Songs for the Struggling Artist


In Which Someone I Used to Idolize Harasses Me and I Learn a Few Things About the Music Business

Part 1

When I first heard who it was on my voicemail, I got excited. Really? Is this for real? One of my heroes from my youth was calling me? On my phone? The woman whose songs helped me through my teens and helped me again in the political upheaval of the last year? The woman whose unvarnished *REDACTED* album was the touchstone for me feeling like I could share some unvarnished music myself this year? The woman whose songs inspired me to keep going when I felt I couldn’t? Was that really her? And it was.

But, within seconds, the news went from amazing to terrible. Her message said something to the effect of “If you’re sensing hostility in my voice it’s because it’s there” and “I’m in New York, too, and I intend to raise a ruckus.” (I may be paraphrasing slightly here, as I could not bear to listen to the message again.)

So. My hero from my teens was calling me. (Yay!) But she’s calling to tell me she’s furious with me. (Yikes.) *REDACTED* knows who I am! (Yay!) But she wants to go to war with me. (Yikes.) It was a bone-shaking message to get.

See, over the last year, I’ve recorded over 40 cover songs in my living room. Three of those songs were hers. And when I decided to make them available to the public, I knew I needed to go through some hoops. This process is all new to me but I did a bunch of research and it seemed like the best way to assure that the songwriters received due credit and compensation was to use this licensing company called Loudr. I paid the licensing fee and preliminary royalties for each writer. It wasn’t cheap. And a lot of folks don’t bother. But how I engage with my fellow artists is important to me and I wanted to make sure I did right by everyone I owed an artistic debt to, both metaphorically and literally. Loudr calculates the preliminary royalties and so Elvis Costello got $9.10. ani difranco got $9.10. And *REDACTED* – because I recorded three of her songs – got $9.10 times three. Plus, I’m assuming, at least a portion of the license fee.

So *REDACTED* called me and declared that I was using her composition without permission. And she was pissed. She called seven times, several times a day for three days. She trolled me on Twitter. She doxxed me. She targeted my theatre company (which has zero to do with my music.) She clicked around in all the places I have digital media presence. And because usually those places are quiet and unvisited, that made a lot of noise.

It is a really heartbreaking experience to be trolled by someone you once admired so fiercely. I cried on and off for 24 hours. I didn’t do much sleeping either.

At first, I tried to figure out what she wanted. She didn’t say. Was it the profits from the songs? Because there aren’t any. Is she after a portion of my album sale? Because that’s a dollar. I mean – I’m a month into the first release of two albums and the only money I’ve made is the $10 I got when my dad downloaded it (which he really could have gotten for free.) That $10 is about a 1% recoup of my cost and her song was one dollar of that.

But I don’t think it’s about money – after all, she’s just made money on my recordings. I think she’s pissed that I recorded her songs at all. I think she’s pissed that copyright laws are such that I am well within my rights to do so. And I understand that, too. When I submitted to Loudr, I thought one of the things I was getting was permission from the songwriters to record their stuff. I thought that was why REDACTED’s songs took longer to process than the others. I thought they were waiting on her permission. Turns out – no – that’s not how it works at all. Copyright law gives anyone the right to record anyone’s song, as long as they pay for a license. It has been this way for decades. I have no idea if that law is fair or just or not. But I understand that it’s weird that anyone can just sing your song that you made up out of your head. I have felt weird when people tell me that they’ve been playing my songs without me. I get that. It is weird.

But music – particularly folk and pop music – has this interesting quality of becoming part of the public imagination once it’s released into the world. I mean, with folk music, that’s kind of the point. Folk doesn’t just mean a conversational voice over a pleasant acoustic guitar. Folk music is so called because it is for the folk. It is Woody Guthrie playing for Okie migrant camps. It is Pete Seeger sailing a boat down the Hudson River, singing, to convince Congress to clean up the polluted river. It is Odetta singing at the March on Washington after being introduced by Martin Luther King, Jr. The song “We Shall Overcome” was the soundtrack of the civil rights movement and has continued to bubble up whenever there is need, like a couple of weeks ago when, heartbreakingly, the Virginia Senate voted down the ERA. Folk music is meant to travel. It is meant to move from person to person to form a collective voice.

I mean, I love a finger-picked acoustic sound as much as the next person (probably more) but the real power of folk is its place in a collective. That’s how pop music can slide into folk sometimes. The crowd singing “Don’t Look Back in Anger” after the Manchester bombings transformed Oasis’ pop hit into folk music. And it is tremendously moving to see/hear. Are the guys from Oasis models of indie folk generosity? Hardly. But I thought REDACTED was. I mean, her music functions as folk music for me. But I’m sure for her, it feels more personal. Like, those are her friends she’s singing about, her life. It must be weird to have other people sing them. Granted. I’m pretty sure, though, that trolling someone who loves your songs is not the way to address that weirdness. It is a pretty good way to lose a fan, though.

I’ve always been a folkie. I come from folkie folks. I come from a place where people getting together to play music is a regular event. I grew up in a world where people traveled with instruments and might pull them out at any moment. I sang around a lot of campfires and in living rooms and porches. For me, that’s where music really thrives.

Where I live now, though, we don’t really have the space for that. There are no porches to gather on and few public spaces where a group of people might pull out a guitar or a concertina and shake the night. With so much privatization of public space happening these days, it gets harder and harder to gather. If I want to sing in public, I have to book a gig. And unless I can guarantee that 30 people will turn up for that gig, I probably won’t be able to do that. I can’t guarantee more than a handful of people so I play by myself in the living room for the new public commons, the Internet. It has felt like this is where the folk are and so in solidarity, I’ve been singing songs that are my folk music.

But the Internet is not a boxcar or a union meeting. It is not a rally or a protest. I know.

Even before this dispiriting phone call from REDACTED, I was thinking about how the digital landscape just flattens everything out, how music is mostly just aural wallpaper for cafes and supermarkets or background for videos now, how it makes me feel acutely, even though I intend for these songs to help rally the resistance, it is all just background noise, that despite all this social media, we are less engaged with each other, less able to share our art, less connected.

