Being Important, and Being Popular

Today I listened to two recordings of music that wasn’t just great to listen to when it found me, but helped shape, define and amplify important moments of my life.

As can happen when music plays while I’m connected to the Internet, I can’t help doing a search of the band, the album or the tune with the hope of acquiring information, historical data or trivia that might make the music even more relevant. What did I find?

That one album containing two absolutely wonderful songs was an absolute disaster for the band financially that broke up the band (for a while–so many bands that became the soundtrack of my life shattered and regrouped). I’m not going to be specific here–the last thing I want is anyone who might read this to dig up the music, give it a spin and say, “He liked THAT?!”

But I will say that one of the tunes became a sound track to a time when I was struggling mightily to find my way in the world, undergoing that post-college-graduation learning curve I like to call Humiliation 101: where you discover that just about everything you got from college cannot spare you the pain of being one more rootless soul looking for something, or someone, to cling to.

The second song made me want to visit Canada. I eventually lectured about the history that inspired it.

Then there was another album of songs, from a favorite band, that I found while on a difficult vacation in which I was estranged to just about everyone around me, especially the people I wasn’t supposed to be estranged to. (You know how it can be: you’re with these people and they’re having a great time and you’re not, which means it’s your fault and…it just gets worse).

I found this record, listened to it and everything became clear. The music spoke to me, assured me that things would work out (they did), that truly vital and valuable experiences often arrive under peculiar circumstances and that, sometimes, music will save your life when nothing else will.

I saw on the Internet a ranking of albums by this band and this album, which I learned was produced by the band under difficult circumstances, was consider by fans to be the band’s absolute worst. It was ranked at the bottom of a long list of failures, misfires, foolish attempts and what-were-they-thinking moments.

And I loved to recording. Yes, there were some songs I didn’t like as much as others. But the music on so many others really did connect with me in that marvelous way that proves, time and again, the necessity of making art, finding art and appreciating art.

Both bands I explored had “hit” songs that made them famous. I don’t listen to those hit songs at all. Sometimes I might let the hit play if it is on the album and I don’t want to change the selection. But the songs that made both groups famous have never been important to me. The ones that “speak” to me have been friends from the moment I heard them.

Is there something wrong with me that what was popular for these bands was wasted on me? Hardly. Is there something wrong with the fans, to whom these bands owed their fleeting, but necessary commercial viability? No at all. When art is merely the delivery of pleasure (rather than a vehicle for revelation), we can be, and perhaps should be, pleased.

Is there something wrong with a commercial culture that defines the quality of art by the amount of money it generates? What about the Internet culture, where website hits, viral videos and other kinds of cyberactivity comes and goes so quickly that, by the time we hear about these things, we can’t help but wonder what the fuss is all about? What about the fine art, high or elitist cultures that dismisses popularity and instead anoints its “superior” artists as the only acceptable creative forces in society?

I’m sure the musicians in these bands have had to make some accommodation for the suffering such cultures produce. I know I haven’t–that thick skin writers are supposed to grow that inures us to rejection, editorial stupidity and a largely unresponsive world–has yet to form on my carapace. I can only be grateful that somehow, this great, wonderful music found me when it did.

If there’s a lesson in all this, it could be that when we act creatively, imaginatively or expressively, and we do this from a good place (we’re not out to wake the neighbors, hurt anyone’s feelings or produce a coldly calculated money-maker), our work has the potential to do great, important, wonderful things beyond our control, or anyone else’s.

So we should neither fear, nor hesitate, to bring our creative, imaginative, expressive, certainly imperfect but unquestionably necessary stuff into this world.

You never know who’s listening.