Songs for the Struggling Artist


Age is a Feature Not a Bug
September 21, 2017, 10:19 pm
Filed under: age, music | Tags: , , , , , ,

She told me her voice wasn’t what it once was. She’d taken time off from singing to raise her kids and was now coming back to it – distressed that she was not as perfect as she once was. There was a sense that her lived-in life had diminished her instrument.

I, too, had left aside my singing for a bit. Not entirely, of course, but aside from the occasional song for a friend, I hadn’t really kept at the technical practice of vocal performance. But ever since the election, I have leaned back into music and find myself singing again – because it is the only thing that makes me feel better. Raising my voice in song is how I express my fury, my fear, my determination to fight for the things I believe in. And I’ve been around the block a few times so my voice is not as technically proficient as it was, once upon a time. And I find that I really don’t care. I don’t care if I don’t hit a note with the exact tone I was imagining. I don’t care if a sound comes out strangled that I meant to sound clear. When I listen back to moments like that, I find that I like that catch in my voice. It is what I feel now. That catch is a feature not a bug. My age is a feature, not a bug.

A lived-in voice is a feature, not a bug. It’s funny to use a tech metaphor for something as organic as a voice but it leaped to mind when talking with that mother coming out of retirement. Her years of experience, of life, are a gift, not a problem.

I started going to voice lessons as a child and continued into college. My first year without regular vocal training was the year I spent abroad, in Italy. I did no vocal exercises, made no attempt to expand my range. I just sang and spent my year leaning into a new culture. When I came back to college, after I sang – one of my teachers said to me, “That was some year you had.” I didn’t know what she meant right away but something about it eventually helped me understand that she could hear the year in my voice. My year of learning a new language, growing bolder and opening up to new experience was all there in my voice. I don’t want to say she could hear the hills of Tuscany in what I sang but that’s how I imagined it.

Of course there are technical ways we can explore and expand our voices. Of course vocal training and coaching are incredibly useful and valuable. But our voices are more than simple instruments. We respond to the lives of the people who sing to us and to be able to hear the years in a song is to hear the agonies and the ecstasies, the thrills and the tedium, the passion and the despair. That is a great gift.

I want to hear the voices of mothers, of fathers, of grandmothers and grandfathers and all the adventurers among them. Your life, your years are a feature – not a bug. Give us your voices. Raise them in joy, in fury, in protest or in peace. Even if it catches, even if it cracks, even if you don’t like the sound – we need to hear you now.

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Generation X Part 2 – We Belong

Generation X has tended to resist being labeled and we also tend to resent being identified with a group. We like to think ourselves as individuals. I have a Gen X friend who finds the concept of a “hive mind” deeply troubling. It strikes him as dangerous conformity to ask the hive mind what it thinks.

I get it. I identify as a non-conformist, too. But I also grew up listening to a lot of Steve Martin records. And from an early age, I understood the irony of identifying as a non-conformist along with a group through this part of his routine:

STEVE MARTIN: And now let’s repeat the non-conformist oath! I promise to be different!
AUDIENCE: I promise to be different!
STEVE MARTIN: I promise to be unique!
AUDIENCE: I promise to be unique!
STEVEN MARTIN: I promise not to repeat things other people say!
AUDIENCE: (laughter)

Generation X has tended to view itself as an outsider. And our numbers do nothing to disabuse us of this. We were once outsiders as an aesthetic. (see also: The Outsiders, Bender and Allison in The Breakfast Club, Ducky in Pretty in Pink, Watts in Some Kind of Wonderful, and Fat Albert. Grunge and Hip-hop were outsider genres when they began.) But now, due to our numbers, we may be perpetual outsiders simply because we are always in the generational minority. It’s a good thing we have practice at outsider status!

But as much as I dig the individualist spirit of Gen X, I also see the value in thinking collectively. I think it’s amazing the way the average of people’s guesses on the number of jellybeans in a jar comes closer in accuracy than any one person’s guess. I understand the way that every audience, despite being made up of individuals, has a different quality. If you’re a performer, you’ve likely experienced how differently audiences can react to the exact same show. As groups we have personalities, a sort of dominant theme, an average of all the different flavors of jellybeans.

One of the things I admire about the generations surrounding ours is that they seem much better at gathering together than we ever were. Boomers have “Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try and love another right now.” Millennials have “We are young. So we’ll set the world on fire. We can burn brighter than the sun.” And y’all get together now, and you smile on your brothers, and set the world on fire. While Gen X is like, “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go,” and if we have to, we will “Fight for Our Right to Party” But “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and also “Everyone’s a Fucking Napoleon.”