And I can understand the frustration an artist like REDACTED might feel – with the means of distribution all flattened out like this – anyone with a computer and a microphone can have their music next to someone who’s spent their entire life in the music industry. I mean – how is anyone going to know that “REDACTED” is her song, not mine?

I’ve got liner notes that make such things clear but in the digital music landscape, authorship is completely inconsequential. There is no way to indicate what is original and what is cover. In the old days, an album’s notes would contextualize something like what I’ve just released. But while I made album covers with liner notes – there is nowhere to put those notes in any of the digital distribution channels. There is nowhere to put any of that information.

And while that may be all fine and good for actual folk music – for folks at a campfire or at the rally – authorship and artistry are important and need to be recognized. Musicians, writers, producers, everyone disappears into a digital file. Everyone disappears into the background. Everyone becomes wallpaper.

PART 2

The thing of it is, REDACTED is pissed at the music industry. With good reason. The music industry is imploding and horrible for women. (More on that in a minute.) But I am not the music industry. I’m an indie artist who makes art. I make lots of different stuff but this last year, among other things, it was music. And after all these years of people asking when they’d hear me sing again, I figured I’d just go ahead and share the stuff I was singing at home.

I think Jaron Lanier was right about musicians being the canaries in the coal mine of the future. He said to watch closely what happened to musicians and journalists as they would show us what the rest of the middle class would be in for. In the big data transformation that our culture has been seized with, “content” gets disconnected from its creators and things that travel through digital space, even when they become viral, don’t necessarily credit or remunerate the creators. Musicians are the canaries in the coal mine of a nameless faceless data mine – and REDACTED may be a great example of what happens to those canaries.

I wouldn’t presume to know what happened to her during her time in the arms of the music industry. But I know that the industry generally chews women up and spits them out. Since the 80s, most women singer-songwriters, if they have a hit, it’s one and then they’re done. Maybe you get a second one, if you’re lucky but mostly, women in this genre get embraced for a minute and then chucked out the door. And I have to wonder if the toxic atmosphere of multi-national conglomerates trying to control your creativity (and probably your body as well) made for a particularly toxic coal mine that led to REDACTED’s very public psychotic break a few years ago.

I’m thinking it might have gone like this: right, here’s the coal (that’s the recording industry) and here’s the canary (REDACTED, watching the industry erode, implode, become data driven and more corporate) and in the coal mine, the canary starts going crazy – because, toxic fumes, man, and everyone goes, “Hey! That canary’s going nuts! Probably there’s something wrong with the canary! Let’s get rid of it and get another one in here.” But it’s the fumes, man, the data driven fumes. The sexist fumes. Or maybe this particular canary just happens to be particularly crazy.

But I digress. Because I’m not even IN the coal mine, folks. I’m just a canary singing in a tree because it makes me feel better and I had hopes that it might make a few other people feel better too. And I sure feel bad for my sisters inside – but also a tiny bit envious because they’re the “important” ones, the ones with awards and recognitions and record sales.

The thing that’s breaking my heart about this is that REDACTED is likely attacking me because so many of her avenues have been closed. Since she seems surprised by this Loudr thing, it would seem that no one else has requested licenses from her before. That means a struggling artist in Queens is the only one that wants to play her songs. Or at least the only one who paid for the rights to do so.

She’s punching down because she’s gotten nowhere in punching up. She’s been flying around the coal mine, going crazy and the miners swat her away – so she goes after the first free canary that comes into view.

Aside from my parents, a handful of friends and some guys in Sweden (Spotify stats are so wild) no one cares about the music I just put out. Like – really. No one really cares. And that is a pretty normal experience for me. Pretty much those same people come to my shows or read my work. It’s normal for me to fly around the margins and have only a handful of people notice. Ironically, the person most interested in me was the person harassing me. I’ve never been tweeted at so much.

Would I like more recognition? Of course I would. For just about any of the many things I do. But I have, for decades, operated at the invisible edges of things and I have made peace with that. I do it even though no one is asking for it.

What’s harder for me to reconcile than the world’s general indifference to me is how no one cares what REDACTED is doing either. Like – someone with her history and experience and recognition should not be calling me herself. She should have people for that. If Paul Simon didn’t like me recording his stuff (yes, he got $27.30 in preliminary royalties, just like REDACTED) he for sure would have his lawyer call. Or his agent. Or anyone. Paul Simon would not call me up to tell me he was about to raise hell. Probably, if he didn’t like it, he’d talk to his lawyer about it and when he heard it was all perfectly legal, he’d forget about it and go back to relaxing in his chair made of money.

So it’s bracing to realize that someone I once admired has been sent to the same margins I’ve occupied all this time. How is it possible that I have more Twitter followers than her? (Probably the bots. Also – activism.) But also – how is it possible that someone with name recognition making a stink has no real impact? When I initially told my friend about this call, he joked that his inner PR person was thrilled. “What could be better for your album than a famous person making a ruckus about it?”

But, despite REDACTED retweeting my blog and Patreon links and lord knows what else (I don’t know, I muted her,) it has had no impact whatsoever. No one has clicked her links. No one retweeted her. She’s shouting into the void, just like me.

And if it were just her and just me, I might not have all this to say now. But it isn’t. Everyone is shouting into the Internet and only a few are heard. I have been stunned to see tweets from national organizations, with millions of members, with no likes on their tweets. To be heard, either with music, or activism, or art of any kind, you need a giant algorithm behind you. You need millions of people to like your tiny donkey videos, you need the data driven winds to blow your way.

You need 30 people to play a gig in New York City and you need a million people to follow you to make a living in music. Luckily, I’m not really trying to have a full-on music career. (I have other arts to struggle mightily against in this way.) But I am incredibly sad that there is no middle space for music anymore, that a brilliant artist can disappear, or go crazy, or slip away into the void.

