ecently I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m never going to be a rock star.
If you knew me, you wouldn’t find this revelation too shocking, considering I really don’t play an instrument with any proficiency, I’ve never been in a band, and the only people who’ve ever heard any of my two dozen or so crappy songs are my parents and a few girlfriends.
Still, when I was 17 or 18, or even 21, there still flickered the vaguely nebulous hope that at some undefined point in the future I would become an actual musical artist, and that my rudimentary compositions would be widely heralded for their lyrical depth and emotional resonance. Now I’m 25, and while I’d be foolish to claim it was too late or that I was past my prime, I’ve gradually come to the realization that if it was going to happen, it most likely would have already happened, and probably a long time ago.
I could simply chalk it up to laziness, but then again I probably watch less TV than the average 18-34 year-old, so I must be doing something constructive with my time (or at least the time I haven’t already reserved for fantasy sports and message boarding).
I’ve always been passionate about music, going back not just to my rock awakening of ’92, spurred by Pearl Jam, Nirvana and, um, the Spin Doctors, but even to when I was 10 and used to tape the half-hour rap video show that came on Saturday afternoons on the local NBC affiliate (no cable in the sticks back then), then go out with my allowance money the next week and buy cassette tapes of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and, um again, Candyman.
So maybe it’s a good thing that I’m finally being completely honest with myself, acknowledging that my relationship with music will forever be defined by listening, analyzing, and evaluating rather than creating. Nick Southall claimed in his own Soulseeking piece a couple of weeks ago that music writers are failed novelists rather than failed musicians, but I think that’s only telling half the story. I’d like to meet the music lover who has never once imagined himself on the stage, even if it’s just a daydream. I’m not convinced that person exists. The real answer, I think, is that by the time most music writers reach a point in their careers where they’ve achieved some measure of success, they’ve likely already reached the age where, even if they still make their own music, those rock dreams have largely been put away.
Originally, I planned to use this space to try and figure out why lyrics don’t mean nearly as much to me as they did ten, five or even two years ago. I was curious whether my relatively newfound appreciation of pop helped convince me words were more superfluous than I once thought, or whether I’d already become personally disengaged with rock lyrics and it was that alienation nudging me towards worshipping sound instead.
Or is it simply a matter of not being a kid anymore—of not being solipsistic and self-absorbed and looking for Eddie Vedder to “save” me or Kurt Cobain to measure my teenage misery? When I was 15 all I wanted in the world was a girlfriend, and while Billy Corgan and Trent Reznor were in all likelihood nailing groupies left and right, they somehow convinced me that my own lonely vigil was both tragic and beautiful.
Well, now I do have a girlfriend, but I still think that’s only part of it. More than just getting older and less histrionic, there’s now a fundamental disconnect between my lifestyle and worldview and the lifestyle and worldview of your average touring rock musician. Even if they do have jobs, chances are that if they’re still dreaming and holding out hope of making it—whatever that loaded term signifies for each individual or each individual band—they’re probably not exactly preoccupied with planning a stable and secure financial or geographical future. That’s part of the reason why so much of rock wisdom involves escape, movement, transcendence, release. At this stage in my own life I just can’t relate to those impulses and obsessions anymore, not because they’re puerile—far from it—but simply because my own life doesn’t reflect it.
Of course, everything can change in an instant, and my entire tidily put-together world could come crashing down around my ears tomorrow. For the time being and the sake of argument, however, I wonder—can rock still carry the same weight for the (too) well-adjusted? Nick talked about growing up, settling down, and not being so gullibly compelled by rock myths anymore, but maybe it’s even more fundamental than that. Just as famously tormented, adversarial artists worry about fame dulling their edge, perhaps the trappings of middle-class stability and adulthood snuff out our craving for rock’s redemptive properties as well. When that happens, is moulding nostalgia the only feeling that can fill the void?
Maybe this explains why I’ve lately found myself more interested in music listeners than music makers, studying the collective social effects and impact of music on the world that receives it rather than poring over the specific utterings of its resident geniuses. After all, at this point I’ve got everything more in common except political ideology with the average person who buys a Keith Urban or a Josh Groban CD than I do with Ted Leo or the dudes from The Constantines or Calla. Maybe this is simply a coping mechanism for being one of the comparatively small number of music writers with essentially no musical experience or technical expertise, but there’s no question this shift in focus impacts my fealty to rock ‘n’ roll, and more specifically my formerly slavish attention to lyrics. It’s the distinction between popism and rockism in a nutshell, between a formalist admiration for the song and a singular devotion to the auteur.
But are those the only two options? Am I left with a choice of either a) becoming a sad deluded old rockist bastard, a middle-aged hipster clinging to his youth by parasitically attaching himself to the young and beautiful, eternally chasing after 22 year-olds to ask them about “life on the road” and their take on Iraq, or b) an aloof, chin-stroking theorist safely (and meaninglessly) ensconced in academia? I don’t aspire to kiss the feet of Rolling Stone’s newest-minted rock laureate, but I likewise don’t wish to abstract myself out of all emotional engagement with music either.
Undoubtedly there are loopholes and escape routes—Alfred Soto writes lovely formalist-focused prose about auteurs, while Derek Miller and Mike Powell write poetry into their criticism that often surpasses the lyrical craft of their subjects (OK, sorry for the homerism there).
I guess my own solution lately has been to look further afield, beyond rock and into genres like hip-hop and country that offer real narrative heft rather than a bunch of scattered pronouncements to affirm or deny (the likes of Sufjan Stevens of course excepted). Obviously I’m overgeneralizing here, but I imagine it’s more than just a coincidence that I’ve drifted into places where lyrics matter for different reasons.
Or perhaps I’m just painfully jealous of indie-rockers and can’t cope with the superficial similarities of our background and cultural training, and so I gravitate towards genres and performers whose make-up doesn’t mirror my own. I’d like to think that’s not the case, but I can’t deny it’s a little bit humbling to concede that I may just be a “professional appreciator” for life.