I dig the exuberance, the positivity and optimism of the Millennials and the revolutionary spirit of our Boomer mothers and fathers. (Or big brothers and sisters, depending.) But getting together is not something I’ve ever seen Gen X be particularly good at. Maybe that’s one of the reasons there were no Gen X-ers to be found at that Saturday night in the small town, maybe we just don’t do well in crowds.

Or maybe we just don’t have the numbers. Gen X is the smallest generation, numbers-wise. In fact, after I posted Part One of this Generational Exploration Piece, several of my Gen X friends told me how outnumbered they are in their workplaces. One of them called Gen X an endangered species.

I mean, we can get our endangered selves together at the Love Shack but the car to take us there only sits about 20, even if it is a big as a whale. And maybe twenty is the most Gen X-ers we can mange to find in any given place. Certainly in that small town I visited, if I’d have gone to the Love Shack with all the other Gen X-ers in town, I’d have been headed to the Love Shack alone.

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This was Part 2 of a multi-part series. To read Part 1, click here and to read Part 3, click here.


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Generation X: Stuck in the Middle With You

While visiting a small town, I found myself at a local restaurant, where a band was playing their Saturday night gig. The band’s leader sang about being a kid in 1992 which helped me place him as a member of the Millennial generation. The audience was mostly represented by the Baby Boomer Generation, with a handful of the band’s Millennial friends in the mix. When the band played a cover of a hit song from the Baby Boomer’s youth, they filled the room with exuberant dance. And the Millennial men in the audience turned red from containing their laughter.

There was an atmosphere of these two generations trying to communicate with one another and find some kind of balance between them. There were pleading songs of a young man to an older one. A white haired man came up onstage while the band played to adjust their levels. These two generations were simultaneously at odds and in cahoots. And, as far as I know, I was the lone representative of my generation, Generation X. In fact, I realized then that I had spent my entire week in this small town as the lone Gen X representative. Where was the rest of Gen X in this town? Were they all home with their kids or had the town been vacated by Gen X years ago? If this party was for Boomers and Millennials, where was the Gen X party? And nationwide, maybe even worldwide, where IS the Gen X party? Where is Gen X hanging out? And why wasn’t I invited?

Until this moment in the restaurant/bar, I had not given my generation much thought. In fact, like 59% of Gen X, I didn’t really identify with the category at the time. But that has changed in recent years, ever since I started to read articles like “Why Generation X Are Just the Coolest“, “Generation X: America’s Neglected Middle Child”and excerpts of a book called X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking and I found myself suddenly feeling an incredible kinship with my Generation. I’d read these things and think, “Yeah! I AM like that! Yes we WILL save the world! Why DO people underestimate us?!”

Like the atmosphere in the small town bar, the big generational stories in the press tend to be about the more populous generations – the Boomers and the Millennials. The thrust of the Gen X narrative boils down to “What about us?” The underlying soundtrack to every Gen X article is the Simple Minds’ song from The Breakfast Club soundtrack “Don’t You Forget About Me.”

Simultaneously, the comments on all of these stories tended to boil down to decrying making generational distinctions as bullshit. Gen X-ers would appear to call bullshit the most. But Gen X calling bullshit may be the epitome of Gen X-ness. (Contradiction? Yes. But wrestling with contradictions is apparently also a Gen X trait.) Generations (generally) are probably bullshit. But they are somehow meaningful bullshit.

When we were kids, magazines used to write about us too. We were pretty fascinating when we were the subjects of teen movies and post college romances. The older generations worried about us and the lyrics of our music. (What was this new rap music all about? You call it hip hop? What is this stuff? Grunge? What is wrong with these kids today?) We were worried over, got called slackers and malcontents. Time magazine’s cover story in 1990 wondered if we were “Laid back, Late Blooming or Just Lost?”

But decades later, as a generation, the press don’t much talk about us anymore. We have to talk about ourselves.  And while we may not have embraced the label of Gen X at the time (it was 1991 before we had a label, coined by a guy who was born in ’61 and therefore not even Gen X by most measurements) but in this moment it is a convenience. Would we be more recognized if some of our other names had stuck? What if we were still called The Baby Busters? Or The Latchkey Generation? Or the Video Generation? Gen X is pretty neutral as nicknames go and accepting our Gen X identity seems to make us our more visible.

But we are technically middle aged now. Perhaps middle-aged people are always invisible? Maybe the Silent Generation turned forty and thought, “Hey what about us?”