One of my principle skills as an artist is an adaptability to inhospitable arts climates. If a door closes, I slide over to the window. When the window closes, I’ll go out the cracks. If I can’t get a gig, I’ll play in my living room. I don’t give up. I get discouraged, of course. But I just try another way when things get crazy. And last year things got really crazy, did they not? So I decided I’d record it all because I really wasn’t sure what else to do for me or my people.

I listened to funk and blues and I played folk. For the folk.

PART 3

The funny thing about all this is how entirely resistant to the idea of recording I used to be. My former bandmates could tell you how hard it was to convince me to record our album back in 2001. I had a theatre-maker’s preference for art that burst into being for a moment and then disappeared like a firework. I also felt that if the recording wasn’t perfect, I didn’t want it out in the world, haunting me. But somehow, now that recordings no longer need to live on a physical object like a CD or a tape – they are a bit more ephemeral. A recording can both live forever and disappear into the vastness of the internet. A recording can be both permanent and impermanent all at once. I somehow flipped some switch in my mind that allows me to imagine that digital recordings can have the evanescence of theatre. Or maybe in my later years, I just value authenticity and immediacy more than perfection. Each record is really just a document of the moment I recorded it in.

Ever since I went to the Grammys, I have been thinking about a line in ani difranco’s song “Fuel.” It goes, “People used to make records as in a record of an event, the event of people making music in a room.”

Now no one even makes records, we make digital downloads. Just like your PDF from work or the photo from the party. Everything is flat. Everything is a digital download.

So my attempt to share the music I recorded at home one day is sitting in the same basket as the multi-billion dollar corporation’s property. That is, one of the three major label’s artists. (Yes, we’re down to three. And only one of them was the big winner at the Grammys.) And there are mechanisms in place to push the big guy’s “properties” forward and silence others.

I’m not trying to be seen by the big guns. I don’t think I have it in me to sell my soul to the corporate engine. Would I like to make a living wage from my art? Like ANY part of it? Like music or theatre or fiction or any of it? Of course I would and if there’s a way to recoup the cost of sharing all of it, I would like to. But I don’t think I’m suited to having a corporate boss. So ultimately, I just wanted to share a little bit of indie folk punk raucous spirit with anyone who needed a dose of it the way I did.

It is heartbreaking that THE inspiration for sharing it is also the person trolling me for it. I would have thought she would have understood. I would have thought that she could have taught me something about channeling righteous anger into folk pop anthems. And she did teach me – about thirty years ago when I first heard her music. She taught me that music could be by a campfire and out in in public. She taught me that women’s anger could sound great over a guitar. She taught me that you could sing about social issues and still be cool. That you could be folky and tough.

Part 4

Since I got that voicemail, I have been wrestling with how to reconcile all I got from her, all I learned, all I’m grateful for, with the person who would harass an artist like me. Some people advise killing your heroes (metaphorically, of course) and at times I have found it useful to think about. In this case, though, it’s a matter of my hero wanting to kill me. Not literally, of course. (Though doxxing does make me vulnerable to the nazis on Twitter.) It does rather feel like Superman went bad and is now going after Jimmy Olsen. And Jimmy Olsen has to be his own hero now. I have to be my own hero.

This seems to be a lesson that I keep having to learn. Every time I encounter an artist I looked up to, I find they are not who I imagined. Every time I meet that one lone artist who seems to do things in an original way, they disappoint me. And each time, I have to learn again that the time to look up is over and it has become time to be my own hero.

What I discovered this time around however, was that I am no longer alone in this. I discovered what a tremendous well of good will I have to draw from. My friends and family lovingly gathered around me when I felt under attack and I felt seen in a way I hadn’t before. I realized that a lot of people really do understand what I’m about and what I’m trying to do. A lot more people support that vision than I realized. It would appear that, though I often feel invisible, my values and intentions have been visible to my friends and family for some time.

And visibility is a major part of this story. In part, I have, historically, kept a fairly low profile in the flattened digital sphere out of fear of being attacked. The blog doesn’t have my name on it, for example. As a woman on the internet, I expect to be harassed, doxxed or dragged. I assumed the digital Nazis were going to come for me at some point or another. They’ve come for every other feminist I admire. But instead of Nazis, the call came from inside the house. It came from an indie feminist folk icon which somehow made it worse. But it also made me braver once I was through the worst of it.

*So why have I redacted this post? Why have I obscured the artist and her work at the center of it?
1) Because I don’t want my own visibility to be at the hands of another artist’s bad behavior. I’d really rather not have my name associated with hers in this way.
2) Because I think this artist is genuinely battling a mental illness. Googling her leads directly to many public accounts of concerning behaviors. Howard Stern thought she’d be a great guest in the middle of her public melt down. (Piers Morgan got her instead.) I just can’t get on board with adding to that exploitation of madness no matter how upset she made me.
3) If my folk are enjoying her songs on my albums, I don’t want to taint them. I, for sure, will never want to sing them again – so I’d rather leave those songs untouched by her behavior in the minds of my listeners.                                                                                           4) I may be braver now but I’m also not too keen on the harassment picking back up any time soon. I don’t want a stray google alert to mean the recommencement of the whole unpleasantness. She may read this. She may not. Probably not this far down though. So – better safe than fielding multiple mean voicemails a day. Just because I’m braver doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly lost my baseline conflict aversion.*

 

I made all this messy folk music for the people know me, who understand what I am trying to do, who have my back and will send me all the hugs and cute animal images I need when I don’t feel able to withstand the cruelties of the world. I’d rather have all those people in my life than my old heroes. My people are the folk and I will sing for any one of them whenever I am called upon. And as my therapist said, “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.”

You can help this canary keep singing for folk

by becoming my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

kaGh5_patreon_name_and_message*

This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Soundcloud, click here.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs and an album of Love Songs. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

*

Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 

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The Glamour of the Grammys
February 2, 2018, 12:40 am
Filed under: business, music, TV | Tags: , , , , , ,

In the old times, the fairies roamed the green hills. They were powerful and mischievous. There were many varieties of fairy – with different specialties but the power they principally possessed was something called glamour. It was an enchantment that placed a sparkling illusion over a human’s eyes. The glamour made the ugly beautiful. It made the empty full. It turned a pile of old shoes and tin cans into a pile of gold shoes and diamond glasses. It turned a heap of ashes into a scrumptious looking cake and murky dirty water into rich red wine. Fairy gold is not real gold. It is something that has been glamoured.

