Songs for the Struggling Artist


The Time Machine of Music

Music can be a time machine. Play Duran Duran’s “Rio” and I am instantly transported to a carpeted spot in front of the Barbie doll mansion I’d created in my closet in the mid 80s. Put on Primus’ “Nature Boy” and I’m in a cargo van in 1997 with several Shakespeare dudes who are wildly flinging themselves around, while the Shakespeare dude driver nods his head in time. I did not like this song at the time but now I do, not just because I’m angrier these days, but because of how quickly it can return me to the past.

Music can evoke a time and place more directly and precisely than just about anything. (Smell can be a direct line to the past. It’s maybe more immediate but, it’s also often less specific about time.) Music is an incredibly powerful tool – which is why I’m entirely flabbergasted at a trend I’m noticing on television. Why would you use music from a different era than the one you’re trying to evoke?

The otherwise delightful Pursuit of Love mini-series used 80s and 90s tunes throughout, despite the fact that this show takes place in the 30s and 40s. I enjoyed hearing that Joan Armatrading song after so many years but I couldn’t tell you what happened in the show during it as I was pulled into the late 80s for its duration. (It’s from 1977 but it was much later that I discovered it.)

Then there’s the show that got me all fired up about this. 45 Revoluciones or 45 rpm. It’s a Spanish show (surprise!) about a pop music business in 1962. I enjoy a lot of things about it, like the way the woman music producer and her assistant deal with some overt sexism from her tech crew or the way it models a male boss fighting for his female “mano derecho.” But…the music is a disaster. The pop star’s hit song, the one we hear over and over again, is not a song from 1962, nor is it a contemporary song written to sound like it’s from 1962. It is, instead a song from 2012 that went to number one in 24 countries. It is a hit song from 7 years before this show was aired and 50 years after the show is meant to take place. Where exactly do they want to take us in that music time machine?

I hate this song choice so hard. I think they’re trying to say “This artist is so ahead of his time he sings songs from the future!” Or they’re trying to connect contemporary music listeners with this period drama? Or they’re trying to evoke some kind of blend of time periods? I don’t know. But the story of the show is a singer who nobody’s seen the likes of before playing fresh new music that blows everyone’s minds. Then to represent him, the creators choose some of the most middle of the road music from the last couple of decades. “Let her go” may have gone number one around the world (Number 3 in Spain) but it is a song so banal that I only recognized it from hearing it in the grocery store on occasion and found it entirely unremarkable. No disrespect to lovers of this song but it does not represent a stunning innovation in pop music.

Similarly, Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” which also makes an appearance on this fictional Spanish rock star’s album from 1962 is not a pop revolution in any way. Lady Gaga is glorious but she’s not out here busting up pop norms. She IS pop norms, albeit with wild costume and style innovations.

As I continued to watch 45 rpm, it got even more ridiculous with its music, careening wildly through time, moving from “Total Eclipse of the Heart” to “Shiny Happy People.” I shouted at the screen more than once.

I’ve learned that this show had the lowest viewer ratings EVER on that channel – and I don’t know if the music was what tanked it but I feel pretty confident it didn’t help.

Here’s the thing. All of that music featured in the show must have been VERY EXPENSIVE. With the money they spent to clear several worldwide hit songs, they could have hired multiple songwriters and composers who could have written them songs that evoked the period and ALSO felt a little modern. They could have had a soundtrack of new and exciting music that might have been a hit and might have drawn people to their show. Look at “That Thing You Do” which is a movie about a hit song from a similar period. The title song that Adam Schlesinger wrote for it became a hit and was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar. Hit movie. Hit song. Could have been you, 45 Revoluciones!

Or alternatively, they could have used actual music from 1962. They name checked Los Pekenikes – which is such a great band name, I had to look them up and listen to them and apparently, a band called Los Brincos was an inspiration for the story. They’re really fun to listen to! Is there some belief that the youth won’t respond to old music? I’d like to direct you to the soundtrack of Stand By Me (which I played relentlessly as a teen) which came out in the mid 80s and was filled with mostly old 50s tunes. Because of that film, the title song (from 1961) made another journey to the top ten in 1986. All that music placed that film firmly in its period and it was a giant hit. It’s happened before that contemporary youth get super into music of the past.

