It boggles me how American culture makes music so competitive.
It must be an accident from our having developed the biggest sports industry in the world, where athletes rise to celebrity status bearing the totems of our culture into ritualized battle every day. People throw things at their TVs out of the passion that our sports culture breeds. There are whole cable networks devoted to each faction of every sport in our country. People draw battle lines between each other over sports rivalries. Parents attack volunteer umpires and coaches in their children’s youth leagues in the interest of their child winning. It goes on and on.
Music has been going the same way.
Witness American Idol and its countless spin-offs. Witness all these young, aspiring singers plowing through auditions nonstop and risking vocal cord damage, some of them even trying for opera before they’re done with puberty. Witness all the accolades people want to throw at their feet, especially if they’re cute, sexy and thin. Some of us remember when students at a prominent music conservatory in the northeast would go into their rivals’ practice rooms to slide razor blades between the piano keys. Witness ourselves in our own practice rooms: demoralized, disillusioned, haunted by inner demons, wondering why in the hell we chose this path even though nothing may come of it financially or otherwise…
Feeling like losers, thinking we should be winners by now.
Let’s stop this for a moment.
What if music had nothing to do with winning or losing?… What would it be then?…
Some of us have come to see our whole lives as either winning or losing, and where has that gotten us? We constantly chase the one and avoid the other, and the result is the proverbial rat race. With constantly moving cheese. It’s become so familiar that we think nothing of it. Until something shakes our consciousness – a loss, a shakeup, a falling-out, a sudden change – and we are suddenly present to how ratty the rat race gets. And we want to get out.
But where is “out”? If we decide we’re sick of winning and losing, what else is there?…
I had to sit for a moment on this one, and the answer emerged out of nothing:
That was the third way. Not a middle way, mind you, but a way that cuts beyond the paths of winning and losing and into a whole new realm of possibility.
Love. We’ve seen what music looks like on that path. Even though I’m not – repeat, NOT – a fan of the Grateful Dead, they have shown us that possibility in the most optimistic parts of the Cultural Revolution. That’s just one example. Another example is the benefit concert – there’s one gearing up for the victims of hurricane Sandy as I write this, in fact.
But I think it’s best seen as an experience you create yourself. You get to ask yourself the question: What is my musical work beyond the game of winning and losing? And then see what answer comes up. See if that enlightens you. See if it connects you. See if it pulls you forward and fires you up.
For me, it’s love. And yes, that’s a very hippie thing to say, but that’s what it is for me. If this is how I get to express love, let me do it for everyone I can, for ears that are willing to hear. And let them love me back however they will, let it be an exchange and a conversation. Let me do the best I can, and work hard at it, so that the expression is clear. Let me establish good business relationships with people, let there be equal exchange and trust. Let people enjoy themselves, maybe hear something that touches them and overflows into their life. Let what I do make a difference for people. Let it sustain me and everyone I love, and let it have value. Let it do good, and let it outlast the passing moment.
Yes, I would much rather live for that than anything else. And it goes way beyond music. In fact, music works best when it doesn’t just exist for its own sake. Good music points beyond itself to wonders and mysteries we wouldn’t see otherwise. Even songs about the most mundane things can quicken something in us, and make us look at those things in a different way (just listen to Suzanne Vega). Music gives us the lens to do this.
To show people how to see in different ways is an act of love, and something our culture needs more than it needs piles and piles of more and more data faster and faster. And this way of seeing, which is shared by all the arts, is in short supply these days. Some people wouldn’t miss it if it withered away entirely. Others wouldn’t notice.
But if you value it – if you’re a musician or a music lover – if you’re a beginning student or a seasoned pro – if you’re hardcore or casual – I’m asking you to see what’s possible beyond the competition. If you feel like a loser who should be winning, there’s no shame in getting out of the rat race, because I don’t think that’s what music is, and at some fundamental, archetypal level where our spirits exist beyond normal life, I don’t think you believe that, either.