The other sticky bit is that “middle-aged” is generally used as a pejorative. Say “middle-aged” and I picture a paunchy guy in clashing plaids sitting on a couch. It strikes me that maybe we don’t really know what 40 and 50 looks like. I saw a comment about the amazing Michaela Watkins (Gen X) in Casual. The comment said something like, “This character is turning 40? She looks like she’s 60!” And I realized how few 40 year old women this person has probably seen. The commenter had no sense of what 40 might look like, or, for that matter, what 60 might look like. Some Gen X-ers look like the generation behind us and some look like the generation ahead. I was recently mistaken for a college student. At the gig that kicked off this whole Gen X exploration, I got carded. A couple of years ago, I was asked for my hall pass at a high school. Meanwhile, Michaela Watkins who is 2 years older than me somehow looks like she’s twenty years older? We stand in this very odd middle space.

I now feel about Gen X the way David Rackoff discusses being Canadian in that This American Life story – you know the one – where whenever someone mentions a famous Canadian, a Canadian feels compelled to chime in to say, “You know they’re Canadian.” I feel like I do that for Gen X now. Tina Fey? She’s Gen X. Amy Poehler? Gen X. Ava Duvernay? Gen X. Tupac Shakur? Gen X. Melissa McCarthy? Gen X. Samantha Bee? Gen X. Jennifer Lopez? Gen X. Kurt Cobain, David Foster Wallace and the Brat Pack are maybe more closely identified with Gen X but Gen X is everywhere. Ever since I started researching Gen X, I have found myself compulsively looking up people’s birthdays to check their Gen X status.

I may have resisted the blanket identification before but as I watch my generation ignored, treated like the “middle child” and generally dismissed – I feel a responsibility, particularly as a woman (at an age when women start to become invisible) to be vocal and highly visible and to be unapologetically Gen X.

End of Part 1
Coming in future installments: Gen X lenses on sexism, technology, conformity, group-think, music and more.

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No One’s Asking for Your Art

Probably, there is no one who can’t wait to read your next play. Probably, no one is itching to read your novel. No one is clamoring for your new album or begging for your next dance piece. Probably you have some loved ones who are very supportive and tell you how excited they are to read your latest writing but 9 out of 10 people really don’t care and even the most supportive person you have on your side won’t see or read EVERYTHING. Your friends might feel obligated to go see your show or listen to your album but they probably won’t come every single time or listen more than a few times. Probably when you tell them about your latest creative venture, they’ll tell you they’re excited about it but they probably won’t come. (Life happens. To everyone. Everyone can’t see everything.) I’m not saying your people are not glad that you make art but the odds are they’re not clamoring for your latest thing. Especially if you make a lot of things.

This is why you have to untie yourself from your potential audience. If you have the instinct to create, you have to do it for yourself first because no one wants whatever you have in mind more than you.

I think this is true even if you’re a popular artist who people want to hear from. Let’s look at J.K. Rowling. Her fans wanted Harry Potter, now and forever. No one wanted her to write a book about a small-time English Village council election. No one was asking for that. But she wrote it anyway. If Rowling was completely tied to what people wanted from her, she’d have been writing only Harry Potter for the rest of her life. But no, not only did she write a novel about an election, she also went and wrote a whole crime series under a pseudonym. I bet you no one was asking for her to do that when she started.

If you’re not J.K. Rowling, your audience might not want anything at all from you. The most likely response you will get to your art is indifference. And you cannot let this stop you. Just because no one particularly wants you to do it, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

If you’re called to create, you have to do it. For you. No one else. Or maybe one other person. It could even be an imaginary person. I have one dedicated fan of the podcast. I record it for him. And even he doesn’t listen to every single one. A more logical person might leave such an enterprise aside. But I don’t make a podcast for logical reasons – I make it for artistic ones. My reasons understand that not every artistic expression is for every one. And that as long as I feel inclined to create, that’s how long I should do it.

No one wants it. But if you DON’T express that unique sparkling thing in your soul, it will fester. Or at the very least, wink out of existence.

If you need people to want your work, you might just want to go ahead and work in advertising. You can go be “a creative” in marketing or some form of industry. They’re going to want your words, your ideas, your drawings, etc. They’ll give you assignments, structures and feedback. They’ll ask you for all you have. They will read everything you write for them. They will listen to all you record. They will look at all that you draw. And you will get payment, one way or another.

But if you feel called to be an artist, you’ll need to be prepared to go where no one is calling to you, where there is no encouragement but your own creative spark. The practice of a life in the arts is learning how to nurture your own spark, how to stoke your own creative fire and encourage it to blaze so it becomes harder and harder to ignore. Learn how to be your own match, your own oxygen, your own kindling, your own log and you have a practice for life.