But maybe the youth of today are different from the youth of yesteryear and somehow can only tolerate banal contemporary pop? Somehow I don’t think so. I do think they’re being fed an unusually dull music diet, though. There is a flattening of sound, of genre, of time that has been happening over the last 20 years and it can’t be good for us. As Jaron Lanier has pointed out, there hasn’t been an innovation in pop music since Hip Hop and Grunge  – several decades ago. Can you distinguish the sound of something from the first decade of this century from this last decade? I sure can’t. It has a timelessness in its consistency and conformity. This is weird, folks. Can you imagine not being able to distinguish music from the 70s from music of the 60s? Or the 40s from the 50s? There’s a little crossover, sure, but you can make a kind of generalization about pop sound decade by decade until you get to this century. I suspect that one of the reasons this weird time bleed is happening on TV has to do with that strange sameiness of music: Who cares when music is from, when you have no way to tell any of it apart?

I start to wonder if this is connected to the conglomeration of the music business. There are currently really only three music companies. Warner, Sony and Universal own pretty much everything. Things like the Grammys are company celebrations of those three corporations. With a distinct lack of diversity in the business end, is it any wonder the music has had all its edges smoothed over? (The same thing is happening in publishing, btw. There are three major players who just eat up the little guys.) I suspect all this leads to an ahistorical music business which bleeds into an ahistorical film and TV business and now we have TV shows where the music time machine takes us to all the wrong places. You set it for 1962 and half of you ends up in 2012. That is a problematic time machine.

And it may extend beyond just the music in the shows. 45 Revoluciones, which, I’ll remind you, is set in 1962, made casual references to both The Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the dialogue. Now – I was not yet born in 1962 but even I know that neither of these bands was a worldwide sensation yet in 1962. You know how long it took me to confirm that fact? Less than a minute. I didn’t even have to go to the library. The Rolling Stones hadn’t even heard of the Rolling Stones until July of 1962 so there’s just no way a Spanish rocker would be excited to open for a band that did not yet even have a single recorded. (This sort of error, btw, is a great example of why it’s important to have age diversity on a team. I cannot believe NO ONE on this show flagged this highly irritating detail.)

I think being cavalier about music’s role in time is a huge mistake. It’s a mistake for broken time machine purposes in that you might take your audience to a different place than you were aiming and it’s also a huge mistake in making it harder for all the other elements in a scene to establish the era. The costumes can’t do all the work. Neither can the props or the production design.

If you want to pull the audience in two directions time-wise, okay, but if you choose only really popular songs, then your audience will inevitably have prior associations with that music. The odds that something bad has happened while listening to that song for any of the millions of people who have heard it many times before are very strong. Just…you know – triggering someone’s memories of their assault is one reason why you might not want to use super popular songs in your TV show. Hire a composer! The average song on Spotify has 8 listens. Maybe use one of those?

I don’t mean to pick on 45 rpm – everyone is doing this dumb music flattening – but there’s something particularly ironic about a show that has the word revolution in its title that shows us music neither historical nor revolutionary. The show takes place in a moment in Spain where pop music was creating some interesting cracks in the regime of the fascist dictator. The show gives us glimpses of what the collision of rock n roll and Franco’s Spain was like. It shows us the big dilemma of being obliged to sell out to a dictator and how people resisted, either directly or covertly. (Ironically, this show has literally sold out to an entirely different sort of regime by virtue of the flagrant Coca Cola product placement.)  The regime creates real problems in the lives of artists and record execs alike. Apparently, instrumental music, as well as music in French and English, escaped the censors in those early years or rock n roll just because the regime didn’t take any of it seriously. I’ve been listening to the actual music from that era in Spain and sure, it doesn’t sound revolutionary now, because we’ve had 50+ years with things that sound like it.

