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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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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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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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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