Most humans are powerless to resist the glamour and some are trapped in Fairyland forever, having eaten a mouthful of ashes or followed a trail of gold right into a trap. But a few humans see through the glamour, past the shine over their eyes, to whatever lies behind it. Perhaps those humans have a little bit of fairy in them themselves, so they see the trick. I imagine myself as one of those with a little fairy in my blood, stumbling into fairyland with my friends and watching, in horror, as they all fall under the enchantment of the glamour. I imagine I’d try and stop them, like Caliban in The Tempest, trying to convince his colleagues that finery they see “is but trash.” But it’s no use. They are lost. Perhaps it’s better to be under the spell, to be convinced that the shine around you is real and beautiful and all for you.

Grammys 2018.
“Music’s Biggest Night.
Glitter and glamour on the red carpet.”
Emotional Star-Studded
Powerful Moments”

I was there. And yes, there were some beautiful dresses and fancy suits. Yes, awards were given and received. Yes, there were famous people there. And it was all very shiny. From my seat, I could see the crew on their hands and knees polishing up the stage.

There was so much glitz. So much glamour. And maybe it’s because I have a little fairy in my blood but I saw it as glamour and not as gold.

The Grammys are fairy gold. And the people in the room watching it are probably also fairy folk in some way. The illusion was made, not for us, the people sitting in the seats, but for the TV viewing audience.

All these years, I’d thought it was the reverse – that the REAL experience was happening in the theatre and we, at home, in front of our TVs were getting a taste of it. I had thought it was a show documented by TV. Turns out, it is a TV show that is creating an illusion of a live event. The audience at the Grammys is primarily just part of the set. They are something to pan to, or place performers in front of. During the commercial breaks, there was not some continuation of the show as I had previously imagined. There were no additional awards given, no secret performances, no warm-up comics or up-and-coming bands to keep the audience engaged. Nope. They cut to commercial, turned the cameras off and the whole thing ground to a halt. It was a total stop. Over and over and over again. When the commercials finished, the disembodied voices instructed the audience to return to their seats as the show was about to begin again. Every time this happened, I felt as if we were being carefully stage-managed. I found myself saying, “Thank you, one minute” just as if I were in a show, getting a call for places from a stage manager.

The cameras showed the real show. We found it was almost impossible to stay focused on the actual people. Instead, we watched the screens that broadcast the close-ups. It was “live” but we often watched the video instead. After all, the performers are shooting a TV show, not giving their audience an experience. Those onstage look directly into cameras, act for the camera, dance for the camera, sing for the camera. The glamour is for the TV viewer, not the people in the room.

And what about the people in the room? The audience rushed back to their seats for the camera. And throughout the building, the audience members were creating their own glamour. Throughout the evening (and the afternoon – this experience began at 3pm) the audience spent most of their time on their phones, taking selfies, taking photos of what they were watching and then tweeting, Instagramming and Facebooking those images. I saw a man take photos of the screen of Lady Gaga singing and then post them, claiming he’d been THIS close to Lady Gaga. The glamour is created not just by the event organizers but by all the participants as well.

Myself included. Listen – an event like this has social currency. The woman next to me who brayed out her commentary throughout the night (“He’s fat.” “She’s skinny.” “She looks rough.” “That suit looks better on him.” “She’s old.” “Who’s that?”) will get her Facebook likes just like the rest of us. Her visit to the Grammys will earn her the ears of her peers, who will get all of her thoughts (inane they may be.) She may be a hit at her next cocktail party. But I’m no better – I may have more awareness of the social currency that I’m collecting in this scenario – and rather than tell you who is fat and who is skinny, I’m telling you how this glamour stuff is all bullshit – but I recognize that even exposing the glamour of such an event gets a little bit of glamour on me.

I may relish in telling you how incredibly weird it is to watch someone who has JUST won a Grammy award be compelled to sit on the floor of the Madison Square Garden concessions hall to eat her burger because, like the rest of us, she was not allowed to leave between the two ceremonies. I may get some weird cynical charge out of revealing how watching about eight hours of award show is about as exciting as watching any well-oiled machine do its thing. I mean – yeah, a widget making machine is pretty cool and smooth but it’s not terribly human. It’s just clean and precise and a lot of professionals did their jobs efficiently and got the stuff made. I may get a little pleasure out of pulling back the curtain on the man pulling the levers to create the Great and Powerful illusion.

As an artist interested in authenticity, exposing the clockworks of such a thing is one of my specialties, as is digging in to unexamined underlying mythologies. But I recognize that simply by being in a room that people perceive as glamorous, I get a secondary glamour boost even if the actual event was like watching widgets get made. But once I get some glamour on me, people who know me get a little glamour on them, too. It doesn’t even matter that it’s all an illusion, does it? Or does it?

If you watched the Grammys this year, you may have noticed how few women were nominated and how only one won during the TV show portion of the event. The Grammys have a gender problem. The music industry has a gender problem. And has had for some time. Probably forever. If you don’t know this yet, you haven’t been paying attention. (*Sure is curious this pattern of teen girls paired with middle aged men to make hit records! I bet there’s no predatory behavior in those dynamics, no sir!*) What’s funny, though, to the point of absurdity, is how the Recording Academy President, Neil Portnow responded to the questions about this after the ceremony. He said:

“It has to begin with… women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, producers, and want to be part of the industry on the executive level… [They need] to step up because I think they would be welcome. I don’t have personal experience of those kinds of brick walls that you face but I think it’s upon us — us as an industry — to make the welcome mat very obvious, breeding opportunities for all people who want to be creative and paying it forward and creating that next generation of artists.”

