well, the booth’s all packed up and in the hands of (hopefully) capable shipping companies, and I’m in the austin airport waiting for my plane, drinking some tea, and feeling very tired but good. I’m thinking about this email I got yesterday:
Say, I really enjoyed meeting you at your booth yesterday. And I listened to some of your stuff and was very impressed. Seriously. One of the unfortunate facts of life is that people see us as they first see us. Meaning, I would not have expected you to be as serious an artist as you are because I first heard of you through [your job with] Pandora. Anyway, very cool vibe. I can see why you’re having the successes you are.
given my neil young rant of thursday, given the fact that we didn’t book a show in or around sxsw (our record doesn’t come out until August), and given the general tone of the particular weekend I had (i.e., lots of talking about music but not much playing; lots of listening to other peoples’ bands), I find myself sitting here thinking about that email and mulling over questions of what constitutes legitimacy, what defines artistic identity, and how the need to be special fits in (or doesn’t) with public evidence of an artist’s more quotidian, less special existence.
to start with, the email above is totally understandable. he’s exactly right about the “unfortunate fact” (though I wouldn’t characterize it as unfortunate, necessarily) that we make judgments about everyone we meet or see by using the context in which we encounter them as a measure. context is fundamental to people’s ability to comprehend a work of art or entertainment; and some psychologists even go so far as to say that all human meaning is a by-product of our understanding of the way in which others perceive us.
so of course it’s not surprising that someone might be skeptical about the quality of the work of an artist he meets working on the floor of a music industry trade show (lord knows I would be – I’d even go further to say that anyone who isn’t skeptical about the work of any artist at all probably isn’t being very realistic. making a record these days is technically pretty easy, but making a good record is just as hard as ever; and making a great record remains as nearly impossible as it has always been).
part of my job at pandora is to listen to the submissions of artists who have not yet found much of an audience, and one of the distinguishing factors is definitely a lack of sophistication regarding these issues of legitimacy and credibility. I give each piece of music its chance, but there have been a few cases where, even though the music may possibly good enough to be discovered, the artist is not. that is, I can’t be sure that the experience of discovering this artist will be satisfying to listeners.
so clearly an artist isn’t solely made of the art that he or she creates. there has to be some image, some public representation that symbolizes the specialness, authenticity, and vision of that person’s art and of his or her very life.
now I was at sxsw partly to work at the trade show for pandora; and the job of working the pandora trade show booth is one which, though I think I do fairly well, could also be done well by many other people. in visibly taking on that semi-public, non-artistic, non-singular role, I’m working against a behavioral norm that asks artists to demonstrate, to always appear, in character, as other, better, exotic.
it’s foolish to deny the existence of this romantic perception. we want artists to be rare birds, never sighted out of their narrow strip of habitat, never engaged in common activities, and always fulfilling limited, esoteric needs. and given the chance, I guess that’s what every artist would probably do. but the thing is, in this world artists don’t look or act in any generally defined ways, nor do they only engage in artistic activities (one of my favorite artists right now is a socially awkward sports fan who looks as if he’s more likely to be a cab driver than what he is: a stunningly brilliant, nationally published poet. by the way he’s also a teacher… see the neil young post).
on the other hand, it’s a fact that really good artists really are in fact rare birds (no matter that the rareness that artists are able to uncover within themselves and express to an audience is probably something deeply individual that most if not all people possess; it’s still apparent that a strong artist in performance is achieving something beyond the everyday).
so there you go. it’s a contradiction, and it’s one that I think lots of artists encounter, especially since so many have to transition to and from their visionary, special selves into their less glamorous coffeeshop/bookstore/janitor/trade show selves. personally, I like the idea that anyone around this departure gate could be a great artist. first of all, I like the idea because it’s true. secondly, it’s encouraging and empowering to people. and thirdly, I just find it humorous to think that the more someone looks like an artist, the less likely it is that they really are one. that’s my contrarian streak I guess, but I’d also say that it’s my artist’s natural instinct toward freedom from narrowness and limitation.
lots of poets I know are like chinese sages who live amongst us but never stand out. some of my musician friends are like that, too. so although I like the david bowies and jack whites of the world, I sometimes prefer my artists to embody a less predictable, and therefore more interesting mystery.
here’s to not knowing,