Over My Head
We sure are living in a weird time.
I know I'm not the first person to weigh in on this subject and I realize that many scribes far more eloquent than me have already gotten their teeth into it, but I've gotta sound off just the same.
People in this country are embarrassing themselves with their infatuation with Fame. Fame has become the American Dream. Fame is the great validator. Celebrity gives you instant value in our culture. How else do you explain Paris Hilton? Here is a person with, as far as I can tell, absolutely nothing to offer -- talent, wisdom, virtue, not even extraordinary beauty -- she's merely famous for being famous. People will climb all over themselves to get a glimpse of that vapid bimbo. Why? I'll bet the girl who waits tables in your local diner has twice the sex appeal. But that's not what it's about. It's about FAME.
I'm sure I don't have to cite any of the other dubious luminaries who march in the pop culture parade of mediocrity; news organizations already waste enough time reporting on the lives of trivial celebrity types. There are weekly magazines devoted to dissecting the details of Brad and Jennifer's breakup and printing Britney Spears's bodega receipts. But here's the really creepy part -- people buy these magazines.
If you're a musician, your worth is judged by whether you are signed, have been on tv or on the covers of magazines. That's the first thing most people want to know about when they find out you are in a band. If you can say "yes" to any of the preceding, suddenly your interviewer's eyes light up and you've got a very interested audience. The subject of music itself? It's completely secondary.
I would have to think that there was once a time, maybe before the 1950s, when musicians played music for much purer reasons than they do now. It wasn't a business yet. Alot of people have noted that the term "music business" is an oxymoron. In many ways, the confluence of art and commerce is like that of oil and water. When making money is the overriding priority, how can great art be expected to follow?
Playing music is what makes me wake up in the morning. I enjoy sharing my music with people, which is why I play shows and put out records, but trust me, I would be here doing it all by myself either way. I have logged in thousands and thousands of hours in my apartment alone, playing music for my own benefit, music that nobody will ever hear. To me, that's what it's about -- immersing yourself in the creative process. It has nothing to do with soundscan reports or getting on the cover of Spin.
I've got relatives in the Midwest who look at me with undisguised confusion, trying to imagine why I live in the Big City playing music that hasn't registered on VH-1 yet. They don't care that I write songs or spend time trying to reach new heights of achievement and ability on a musical instrument; they just wanna see the big tv payoff. If I just decided one day to throw in the towel and become the house guitarist on Rock Star, my cousins would weep with pride and give me a homecoming hero's welcome at Christmas time.
There are many phenomenal musicians who have become rich and successful and kudos to them. Prince deserves every penny and all the adoration he's earned. But there are alot of pretenders out there who are in it for notoriety, ego-validation, money and other bullshit motivators. There are plenty of well-intentioned but unoriginal and semi-talented acts who somehow become giant stars thanks to canny marketing and a good stylist.
The music business has been exploiting music and musicians for decades now. But nowadays, fame and recognition and hero-worship are the dangling carrot that lures so many in. Sign your life away, compromise yourself and give most of your earnings to smarmy executives, and what you get in return is the gratification of being Famous.
And this is the problem -- fame is a priceless commodity in America. People will do anything to get a piece of it. Think of how many suckers throw out whatever dignity they once owned for the opportunity to humiliate themselves on some ridiculous reality tv show. Sure, they've proven themselves shameless and completely lacking in integrity, but the important thing is that they got on tv.
The general public is hopelessly obsessed with celebrity, in all of its grotesque permutations. It is an amazing thing to see. People will freak out whenever any famous person walks into the room. Even if it's Jack Osbourne. It matters not that the man has no apparent talent or notable intelligence. He is responsible for no achievement more impressive than drawing oxygen. He's not a humanitarian or a great activist. He's not handsome. He's just been on tv. Now watch those strippers fall into his doughy lap!
I was leaving a club on Thursday night just as Debbie Harry was walking in. Suddenly everyone was saying, "you can't leave now, Debbie Harry just got here!!"
Hah?! I don't get it. I've seen Debbie Harry before and I've even met her but I can guarantee you the experience didn't change my life. I was still the same person when I woke up the next morning. Blondie was a good band a long time ago. Debbie Harry's a decent singer and they made a few great records. But what am I supposed to do, run back into the bar and stupidly watch her sip her vodka/cranberry? Will I be famous by association for being there?
The people who told me I was crazy for leaving -- I wonder if they really were big fans of Blondie's music. Did they own all the albums? Did they have any of Harry's solo records? Or did they just think that being in the same bar with a celebrity somehow made them more special?
The next night I was at a different bar and apparently the bass player from Interpol walked in. Instantly, the atmosphere in the room changed. Everyone's buzzing around, whispering to eachother, giggling nervously and texting their friends. Now here is a guy of very average talent. I don't mean to put him down, and I'm sure he is genuinely passionate about what he does, but the fact is this: if he and his band were exactly the same as we know them to be -- same songs, same sound, same haircuts -- but were unsigned and playing small clubs like Lit, I guarantee you nobody would give a rat's ass if any of them walked into the room. You know this.
In NYC, the landscape is littered with staggering talents and visionary artists. Look around you -- they're everywhere. They probably served you the drinks you giggled into while craning your neck to get a glimpse of the Strokes guy. They're hanging pieces of their art in tiny storefront galleries in south Williamsburg as you walk by, oblivious, chattering into your cell phone. They perform mind-blowing music in tiny coffeehouses for pocket change and pour every ounce of themselves into it, as if it's their last chance to play.
Find your new heroes -- chances are, they live right next door.