But since no one’s invented a new genre in decades, since we can’t experience a current music revolution, why can’t we take a trip in a musical time machine and discover, at least, what a revolution sounded like in the past? When The Rite of Spring was first performed, it was so new, so revolutionary, people rioted. We’ve lived in a world with that music in it for over a century, so it’s not a revolution for us, but if you make a show set in the early 20th century about modernism and you don’t use The Rite of Spring, you better play us something that sounds like a modern riot. Maybe you’ll even find us our modern Stravinsky. But why not take us on a trip in your music time machine? It’s a mellifluous way to travel.

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I reference a lot of music in this post so I made a playlist of it so if you’re curious to hear any of it, it’s here.

Concert à la vapeur by J. J. Granville
It’s not technically a time machine but wouldn’t it be cool if it was?

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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The Cafe Wall of Fame

On the wall at Café La Habana in Mexico City is a plaque that proclaims the previous presence of Octavio Paz, Ché Guevara, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and more. The rumor is that the Cuban Revolution was planned there. It is an inspiring place. The conversations of these public intellectuals soaked into the very walls.

Also, not a single woman is listed in its storied history.

It was founded in 1952. That means Frida Kahlo could have gone there in the last two years of her life. Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington could have gone there. I know they didn’t live nearby but still, they could have. Laura Esquivel was two years old when the place was founded but I imagine she’s been there at some point in her life.

I mean – did no women come and plan there? Or they just haven’t done it yet? What if we planned the feminist revolution there? The Cuban one worked out reasonably well for the guys who started it.

I have a lot of questions about this particular place because it feels like a kind of magic to write in so potent a place. But I wonder if that magic has only ever applied to men. Did women not go there? Were they somehow unwelcome to the public intellectual’s realm? Or was it unsafe for women? Or were they there and then forgotten about? Or did they just have their coffee, conversations and revolutions at home?

As a woman who has spent time in coffee shops in many countries, I can confirm that public spaces like cafes are more male space than female. In some places I’ve been, I’ve been the only woman. On holidays I am almost always the only woman in the last open café.

It does feel as though despite our many advancements, public space like coffee shops still belongs to men. Soraya Chemaly gave one of my favorite TED talks on the subject of public spaces. The gist of it is, almost all public space is male space, in that it was designed by and for men. I can’t stop thinking about this. I’m fascinated by the architectural projects that are JUST beginning to address it. There is a movement coming, I think. But without the history, it’s very difficult. Show me the café that brags of all the women who frequented the place. (Seriously please show me – I’ll go there.) Show me the city that was planned with women in mind. (Vienna comes closest in that they made adjustments based on a survey of women’s needs back in the 90s.) All space is men’s space that others find our way through. All cafes are for men, for men’s ideas, men’s revolutions. The women’s revolution is in the house, I guess? Which maybe explains why we haven’t really had a revolution.

If women have no public space in which to gather, if we aren’t seen in public together (except for once a year at our march) then we have no public power. We try and claim space when we march. We chant. Whose streets? Our streets.
Now maybe it’s time for:
Whose café? Our café.

I’m not here to call out Café La Habana. Honestly, I can’t think of a single café in the USA that honors literary greats or revolutionaries of any gender on its walls. Café la Habana is way ahead of us in honoring writers, artists and intellectuals and I respect and admire them for it. I’m a fan.

One day in the future, I hope to make it back to that cafe, where I’ll drink another delicious lechera and on their updated plaque I hope to see many women’s names. Or maybe one of you will start a café with women in mind and we’ll all turn up to hang out and plan our revolution and someone will hang a plaque up decades later. I’d like to be on that wall with the rest of you.

Photo by Donna Shaunesey

 

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

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Why I Shouldn’t Work in Schools Anymore
September 9, 2016, 11:16 pm
Filed under: art, education | Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve written before about the changing landscape of Teaching Artistry. I’ve written about how arts education has changed in my years in the business. For the most part, I do most of my teaching outside of school environments these days but every so often, I’m brought back into the Arts in Education world. What the re-encounter highlights for me is how at odds my goals are with the goals of a lot of Arts Education.

