If you haven't read the wonderful book "Just Kids" by Patti Smith, you absolutely have to. Actually, you don't have to. Only read it if you love New York, or if you love music, or if you love the 1960's, or the 1970's, or if you love "love," or if you love the world.
The book is about Patti Smith moving to New York and meeting Robert Mapelthorpe, and about them wanting to be a artists and be free. The impression it leaves on you is that the world is filled with so many beautiful details, and that the only path to getting what you want is to work really hard. But working hard can also just mean appreciating all the beautiful details of the world, trying to understand them, and create more beautiful details.
It's also a book about people being in love. When you're in love with someone, you see every detail. You love the cuff links and the ear lobes and the shoelaces and the quirky way of pronouncing r's. When no one is in love with you, you feel like a big mainsail, catching all the furious winds of the world. As though all that matters is vagaries and dumb gestures.
I spent most of this year working on a ballet. It was an opportunity to write music that was more intricate. Every time I offered a sketch of music to the choreographer he would tell me to do more: to make it crazier, bolder, stronger, more exciting. Most of the time while writing pop songs I feel encouraged to do the opposite: to make it simpler, dumber, bigger, something that can catch the attention of the guy at the bar who's watching the football game. But maybe I don't want his attention. Like a lot of artists, I've spent so much time sewing my beautiful flag, but instead of running it up a flagpole to display it gloriously, I walk with it through the mud to try to show it to everyone, and it drags on the ground, gets trampled and muddy.
When it was Patti Smith and Robert Mapelthorpe in that apartment in Brooklyn in 1969, all they had was the work. There were no venues for validation outside of producing a great body of work. Being an artist wasn't a bourgeois appellation, it was a commitment to a craft. It wasn't exclusive either. Being an artist is ultimately about finding beauty and expressing that to others to remind them why they're alive. You don't have to be a painter or a musician to be an artist. You can be an artist in how you cultivate your own personality.
But in regards to "the work": in 2011 it is possible to be having dinner with your friends, decide to form a band, record a song on GarageBand, make a Bandcamp page and have your music available to the entire world in just a few minutes. This means there is great access for all the under-appreciated bands in the world. But it leads to a pattern of forgetting. Of forgetting about the work. Of forgetting about songwriting. Of forgetting about living a life, building up a purpose, finding something to say and refining it. I don't know if I want to listen to a band who formed primarily because of a clever name, whose first order of business was to take band photos and start planning a music video. Having a band has gone from an organic collection of people who are trying to have a conversation and communicate music, to now just something you sketch on the back of a bar napkin: this will be our name, we'll coordinate our outfits thusly, my uncle knows a guy who can get our demo heard.
That's what trying to achieve success leads to, which is perfectly fine as long as we are not disingenuous about it. For myself, at a certain point this past year I started to wonder: What does my personal success do for the good of the world? It might have some tangental connection, but the actual act of me succeeding-- other than making me feel good-- what does that do to help anyone else? There is an illusion that the collection of recognition and accolades will somehow replace the shame of being a loser in high school (okay, a loser in middle school and college and all other times too.) I'm not the first person to say that the entertainment industry is populated by people narcissistically pursuing goals that obstensibly are to give something to society, but are really about healing personal wounds. Maybe this happens in all industries, but it seems magnified more in the entertainment business. Librarians seem perfectly content to help people find information and not just achieve a certain status to make the people that taunted them back in school feel bad.
A recent article in Slate by Jacob Rubin called "The Death of Titles" ruminates on the trend of movie and television show titles being very literal, such as in the case of "Horrible Bosses," "Snakes on a Plane," and "2 Broke Girls", etc. These are entertainment products that are essentially also a marketing pitch within themselves. So often if you are stuck watching one of these films or tv shows on a plane (a fate worse than having to actually deal with a bunch of snakes) you get the feeling that the product is literally being written as you watch it. Like there was no belief that there was a movie worth making until they got the pitch approved. But the pitch IS the movie, and that's all they have. You can feel the sets rolling into place right as the scene starts, actors getting their lines right before ACTION. And, as the article points out, the paradox of these literally-named products is that they are actually not even about what they say they are about. "Snakes on a Plane" is not about snakes on a plane, but about whether enough people will see "Snakes on a Plane" that it will go viral. The product itself is composed of nothing but flares drawing attention to itself, a homing beacon luring everyone in, and once we are close to it we see that it's still just a homing beacon, flashing away, with no other pertinent information.
The biggest hope that I have for artists and musicians in Portland is to dream of being more than just a meme. A meme is like a piece of cultural currency, passed from one person to another. It could be a video of a cat washing a monkey, or it could be "Just Kids." In one sense, every meme is equal. If the cat washing the monkey is seen by ten million people, then it is a success. If you spend five thousand dollars making a music video and it's only seen by a thousand people, well, how do you reconcile the truth that people want to watch random cats and monkeys much more than they want to watch your carefully constructed art? But remember that you don't have to play this game. As a musician, you are always receiving advice from people preying on your ambition, looking to sell you on a more expensive mastering job, or the music video that will break you into certain markets, or the new attitude and verbiage that will make people notice. You start to feel an anxiety that by just standing still you are moving backwards, that everyone else is racing ahead of you towards a bright digital future. Every day brings more memes, because people long to look at new things. And one of those things could be YOUR thing, if you'd put the cost of video production on your credit card, mortgage your freedom for a vague future happiness.
It's comforting when you realize that you don't HAVE to do anything. In the movie "Lean On Me," the main character Joe Clark, played by Morgan Freeman, is thrown in jail. His students rally for his release outside. At one point Joe is told, "We're in a tough spot here... The students are all getting emotional. You have to send them home." To which Joe leans back on his cot and says, "I don't have to do nothing but stay black and die."
As an artist, all you are responsible for is the work. To appropriate this phrase, you don't have to do anything but stay an artist and die. And by not doing anything, I don't mean don't do the work. Spend the 15 hours a day agonizing over the right word for the second verse. Toss and turn at night because you have a melody stuck in your head, and the covers are warm and the room is cold and your 4-track is on the other side and you want to get your idea down but you also want to just sleep. By not doing anything I mean you don't have to do anything that anyone tells you. You don't have to make songs that sound like a popular band's songs. You don't have to make an expensive music video. You don't have to record at the best place in town. You don't have to get a popular guest vocalist. You don't have to get a famous band to give you a blurb. All you have to do is stay an artist and die. That's what's really comforting.