The range of ways this statement is absurd is so wide. All I could do when I heard it was laugh and look forward to the moment when this guy gets his inevitable comeuppance. How is it possible that, after all these months of watching the movie industry implode, that he is still so clueless?

But at the heart of his cluelessness lies the biggest glamouring of all. That illusion is not the lights or the costumes or the TV trickery but an underlying assumption. The Big Glamour is that the Grammys are a meritorious, equitable and ultimate arbiter of the best in music. The glamour this guy has over his eyes has him convinced that the Grammys prove that the best music wins Grammys because, look, all the people who won them are great! They have awards! His glamour tells him that the best people in music work within the “industry” and that those people voted and out of all the music recorded in the world, they chose the very best. And if no women were nominated that’s because no women were the best this year. He knows that’s true because they weren’t nominated. The glamour over his eyes prevents him from seeing the machine that churns out market-tested beats under algorithmically satisfactory melodies. His job depends on him never seeing the inequities, the audience-optimized packaging or the cross-marketing motivations that take precedence over art. His job depends on his never losing the glamour that keeps him from seeing sexism, racism, ableism and ageism at work. And his glamour is the glamour that CBS broadcasts around the world.

The big glamour is convincing the world that this contest is actually significant, that it represents the interests of music, rather than the interests of a handful of multi-national conglomerates that continue to control the distribution of music. Even though technology has made the means of production more available to more people, thus allowing more people than ever before to record music, the Grammys continue to promote the music that comes through their usual (and ever narrowing) channels.

The big glamour is convincing all of us that winning a Grammy is the pinnacle of musical achievement. It’s not. It’s the pinnacle of recognition from a very narrow band of people. It’s a nod of acceptance from a privileged few. But it is not the real achievement. Making good music is the real achievement. The Grammy is a nice piece of metal on a stand. And a useful marketing tool. It is a useful bit of glamour if you’re trying to sell your album. In this attention-saturated world, getting a glamour boost like this is very significant. And I want for every musician I know to win one so they can get the glamour that will translate to sales and streams and so on. A Grammy gives you a thick layer of glamour that you maybe can capitalize on. Maybe.

What I saw at Madison Square Garden had nothing to do with music as I know it. It had nothing to do with the music I make or the music that people I love make. The only moments that seemed connected to my actual experience of music happened in the ceremony earlier in the day. While that “Premiere Ceremony” also seemed to be built for the audience that was watching elsewhere (it was live streamed and filmed like a TV show) there were a handful of performances that actually brought music into the room. India.Arie. Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’. Jazzmeia Horn. Those moments felt like a breath of fresh air in a weirdly corporate environment. All day, I felt as if I were at a sales event and what I was being sold was the thing I’d already bought. I’d bought that the Grammys were a meaningful prestigious glamorous event. And it is one piece of glamour after another.

The fairy in me knows when I’m being glamoured and I was glamoured all day long. Sometimes I saw some actual gold shining through the fairy shine but I left my journey to the Grammy fairy hills exhausted and baffled. How is it possible that all these mega media award shows have us all fooled? And for so long? The Grammys celebrated their 60th anniversary this year. Is that 60 years of worldwide glamouring? It’s possible.

And this Grammy glamouring feels awfully similar to the packaging of politicians and the news and is it possible that being habitually glamoured led to our fairy gold president? What can I do to become more awake to the work of mischievous fairies? And how do I help my friends see through the glamour in their eyes?

This woman won a Grammy about an hour before she had to sit on the floor to eat.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs and an album of Love Songs. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



Is It More Than a Thousand?
January 30, 2018, 12:43 am
Filed under: Feldenkrais, music, podcasting, Social Media | Tags: , , , ,

A podcast I’m a fan of had a Facebook group and on the show they were often talking about what a lovely group it was and how the people on it were the best, so I joined it. It was a place where women asked each other questions, where they vented about sexism they ran into and shared stories. It was a feminist space where you could sensibly participate in a conversation about vibrators without batting an eye. It was pretty cool.

As the podcast became more popular, the group got bigger. And slowly but surely the group became more and more contentious until eventually they shut the whole thing down. A lot of people were shocked but I could see it coming from a mile away. While many mourned the dissolution of their “safe space,” I’d known from the beginning that no space is truly safe on social media. I know enough about the way these companies operate to know that anything I post could become public – that anything I post is really Facebook’s property, not mine. Sometimes these kinds of groups are fun but they’re never truly safe. (This skepticism may be a property of my Gen X identity.) And something I’ve noticed about on-line spaces is that the bigger the group, the less civil people become.

I don’t know what the civility threshold is on a Facebook group – but I suspect it’s somewhere around a thousand people. Once it gets bigger, somehow someone is always going to be offended and then pile-ons ensue. It doesn’t have to be ABOUT anything in particular – it could be something small – but after a thousand people are in the room, it’s bound to happen.

This happened recently on a professional group I’m a part of (2,735 members in the group.) Someone asked for tips about how to deal with a particular brand of troll and I offered a suggestion of a metaphor which featured classical music. And before I could blink, angry comments started to spew. There was a pile-on of angry classical musicians like you would not believe. The last I checked on this post, someone had said, “I find this metaphor offensive.” Which you know, I’d understand if I’d said classical music is dog poop and anyone who plays it is stupid. But I did not say that. Nor did I intend anything of the sort. (Some of my best friends are classical musicians!) All I said was that the Alexander Technique might be said to be more like classical music and the Feldenkrais Method might be said to be more like jazz. It’s not a particularly controversial thing to say. Unless you’re in a social media group of over a thousand when everything is potentially controversial and pile-ons seem to happen all the time.

In this case, too, I noticed on this thread that two comments down from me, a man had used this same analogy – but curiously, his post received no angry responses. So…I have to assume that this issue may be gendered. It did not escape my attention that every angry response was from a woman and that none of them challenged the man who had asserted the identical metaphor.

Now – here’s what I’m wondering. Is it possible for groups of over a thousand people to be productive and civil? And what happens to large groups of women in particular? Why is this devolution of civility so common?