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I’m Done Watching Nashville And It’s Probably Not Why You Think
April 17, 2017, 12:20 am
Filed under: feminism, music, TV | Tags: , , , ,

No one was more surprised than me when I became a fan of Nashville, the TV show about country music stars. It happened after I read an interview with Callie Khouri, the show’s creator, in which she explained how much her feminism was informing the show. In 2012, there weren’t many folks in show business talking about their feminist work, so I sought the show out immediately. And I loved it.

The show did so many things I’d not seen before on TV: multiple women at the center, women grappling with power, grappling with sexism in the music business. It seemed to have a female gaze, even when directed by men. There was a scene in the first season that was one of the sexiest I’d seen on broadcast TV. It was bold. And it didn’t let us forget that the nice man we all liked so much was once a violent alcoholic. It dealt with domestic violence in a harrowing and sensitive way. The show wasn’t perfect. It was soapy as hell and it lost its few characters of color pretty early on. But it was always an empowering blend of music, ambition and relationships. This year, after being dropped by CBS, it was picked up and given a 5th season by Country Music TV, a very logical choice. I was excited to see it return after such a long hiatus.

But from the beginning of this new season, I felt a strange lack of ease around watching it. The cast was still in place, the characters aligned with their histories, the music still at the center. But I noticed after a few episodes that I just didn’t feel like watching it anymore. Something was missing.

What I realize now was that Callie Khouri was missing. In her showrunner chair are now two men. (It takes two men to replace one bad ass feminist women apparently.) The show had earned my feminist trust so things that would normally be red flags for me didn’t flag at first.

At first, I was so glad to have some people of color back on the show, and for them to be acknowledging the existence of racial tension, however awkwardly.  I was so busy applauding the inclusion of a trans character, I missed what was happening to the other characters. But the show started to irrevocably turn for me when Scarlett, who has always been the emotional center of the show, was bullied and sexually exploited by a film director. Because the show had some feminist cred in the bank, I thought that might be handled deftly at some point, like the domestic violence plot in a previous season. I thought that Rayna (the woman at the center of the story and a woman with tremendous authority) was going to step in and realize that this video was degrading and horrible and that Scarlett was being gaslit and abused. But no – a young silicon valley dude bullied Rayna out of intervening.

And then. SOMEHOW…this film director bully convinces Scarlett that he’s shown her something amazing and true about herself by forcing her to wear a low cut dress and crawl like a cat on a dining room table and so in the last episode that I will ever watch of this show, she decides she has feelings for him and sleeps with him in his hotel.

I hate this plot so hard. And I tried to twist it. I tried to think the best of the show (due to aforementioned feminist cred.) I thought, “Oh, maybe it’s a long game. Maybe they’re going to have Scarlett work out that she’s been gaslit later in the season. Maybe they’re sending her on some path of a feminist awaking by pairing her with a gaslighting bully.”

But I don’t think so. I think that the new showrunners maybe think they’re giving her a sexual awakening brought on by a wise video director who knows what’s best for her. (They are, after all, such fellows themselves.) I think they think this video director seeing Scarlett as a man-eating dynamo prowling through a crowd is somehow empowering. It ain’t.

I was thinking, before I realized how much had changed in Nashville’s world, that this would eventually get sorted. Then I read a review, which exposed me to reviews of the subsequent episodes and discovered that…(SPOILER ALERT TIMES A LOT. IF YOU’RE GOING TO WATCH NASHVILLE AND DON’T WANT IT ENTIRELY SPOILED SKIP THE NEXT BIT… Spoiler: They’ve killed off Rayna James. Now, I understand that Connie Britton, who plays her, has bigger fish to fry and wanted to leave the show. So, I’m not so much mad that they’ve killed Rayna so much as sure there will be no extracting themselves from the sexist mess they’ve gotten themselves into now. The thing is – Rayna is the only woman with any real authority in the show. She is the only character who can right the wrongs when things go lopsided. She is not just the moral center, she is the only advocate for the younger women in the business. Without her, and without any peers like her, the show doesn’t stand a chance of reclaiming its feminist glory. SPOILERS COMPLETE.)

When this show started, it sparked articles like “Is Nashville the Most Feminist show on TV?” and “As an Urban Feminist, I was Surprised to Fall in Love with Nashville.

It’s clear to me that that period is over. Nashville has lost its feminist showrunner and so has lost its feminist sensibility. I’m not saying men can’t be feminists. They absolutely can be. But these particular men are doing a very bad job at feminist TV making. And this feminist can’t bear to watch it any more.

