I’ve been consuming art a long time. At an early age, I was captivated by singers, actors, then stand-up comedians.
I remember watching Hee Haw thinking Conway Twitty was cool as fuck. Performing arts intrigued me, a very shy kid who lived in the country, in ways that are hard to explain. Songs I had no reason to relate to resonated with me even in grade school, as early as like five years old. Drinking songs, breakup songs, prison songs. Something about what was being said, who was saying it and how it was being said struck a chord, and I was hooked, for life.
Musicians are split up and suffocated into genre boxes — country, metal, hip-hop, punk, pop, jazz, etc. — and comedians aren’t much different — clean, blue, political, hack, etc. — but I hop genres. If I think a song’s good, I’ll rock that shit out all day, regardless of where it sits at the record store. I don’t believe in “guilty” pleasures when it comes to creative output. You shouldn’t feel guilty for liking a song (for instance) outside of your comfort zone or one that’s been ostracized by the mainstream, or those running in trickling currents outside the mainstream.
One thing that has become a sort of initial filter when I hear something for the first time, however, is where I think it’s coming from. It’s hard to explain, but I’ll try to sum it up with this confusing, sort of metaphysical examination:
I think there are people who see a spotlight and a stage and want so desperately to get up there, they try to come up with something that will get them up there, under the spotlight. There are others who have a thing, a strange brain or spark, something they can’t help, and there’s no place to take it that makes sense except a stage, if they feel so inclined.
In short, one feels forced and one does not. And I feel like, through the years, I’ve developed a pretty good bullshit detector. Which isn’t to insult those I think force it, but to acknowledge and heap mountains of praise and credit on those who don’t.
And there are years of practice involved with both. Very few, if any, even those natural talents born with something to say, are capable of stepping up and knocking it out of the park on the first pitch. They still have to figure themselves out, work out, hone it, dial it in and get it undeniably sharp.
This thought almost always intersects the one about “being an artist” versus “being a people-pleaser,” or, more specifically, “doing what you do” versus “being super concerned with relating to as large an audience as possible.” A debate I’ve had so many times, I can sum up my feelings in three points.
- If you’re a creator, life’s too short to create anything other than what makes you happy, what you naturally gravitate towards wanting to push out into the world.
- If you’re good at what you do (and take the time and care to get it “right”), you’ll find an audience.
- Being too concerned with whether or not people will like something creative you’re doing — and by that I mean letting how you think it’ll be perceived dictate what you haven’t even attempted yet — you run a great risk of removing the one thing you can offer the world that literally no one else on earth can, has, or ever will: yourself.
These are thoughts I’ve had for years, but what inspired this particular blog was seeing singer/songwriter Richard Buckner last night.
I’ve seen him several times before. He’s one of my all-time favorite songwriters. And I feel like, last night, in one room, everything I’ve said in this piece was on display.
Buckner’s opening act was a local-ish singer/songwriter. Acoustic guitar and voice. The instruments Buckner himself uses. He donned a pristine cowboy hat, blue jeans, and sang songs about fishing, a devil woman, etc.
It was … fine. It was run-of-the-mill, boilerplate and whatever. But, more than that, and to tie this all back into my initial point, it felt like I was watching a guy who learned how to play guitar and then wrote songs specifically so he could get onstage and step into the role of singer/songwriter.
When his set concluded, Buckner, a tall, lumbering sort, hair half a mess, in a solid black t-shirt and unbuttoned short-sleeved denim, got on the same stage with the same instruments — acoustic guitar and voice — and soulfully sang words that felt like they were carved from the deepest recesses of the human psyche. A bit cryptic with anchors of straightforward one-liners to keep you from floating away, Buckner is one of those performers who seems to have tapped into a vein the rest of us don’t even know we have. One you can’t find in medical textbooks. One that takes a special sort of fearlessness to tap.
And there’s a crowd for both of these people. There are folks who’d love the opener and not Buckner, think he was too dark or too weird, and folks who’d love Buckner and think the opener was too trite or vanilla. Some might like both (though this is harder to wrap my head around).
But my point remains, some performers feel like they’ve crawled out of some special place and are here for a moment to crack us open and move and enlighten us, and some feel like they’ve strapped on a template, their version of what they think a Singer/Songwriter is, or a Comedian, or a Metal Singer. It’s a bit disingenuous, and not really their fault. They can’t, or don’t want to, tap that vein. And that’s fine. Different strokes for different folks. There isn’t one type of paintbrush you can use to make art.
I just prefer those who aren’t afraid to at least occasionally turn the handle of the brush on themselves and bleed out all over the page.