A misogynist might say that women are petty or get upset about nothing. And my own inner misogynist thinks that very thing about all those women who were mean to me without even knowing me!

But. If I pull back my focus and look at the big picture…I think of this situation as a plugged up sprinkler. Like, the sprinkler is full of fury and if it’s thwarted, if all of its outlets are stopped, it’ll shoot that fury out of the side of the hose or wherever it can find a crack. When I’m feeling generous, I can see these dumb responses this way, as just misplaced fury – and women sometimes shoot their anger onto other women because they’re afraid to express it to men. They’re mad at me about my classical music metaphor because they can’t go yell at Harvey Weinstein or whomever the Weinstein figure of classical music is.

Or maybe it isn’t gendered – and any group of more than a thousand is just bound to devolve into constant spats. I don’t know. It’s a new world. These are not problems we had twenty years ago.

But I’d love to read any sociological studies about groups like this. There is probably a predictable formula for when people start to behave badly. I think it might help us all to know what that formula is. As for me, since I get knots in my stomach in response to conflict, I’ve just unfollowed pretty much every large group I’ve been a part of. And I breathe a LOT more easily now.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs. You can find it on Spotify, ReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes.

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To Sing Is to Survive

I thought I was going to die. I was clinging to the side of the boat, absolutely sure that this was it. We were on a ferry from Naples to Capri, in what could reasonably be called a tempest, because my friends and I had thought it would be romantic to spend Christmas on the island of Capri. And as I gripped the rail, as sea water washed over me, I sang. The storm was loud so I sang, loud, until we reached the shore.

When the sea gets rough, I sing. When times are at their toughest, I sing. I do lots of other creative things but it’s singing I turn to when it feels impossibly turbulent. And so, this past year, I found myself singing a lot. I had to. The waters have seemed so high, as if they would rise up over our boat and wash me and all my loved ones overboard.

I had not played my guitar much in recent years. There was dust on it when I pulled it out of its case. There’s no dust on it now. There hasn’t been any dust there for months. I’ve leaned on songs I loved decades ago and been comforted by songs I only learned this year.

I recorded them for the handful of people who listen to my podcast, just in case these songs might help them through these turbulent waters, too. I gave them to my patrons on Patreon, as a thank you for being a railing to which I’ve been clinging. And now, if you could use them, I offer them to you. I recorded them in my living room. They are not perfect recordings but they are the sound of an artist singing through a tempest.

This is the first batch, in honor of the Women’s March this weekend. They are songs of Resistance. Click here to hear them on Spotify.  Or if you’d like to help me recoup the cost, you can buy it directly from me via my website. You can download them from iTunes or listen on Apple Music. (And something called Deezer?!)

In any case, I’m singing. And surviving.

Resistance Songs Square copy2

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How to Congratulate an Artist
January 9, 2018, 10:45 pm
Filed under: advice, art, dreams | Tags: , , , , ,

When the New Yorker published my friend’s poem, I wasn’t surprised. I was thrilled and excited and proud but, as I’d fully expected such a thing since I first encountered my friend’s work, I was not surprised in the least. Frankly, I was surprised it took the New Yorker as long as it did. I congratulated the New Yorker on making a good choice rather than my friend for being chosen. This is because, in addition to being a fierce admirer of my friend, I am a fierce admirer of her work and always have been.

I have people who do the same for me – people who love me, yes, and want the best for me but also love my work, believe in it. They are the ones who are just waiting for others to come around to their opinions. I started to think about this recently after receiving some surprising good news regarding my work. I told one friend and she was excited and thrilled and also (and this is the important bit) wholly unsurprised. “It’s about time,” she said. “Oh yeah. Of course. I knew it.”

And there is something so powerfully affirming about this response. The belief is firm and unwavering – even when no one else seems to hold her opinion. And I feel precisely the same about her work and cannot believe the world at large has not beaten down her door for it.

Others I shared my good news with were actually stunned. In a way, I suspect, they’d slipped into questioning my art’s worth right along with me. It’s not that they don’t love me. They do – and that love is fierce and unwavering but it does not necessarily extend to my work. So when the world suddenly gives me approval, they have a readjustment period of looking at my work through the lens of the world’s approval. And you know – if you love me, you’re not actually required to love my work. It is not a pre-requisite . But those that hold space for both me AND my work are the ones I turn to in the darkest moments. And I rely on them in ways that I am still coming to appreciate.

Those of us who dedicate ourselves to the Arts and/or Entertainment are often asked questions like, “Why don’t you write for the movies? Why don’t you get on Saturday Night Live? Why don’t you publish a best seller? Why don’t you get on TV? Why don’t you get Oprah to produce your show? Why aren’t you on Broadway yet?”

These questions can all be reframed to be more helpful and supportive to the people who make things. Try: “Why haven’t the movies snapped you up to write for them yet? Why hasn’t Saturday Night Live recognized your comic genius? Why haven’t the publishing houses beat down your door? Haven’t they realized your work will make them pots of money? Why is TV blind to your radiance? How is it possible that Oprah hasn’t been informed of your work? Who is holding those Broadway producers hostage that they haven’t come calling?”

Sometimes it’s very weird to be congratulated for someone else’s decision about one’s work. The congratulations usually come in response to something that the artist had nothing to do with, that is, someone else’s approval. The fiercest supporters are the ones who congratulate an artist on the actual work before anyone else ever cares about it. I am exceptionally grateful to have such people in my corner.

My wish for my fellow artists this year is to have supporters as fierce and dedicated as mine are. I want everyone who makes things to hear congratulations on their actual work and “Oh yeah, of course” to any success it finds. If you love a struggling artist, don’t wait to give them your admiration or support. Give support to the work itself and not just the trophies. Anyone can be proud of an artist for winning awards but a top tier supporter is proud long before the awards ever appear.

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Hello Little Girl Culture and #MeAt14

The horrifying Roy Moore stuff has sparked a campaign of people posting photos of #MeAt14 to bring home, for those who are dismissing the severity of the charges, how young 14 really is.