At the heart of my goals for students sits a desire for them to make bold artistic choices and learn how to be good artists. This is not because I think they should become artists (I know what kind of a life that is) but because I think that thinking like an artist can lead to a liberation of self. Thinking like an artist can allow students to begin to question their assumptions and interrogate the givens. This is all well and good on paper for most schools but when the questioning begins and the classroom gets crazy or silly or loud, most people in schools start yelling and everyone gets into trouble. I value the trouble that art stirs up. Good art is disruptive and shakes up the status quo. This is rarely in line with the goals of a school – as most schools seek to enforce and create a status quo.

I have a revolutionary’s heart, I’ve discovered, and I like for students to get so involved in art making that they become willing to challenge the status quo. I like it when the art becomes theirs.

My favorite moment of my early teaching career was when I noticed a student missing from our 5th Grade Midsummer Night’s Dream class. I was told that he’d gotten in trouble in the cafeteria by quoting Shakespeare. I’m still delighted to think about a small 5th grade kid standing up at his cafeteria table and proclaiming loudly, with gestures, “Enough! Hold, or cut bow strings!”

I don’t remember much else about that residency but I cherish the way Shakespeare and I got this kid into trouble. I used to feel guilty about it – but not anymore. Art, when it’s good, can get you into trouble.

The more art becomes EDUCATION, the more it becomes a rubric and a set of skills to learn, the less likely it is to get you into trouble. And this is why working in education isn’t really my bag anymore. Bring me in to teach your students and I will encourage them to be bold, to take risks, to be silly, to be loud, to look for mischief, for the game, for the spirit. I trained in clown. I am inclined to make a mess. That’s probably why you don’t bring a clown into your classroom.

If you want order and quiet, I would suggest an educator instead of an artist. I fall firmly on the side of art and will always privilege the artistic choice over the orderly choice. Arts in Education these days seems to always privilege the orderly one. I want the work that young people create to be controversial, to be disruptive, to be volatile. In the past, I did a complicated balancing act of trying to keep things status quo for teachers and administrators and arts organizations’ education departments while still honoring my revolutionary impulse. But I think somewhere along the way, I lost the ability to compromise this way and can only express delight at the irreverence, at the art that might accidentally pry its way into a classroom and cause all kinds of trouble.


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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



The Quiet Revolution in Theatre
July 7, 2013, 9:41 pm
Filed under: art, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, is said to have a started a Quiet Revolution. As one of the quiet people, I could not be happier about this new world in which I can come out of the introverted closet and finally declare that sometimes, I just don’t want to declare anything.

I am an introvert (though I can absolutely pass for an extrovert when I want to) and I am ready for a world that makes space for people like me. I have, I confess, grown a bit weary of pretending to be extroverted. I am signing up for this revolution! But my big question is: Can the revolution extend into the theatre?

The form is full of extroverts and so much of theatre training is essentially training in how to be more extroverted, how to get it all out there, how to DO before you THINK, how to lose your inhibitions. Is there a place for introverts in the heart of the extroverted fortress? Can you love both solitude and theatre? I do but it isn’t easy.

Introverts tend to thrive in quieter environments, working well on our own, thinking things through, speaking less but processing more. We mull things over, we chew on them. We are interested in ideas. We relate best one on one, can hang back in a group. We are lousy self-promoters. In the theatre, these things are rarely assets. But I wonder how we could make them so.

I think the American theatre suffers from an imbalance of extroversion. Evolutionary biologists suggest that introverts and extroverts (of all kinds of species) evolved as a survival strategy. The extroverts charge ahead, the introverts hang back and each strategy encourages the survival of the other. When I go to the theatre, I feel like I see almost nothing but thoughtless charging forward. I often hear myself saying, “Didn’t anybody think this through?” and also, “All that shouting up there is exhausting!”

