I had dinner the other night with a couple hundred high school and middle school teachers...I had just written and performed a song with about 25 of them about their role as yearbook supervisors. Yes, really.
Anyway, my nearest (and most talkative) dining companion was a woman from Michigan who teaches journalism at the high school level. Someone recently donated a turntable to her classroom, and records have started pouring in from parents and other teachers. Her after-school yearbook meetings have turned into dance parties/history of popular music classes. The kids' favorites are Queen's Greatest Hits, and Michael Jackson's "Thriller". It's pretty easy for me to picture that scene, having lived it the first time around.
When she mentioned that several of her former students still stay in close touch with her, I wasn't a bit surprised - she is definitely the type that would be remembered as a favorite...young, cool, supportive...
One of these past students is a painter - dedicated and passionate and commited to making a living as an artist. In an email to her former teacher, this young woman revealed that she no longer took any pleasure in viewing the works of other painters. She rarely found joy anymore in what used to be the primary source of meaning in her life. She was confused, and she was upset, and she was looking for some answers.
This is where I enter the story, and why I'm relating it at all. Here is an artist, working in a completely different medium from my own, but likewise struggling with a universal conundrum. I suppose I knew that this particular angst wasn't exclusive to the music business, but I had never thought much about it, outside my own box. I did, however, feel uniquely qualified to weigh in...thusly:
I hate music. Okay, that's a little strong, but I have uttered that phrase, more than once. What I really hate is how often it lets me down...how frequently I am just left cold when I start with high expectations. All good things are still possible right before the performer in question hits the first note, or while the CD is still sliding into the player...but more often then not, something falls short. I just know too much. I am too close to it. I go straight into critique mode. If you are an artist, you know exactly what I mean. We routinely pick apart everything in our medium to gain a better understanding of what is effective and what isn't. It's as though cynicism is essential to our process, not to mention our progress. Without it we become stagnant; anti-growth equals anti-art. So, in the interest of preserving our sanity, we unconsciously criticize other artists at least as harshly as we critcize ourselves. It's hard to give someone else a break when we're not able to extend ourselves that same courtesy.
But, lest you think that all I do is wallow in a state of artless misery, and that I recommend our Dismayed Young Artist do the same, my real point begins here:
Every now and then something breaks through. It might be a unique voice that commands without effort, or a turn of phrase that makes you cry. It might be an inspired and unexpected use of color, or a look on the face of a child in a mural...and you're left standing there with your heart wide open and every nerve tingling...with that sweet, old, familiar, "Here. Yes. This is it!" feeling filling up all the empty places carved by your pesky objectivity. There is more joy and relief in that moment than any "lay person" could ever experience. And it is BECAUSE of our cynicism, and not in spite of our cynicism, that we have such a heightened appreciation for sporadic magnificence. Oh, we KNOW what's good...and when it's good it's like manna from heaven.
So the final word to Dismayed Young Artist is: Embrace your cynicism but leave your heart open. The artists and the works that inspire you will be fewer and farther between, but when you ARE moved it will be with greater power and authenticity.
So if you ever hear me say that I hate music, what I really mean is that I'm currently getting in my own way, and I have temporarily forgotten what joy I will find in something that I don't even know about yet.
I don't really hate music. Not all the time...25 adults loving every minute of writing a song about yearbook deadlines and then hamming it up onstage for their colleagues, complete with conga line...a roomful of high school kids dancing around to Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Something", 20+ years after I did exactly the same thing...it's practically enough restore my faith in humanity, not to mention, in music.