When I was 14, I saw the Broadway production of Into the Woods and I heavily identified with the child in the show, Little Red Riding Hood. I was very interested in the other women but I saw myself as Little Red. And in seeing a production of the show recently, I started to think about how my 14 year old brain processed the play.

See, I thought I’d seen this show when I was 17 because of how clearly I understood that the wolf was as sexual predator and that getting eaten by the wolf was a sexual awakening for the little girl. But I was not 17, I was 14. And I got it. Totally. And it “made me feel excited, well, excited and scared.” (*This is a lyric from Little Red’s song “I know things now.”)

And while I still love this show, my adult feminist brain sees this storyline, as well as many others, as particularly problematic for my developing brain.

The thing is – the wolf is a bad guy. He is seductive and charming and he eats a grandmother and child whole. He is a literal predator. He sings “Hello, Little Girl” and the lyrics are not vague on the subject. “Think of that flesh, pink and plump,” he sings. And this show makes the confusing overlap between sex and predation. Like – the wolf has stolen Little Red’s innocence but she likes it a little bit. She knows things now, things like “scary is exciting” and “nice is different than good.”

But meanwhile, the audience has also been seduced by the wolf. We laugh at the double entendre of wolf’s sense of her as “tender and fresh.” And that crosses our wires. We learn to be attracted to predators through stories like this. Which, I know, I know, wasn’t the intention. The work is complex and Sondheim points us toward something that does, in fact, happen in the world. But –

In thinking about #MeAt14 – I find it disturbing that at 14, I had already worked out the feeling of being prey for predators when I saw this show. I knew how that felt and had known for some time. But I was also interested in a sexual awakening and every story I saw about this seemed to suggest that the way to an awakening was to get seduced by a predator. You couldn’t have your own sexual awakening, you had to be overpowered by some dark force.

I keep thinking about a tweet I saw from Anna Paquin about growing up in a victim grooming business. And the movie business isn’t the only one doing that grooming. Sometimes it feels as though most of the culture is a victim grooming business.

As I grew up, I kept listening to the soundtrack from Into the Woods and I moved from identifying with Little Red to Cinderella. I really understood Cinderella’s indecision about whether to be caught by her stalker or keep running. The Prince has a lot in common with the wolf – especially when he’s played by the same actor – and his relationships are similarly predatory. And similarly attractive. What I learned was that it was a predatory “prince” who will awaken your sleeping sexuality – not a man who is your peer.

I understood that these princes were ridiculous but also that they were the only way forward for a sexual life, not just for Cinderella but also for the Baker’s Wife – who I also learned to identify with as I got older. The Baker’s Wife gets her post-baby sexuality awakened by this predatory prince and then promptly gets killed for it. (She also technically gets fridged.)

I mean, it’s like, from this plot point, I learned that sex you enjoy is punishable by death. The Baker’s Wife is set free sexually and then she dies. (Also she has no identity of her own. She belongs to the Baker.) Little Red is seduced by the wolf and then consumed by him. Cinderella is transformed/rescued by the prince but ultimately betrayed by him. The only man who isn’t a predator in Into the Woods is bossy as hell and is always telling his wife to go home.

And I’m not trying to be a jerk about Into the Woods. This show has meant something to me since I was 14. The women in this show are complex and multi-dimensional and that is nothing to sneeze at in this world. But I am troubled by the messages I took in from this show and troubled by the way they continue to fly through the culture.

Stephen Sondheim’s complex and poignant work points to something that can be real. But then that realness goes on to perpetuate itself as the work becomes canon and every young musical theatre fan goes to see it. The wolves of the world, the Roy Moores of the world, not to mention so many others, continue to think they’re doing young girls a favor by pursuing them and then young girls convince themselves that being overcome, being doggedly pursued, being seduced, consumed, betrayed are an inevitable part of a sexual awakening. Most of us found the wolf singing “Hello Little Girl” funny and charming and not deeply disturbing the first time we heard it. But I find myself deeply disturbed by it now, every time I think about it.

And I try to imagine a production of Into the Woods where a fourteen year old me wouldn’t be charmed by the wolf, where #MeAt14 wouldn’t start dreaming of being stalked or hunted like prey after watching it, where I didn’t learn to be attracted to predators. If you are a person who finds men attractive, this is a thing you have to reckon with. (See also, Kevin Spacey’s predation on a 14 year old boy.)

The production I saw most recently tried to deal with some of the tricky gender dynamics of the show with some feminist flair. The director tried to make the Baker’s Wife the hero (hard, because she gets fridged.) The costume designer gave Jack’s mom a hammer and made her a kind of Rosie the Riveter single mom. But it takes more than a hammer to solve this problem at the heart of the piece. You can’t solve a “Hello, Little Girl” culture with a sexy wolf. I think you may actually perpetuate it.

And, of course, I got these messages long before I ever saw Into the Woods. This programming is not the fault of this show. I couldn’t have understood it if I hadn’t seen it multiple times before. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do about this sort of thing. Never do Into the Woods again? Only do dark expressionistic productions? I don’t know. My hope is that we find a way to tell stories that eventually drown out these predatory stories, to let these stories of predation become the outliers and watch other stories take center stage.

We have to take a hard look at the way our culture grooms men to be predators and women to be victimized, even in our most beloved stories and shows. We have to address this stuff in the senate and in our theatres. It’s time. I don’t want the next generation of girls to grow up as prey for the wolves and Roy Moores of the world. I want them to find their awakenings on their own, with their own agency, with people who are their peers, not their predators.

Also, people of Alabama, please, please, please vote for Doug Jones on Tuesday. For all of us.

#MeAt14, in my Rizzo costume, trying to look grown-up

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You Had One Job, Man

I will preface what I am about to tell you with the fact that I spent much of the evening before this day wading in the mucky pool of the aftermath of the news about Louis CK. While stand-up comedy is not technically my field, it is a sister field and therefore painfully close. So I began my day still marinating in both the horrors and the hope of this world laid bare and I felt pretty ready to tear it all down. But that’s not what I want to talk about. Just read Laurie Penny or KatyKatiKate or Laurie Kilmartin if you want to talk about it amongst yourselves.

