what actors we get for our film. The art we make is us. That doesn't mean that we have to be full of bizarre tics and affectations, just that we cultivate our personality to be as much us as we can. The best people are the ones that are a unique iteration of themselves, the only one of them that you can find in the world, that when you're describing them to someone else, the other person would never say, "Oh one of THOSE kinds of people."
One of the hardest things to accept as an aspiring artist is the success of your friends. When you're working on achieving success in your field and you hear that someone you know has rocketed ahead and received some amazing opportunity, it's hard not to feel a little sting of, "Why wasn't that me?" Which is both completely normal and understandable, and also entirely selfish and rude. If you look beneath the jealousy you'll find some pretty ugly assumptions, first of all that success is a zero sum game. There are some ways that you could say there are only certain slots available in the pantheon of success, finite commodities like spots at a festival, or appearances on Conan. But any time you're upset at someone else's success you're being lazy. You're assuming that the bare minimum will get by and that someone else breaking through means you don't get that opportunity. But I always think of it like this: Think of a undeniably great band like Radiohead. Their success isn't just because they got on a lucky bill one night at an Oxford club. Their success is very much driven by their talent and hard work. If you think their success takes away the possibility of success for someone else, think about how the world would react if there happened to be another band as brilliant as Radiohead, yet completely original and unique. People wouldn't groan and think, "Oh God, I don't have room for ANOTHER amazing band that will change my life and provide a touching soundtrack to the best moments of my day." Instead, you expand your world and embrace this other band. If you work hard enough to make your art compelling, there will be room for it, and the success of other artists won't take away that opportunity.
Besides, to put it in a more selfish way, the success of your peers expands the possibilities of success for everyone. Just in the relatively small town of Portland, the breakthrough of bands as different and diverse as Menomena and Blind Pilot has made it more possible for others to find some traction. Now it becomes a mark of pride that you can write an email and say that you're from Portland, Oregon, and that designation actually means something to people in other cities. That comes from the great successes that other bands have had.
And yet, still, I know I personally feel that sting when I feel like someone has gotten some great opportunity and I wonder why it wasn't me. It feels like such a childish emotion, like you're sitting on the floor in kindergarten wondering why you're stuck with the Stegosaurus instead of the T-Rex. If you're going to pretend to be a dinosaur, it's no fun to be a plant-eater.
When you're a kid it's hard to figure out at what point exactly you'll become a grown-up. That's probably why some cultures have those celebrations that mark the entrance into adulthood, whether it's a bar mitzvah or quinceanera. If you grow up without that, you have to pick some arbitrary moment. (When I got married, I thought to myself, "Okay, now I'm an adult." And then when I got divorced I thought, "Okay, NOW I'm an adult." For some people it's when they first rent a car.)
But after a while, you suddenly look around and notice that you and your friends ARE the grown-ups. You're the ones in charge of the world. That's a scary moment, because you realize that there's no one above you who's going to make sure everything is okay. You suddenly have the responsibility yourself to be in charge of that. But after a while you can relax and remember that the people you thought were the adults were just as scared of being adults as you are now. And they somehow made everything okay, so somehow everything will continue to be okay. But thank God I escaped Los Angeles for now.
You can stream or buy Nick Jaina's new duets record, The Beanstalks That Have Brought Us Here Are Gone, right here.