I think we need more introverts in theatre and not just the ones that are good at pretending to be extroverts. We need the actors that take things in slowly and then surprise us with their wisdom. We need directors that can hang back and look at things clearly. We need writers that listen very carefully before distilling thoughts into words. We need designers who are able to listen and to make surprising, thoughtful connections. We need less shouting, on stage and off.

If you have any ideas about how to instigate a Quiet Revolution in Theatre, please share them. Let’s take some time to think about this (as we do) and then, Revolution! Theatrical Introverts Unite, very quietly!



The Open Secret of Non-Profit Arts Organizations

Here’s a fun activity: Choose your favorite arts organization. Maybe one you work for occasionally.  Go to the Foundation Center 990 finder (Foundation Center 990) and type it in. Download their form for the tax year of your choice. Check out Page 5, 6 or 7, Compensation and Key Employees. Then think about what the artists make.

I did this recently with a company I work for – a company where artists’ fees (already below average) were cut last year because of tough economic times. This is also a company (like many others) that has ceased paying artists for their yearly orientation because they “can’t afford to” anymore. In reading their 990 –  I found out that they paid a consultant $120, 000 in 2007 and that the Executive Director made $154,000 a year plus benefits, with a yearly increase of about $4000 to $5000.

Excuse me? What? You’re asking your artists to work unpaid; You decrease their substandard hourly rate;  You provide no guarantee of employment and no access to health insurance and your executive director makes $154,000 a year plus benefits?!?

I really can’t believe the gall. Here’s another fun activity. Do it backwards. This is actually how I was introduced to this delightful little secret. My boyfriend looked at this company’s 990 and then asked me if I recognized some names. (I didn’t know most of them. They were the top earners at the place I work, why would I?) Finally, he found a name I  knew. He said, “You know this guy?”

“Yes.”

“You have some idea of what he does?”

“A vague one. I see him at meetings and stuff. He gets CC’d on my emails.”

“How much would you think would be fair to pay this guy?”

I think for a while.  I guess, “I don’t know. Maybe – $45,000?”

“Triple that and you’d be a lot closer.”

It’s a fun game. Aside from the fact that it made me cry. I mean, this Executive Director makes more money than an investment banker in a non-profit dedicated to putting arts in the schools. The “product” that this “factory” makes is Art and the makers of that Art, are us, the Artists. So far this year, I’ve made $5,494 at this organization. No benefits. And after working for these folks for years, I’ve never even met the other people in this agency making 6 figures.

Now, I’ve got no problem with people in the arts and non-profit worlds making a lot of money. We should support the people who do this sort of work, of course. But the ridiculousness of the gap between the artists (scraping to survive in the months when there is no work, everyone I know is looking into food stamps at this point) and the executives who are making big bucks on what we do needs to narrow. I really don’t know how this organization has the nerve to lower artists’ fees and ask for free labor when its Executive Director got another $4/5K raise last year. I really don’t know how they manage to look us in the eye. Oh, wait, they mostly don’t. I’ve only met one of the four top earners in the company.

I haven’t done this with my other employers yet. I’m not sure I can. Once the scales fall from your eyes, it’s hard to put them back. The next time I see that guy who makes over $154,000 a year, I’m only going to see a dude who makes $154,000. It’s going to make it harder for me to smile and nod, which is something that I am required to do in order to continue getting work each year.

What is to be done in this case? I have no authority or power at any arts institution I work for. Because I’m not hired anywhere, no one would have to fire me to get me out of their hair; They can just easily NOT give me any more work and that pesky artist who asks too many questions would be gone for good. So, I’ll be smiling and nodding at meetings as per usual. But, I’m writing this now to let the rest of you know what’s happening. Maybe knowledge can be power instead of making me cry. Let me know what you find.

Side note: Sometimes the 990 finder is a little picky about the name of the organization. I spent forever trying to find an organization and got foiled because it was all one word in the system. Also, lots of organizations file their taxes under a different name. Apparently, Mark Morris Dance Group is AKA “Discaled.”  If you can find the organization’s EIN number, you’ll have a much better shot at tracking them down.

This will help, too. It tells you how to read the 990.

990 Tutorial




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