What I want to talk about is this incredibly weird moment in an incredibly weird alumni lunch I was a part of. In the middle of the lunch, a tall middle-aged man stood up at the mic and proclaimed that he did not have his glasses and was going to mispronounce everyone’s names. His job was to point out the various alumni volunteers so that students could find us. This job should have taken two minutes. He had maybe 17 names to read. And this reading of the names took, what with the hemming and hawing and the “oh, you see I need my glasses” and the repetition of needless instructions, probably ten minutes. The man had ONE VERY EASY JOB and he was appallingly bad at it.

And you know, in some contexts, I could be very forgiving of such incompetence. If we were at a senior center, for example, I’d not have given it a second thought. But it’s 2017 and the world is run by incompetent men who have gotten away with terrible things and stupid things and I have zero patience with any old white man who has power over women. There was, at this event, a staff of incredibly capable women standing to the side, watching this moment and wanting (I imagined) to jump in and help the car wreck in front of them but unable to because this guy has a fancy title. He’s the President of the Alumni Association. So a room full of people just quietly sat there (well, truthfully I didn’t sit quietly – I cracked jokes to the student next to me) while a buffoon rambled on. ONE JOB, man. YOU HAD ONE JOB.

Listen, I sympathize with missing glasses (I need them too) but I can come up with six ways to solve this problem that would not have involved putting a room full of (mostly) women through that terrible show. And anyone who has had to fight their way into a room would do the same. And I know that my fury about this is out of proportion with the offense. I spent a day trying to unpack why this event made me, at dinner that night, want to disembowel the air with my chopsticks. And I don’t yet have an easy answer.

Here are some factors that seemed to be driving my violent chopstick impulses:
1) I’m furious in general. I have been enraged for over a year now and it only gets worse the longer this political disaster goes on.
2) This particular mediocre white man has pushed my buttons before when he advocated for the Board of the College in cutting my beloved Florence program. (More about that here.) That corporate sucking up is antithetical to what I valued about my college experience. So yeah. I’m not inclined to think of him favorably. Also I saw a little clip of him speaking at graduation wherein he said something like, “Either Key or Peele went here, I can never remember which.” – a comment I found so shockingly racist, I gasped and had to stop the video. I mean…so yeah. He pushes my buttons.
3) That a mediocre white man is representing a college that is mostly women is not an insignificant factor. And I am suddenly aware that there may have been elections for this alumni board that I have likely ignored and here is yet another area of my world where not paying attention has led to circumstances not to my liking. This guy is the President (of the alumni board) because he wanted to be and believed he could do it and because most of us have other things to worry about. So now, I’m pissed because I’m thinking, “Do I have to run for the alumni board now? My god, I do not want to. All I really want to do is make art. I don’t want to tweet and make calls to congress. I don’t want to sign petitions and campaign for people and write postcards. And I don’t want to be President of the Alumni Board of my alma mater nor do I have the resources to do such a thing. Because here’s the thing – I’m an artist, a struggling one, in case you hadn’t worked that out by the name of the blog, and you know, it cost me $16.50 to go up to the college and a whole day to try and be helpful and I really don’t have $16.50 to spare and a decent lunch might have made it feel worth it but a sandwich and a bag of potato chips ain’t really doing the trick. So it’s like, the people who volunteer for these sorts of positions like president or board member have something to get out of them and resources to spare. And they’re the sorts of people who make their forgetting of their glasses the problem of a whole room of people.”
4) I am not feeling logical or temperate anymore. I am having an Unforgiving Minute, as Laurie Penny beautifully put it. I have made excuses for, apologized to and made space for men to be right for too damn long and I will rage about the smallest infraction. I was nice and accommodating for forty years but time’s up and I’m done.
5) Sorry. No, I’m not sorry. But you know probably this guy is perfectly nice and pleasant to talk to at parties but I’m sorry – no, I’m not sorry, I don’t want this guy’s head on a platter, I just want the career I don’t have because incompetent overly confident mediocre white dudes blustered their way into gigs that more qualified people should have had. And this guy is now just a symbol of the ego-inflated oversize mediocre white dude balloon hanging over the world and all I want to do is stick a pin in it anywhere I can. So, I’m sorry. No, I’m not sorry. I’m done being sorry.

6) Like Rebecca Traister talked about in her article about the current moment – I’m also waiting for the backlash. As a woman who was writing about sexual harassment and sexism before it was trending, I know the backlash is coming and I’m bracing for it even while half hoping that this article in Time about women having reached a critical mass in all these fields is right and maybe no backlash is coming but really I’m still bracing for the terrible ugly backlash just in case and I think that makes me a bit tense, you know – so one incompetent asshole who could have just turned over the reading to someone who had their glasses or bothered to ask how people pronounced their names ahead of time or written names in a size he could read just gets right under my skin. It’s like a small scale diversary/diversity moment happening right in front of me.

So it’s obviously all really simple and stuff and I guess chopstick air evisceration is logical given the swirl of feelings. And for me that rage is relatively new. I will confess that my socialization as a feminine creature was so intense that I literally thought I could not feel anger until I was in my mid-twenties. In my early years of acting, I got nervous when I had to play characters who got angry because I worried that I had no capacity for rage. Those years are over and perhaps I’m just making up for lost time. I’m angry now about all those things I pushed away and smiled about instead of kicking over – so now I will rage about the littlest things. From a stupid speech to a shitty radio show, I know how to rage now and I can feel how much more productive it can be than pushing things aside or making excuses for stupid behavior. Not that there won’t be consequence for my rage and I’m worried about those, too because – come on, man. Just…I don’t know…bring your glasses next time and get on with it. Also, I’d like to know when the alumni board elections are. I’m paying attention now and I use my power to vote at every chance I get. And I rage.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 




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