The Nashville Cast and Showrunner at Paley Fest 2013. This photo would have a lot more dudes in it this year.

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Theatre’s Loss: Janelle Monaé

From the first time I heard “Tightrope,” I was a fan of Janelle Monaé. I was head over heels for her music and her aesthetic, as well. She was musically exciting and theatrical in her style. Seeing her in concert was an incredible ride. She took the audience on a journey, the likes of which I have rarely experienced at a concert. She is a consummate showwoman and a brilliant connector. I’ve heard her described her as a contemporary female James Brown.

This year, Monaé went from making exciting, surprising music to making exciting movies. I thought she was just trying something different, building on her music career with some film exploration – but in an interview, I discovered what was news to me. Monaé trained as an actor. She started in theatre. In acting, she is returning to her roots – not doing something new. I’d been thinking about this since I learned it. Then I saw a short biography of her on Pandora. It said she trained at AMDA, did some off-Broadway theatre but then moved to Atlanta when she realized that there weren’t roles for her in musical theatre. This blew my mind. It shouldn’t have. But it did.

I mean, of course, there weren’t roles for her. For a whole host of reasons I have surely written about before. BUT. What strikes me, now that I know this information, is how Theatre Lost. We Lost. One of the most brilliant artists of our lifetime and Theatre didn’t have a place for her. I mean, I can’t help but imagine a Cindi Mayweather Musical full of androids and tuxedoed dancers – a Black Lady Ziggy Stardust for the stage. I mourn for what we could have had – how Monaé could have invigorated the entire medium given half a chance. But she wasn’t given half a chance. Her creativity was too much for the American Theatre and there was no place in it for her. This does not speak well of our art.

Unlike Office Depot, which also famously had no place for Monaé, the American Theatre could really have benefited from her perspective, skill and artistry. But we failed her.

Now – I’m not entirely sorry that theatre failed her. If theatre failing her meant that she turned to music, then I’m grateful. I’d rather have “Electric Lady” than Monaé stuck in some production of Wicked forever. But…I think it is entirely Theatre’s Loss. We had this brilliant performer, writer and creator in our midst and no one saw it. No one made space for her to create. This is a problem. Because I know for a fact that Monaé isn’t the only artist that this has happened to. The Doing Things the Way We Have Always Done Them means true innovation is always happening elsewhere. In music, in film, in technology. We have to find a better way to nurture theatrical minds. We just have to. We lost Janelle Monaé. But maybe she’ll come back to us. I will definitely go to an Android Musical and I’m gonna drag you all there with me.

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The Resistance Will Be Handcrafted
March 22, 2017, 10:41 pm
Filed under: art, music, puppets, resistance, theatre, Visual Art | Tags: , , , , ,

Since the digital age really kicked in, I have watched a lot of things that were important to me fade away. In a world that values social media currency and digital art and so many things on screen, my analog skills of theatre-making, performance and presence have felt less and less valued in the world. While I have adapted as well as I can, I have at times felt like an analog girl in a digital world – a handwoven basket in a factory town.

But since the world turned upside down on Jan 20th, I have found that my old-school art skills are suddenly relevant again. At a recent rally and march, I suddenly realized how many skills I was pulling out of storage to be there. Some examples were: creating an impromptu puppet, gathering protest props that not only can pop at a protest but be light-weight and fit in a bag so I can carry them on the subway, putting a costume together, singing loudly, helping ladies find a pitch when a man is leading the singing and puppeteering.

And it’s not just me – there’s a call for all kinds of analog skills that might have felt lost to the digital age. Examples: Painting signs, playing drums, marching bands, one man (woman) bands, creating spectacle, knitting. Art supply sales are booming. There is something poignant about our old-school skills suddenly being useful again. We can’t rely on video to save us. We need things in real life. Now more than ever.

In a way, it’s a shift of our public spaces out of the internet and into actual spaces. We are all out in public more. And I find I want to bring out even more things into that space. I want to cry in public space. (I was a little disappointed there was no keening at the mock funeral. I could have used a good cleansing cry.) I want to read in public space. (What if we had a Read In?) I want to just sit quietly with a bunch of my fellow introverts and shush anyone who gets too loud.

There is something about this moment that is calling us to really stand behind what we value and those values may not always be obvious. It reveals all the things we’ve let dwindle – things we actually once loved or felt were necessary. Journalism. Theatre. Music. All things we stopped paying for because we could get them for free. If there’s anything to hope for in this depressing mess of a year, it’s that adjustment of value. It’s that subscriptions of newspapers and magazines are back up, people need music like never before and theatre might just make a difference again.

NFLY4499 (1)

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