My mind would spill out my ears should I ever have the opportunity to make my interactions at any convention as dense as (read: even moreso than they already are) I would like, easily overpowering the earbuds that act as corks during my meditative drive home. Seven generously lonely hours were startlingly appreciated while I processed and divided a whole new set of memories comprised of the faces of my favorite people in the world brought together by a passion for making and consuming nourishing things.
If I don’t make an active attempt at keeping my emotions in check they’ll overwhelmingly spur me to brashly and unrealistically set out to build an impossible empire of sorts where I can spend all of my time with all these people, forcing their slow orbits around the globe to swing more forcefully in my direction and selfishly declaring that we should all be together, which is to say, everyone should surround me all of the time. I’m not going to quit my job and move to a big city where one pocket of friends I see mere days out of the year reside, but in the days of post-con depression that I’m thoroughly entrenched in (the fact that I’ve been home for mere hours yet notwithstanding) that are sure to follow, such things seem unreasonably attractive and perfectly rational things to do.
Old adventures were relived this weekend with a high success rate, and many, many new adventures were found.
Most of them have specific names behind them, and I will likely gush thanks in their general direction for years and years.
The energy of creative (and therefore terribly handsome) people propels me to new, even greater heights every year, inspiring me to contribute more to the world somehow, as if I had the power to do so for some stranger in the world in such a specific way that any of my heroes (if I may use such a word) have to me.
Then again, with seven billion of us, it’s a statistic inevitability that anything anyone produces will delight at least one person absolutely - but to have one person so consistently make things that delight you and then putting a face to them, hearing words come from their lungs and witnessing as their ideas are formulated in real time not just near you, but at you, swells me with some strange muse-like creature that makes me unable to consume anything new. I cannot read, cannot converse, cannot listen or breathe any new air until I release the pressure of this new energy.
On the drive home while I was thoroughly enshrouded in my decompression chamber of semi-sad music and asphalt, my mother called with updates on my dying aunt, and I literally screamed at the phone before answering it. I had no more room. I was busy sorting through the mess in my head, making it more orderly, and placing it on hold and pushing it aside, snapping back to the real world with real problems amounting to more than “which friend do I engage in next” is necessary, of course - but I selfishly wanted to continue to wallow in the come-down from the sheer euphoria found in being surrounded by folk I adore so.
I want to, or at least feel ready to, put even more nourishing things in my brain out of fear that if I let the things between my ears settle, they’ll slip through the cracks and precious details will be lost before I have a chance to record them. Spying my stack of books fills me with a kind of hope, sort of, but another, completely sovereign fear says No, More Will Not Be Good.
And I realize now that that’s the first time I’ve told myself such in five days.
There is a song somewhere in my iTunes library that I want to hear, but I know not its name or artist.
I can describe it. I can tell you the instrumentation. I can even play a part of it. But I can’t hear it. Not all the way. Not for real.
I can tell you that there’s ambient tonal sounds oscillating within an A major 7.
Twelve thousand songs. The ones I’ve heard, the ones not gifted to me by friends by the discography like how piles of books accumulate in a warm and anxious way, I can name within seconds of hearing it. Clicking on a tiny gear and describing some heuristics reveals that songs I haven’t heard amount to a mere two thousand. I have heard and have a copy of ten thousand songs. I have here documentation that I have heard ten thousand songs.
I can’t not listen to music without constantly indexing every part of it. Not the fidelity or the equipment used or anything useful like that, but the colours and emotions and shapes and textures and memories associated with it. Sometimes the lyrics are important to me - more often than not, they are a delivery system for more notes. I care the most about the notes.
This track doesn’t have lyrics. The “ambient” tag bears no fruit, either.
It’s a collection I’ve nurtured since eighth grade, since mp3s were a Thing that you could Have and Take With You. Somewhere, someone has bought a pair of boy-sized jeans from a Goodwill with a perfectly round outline of a stretchmark in the pocket, left by my orange, rubberized portable mp3-CD player. I was the hippest fucking kid on the school bus1.
Every day for a week, the class bully would ask me before I even sat on the green seat of the bus in the morning if he could listen to Daft Punk. Whenever I let him listen, I wouldn’t get it back until the bus pulled into the school lot. It was the nicest he ever was to me. He was a person, then.
The ambient loop is in the eighth octave. It’s plinky - echoing more than a sustain pedal on a piano would allow. It’s full of yellow sevenths, giving a twang of desperation to the quiet swelling of each nondescript phrase. It’s like breathing.
Sometimes bands in my mind that are discovered at the same time are lumped together as a single entity. Animal Collective was the same band as Annuals for a while. From Good Homes still bleeds over into Matt Pond PA. Radiohead is Helvetica: everywhere, not worth talking about anymore - bringing either up seems to make people bored these days. Doesn’t make them any less important, I suppose.
The guitar part is just three notes in a slow, lazy strum, complimenting the glass-like loop that may be in 7/8. A, E, G#. Green, yellow, and a darker yellow. Together they make green velvet against black milk, the backdrop always fluid, moving, in a hurry but not because it has someplace to go, but merely because it is liquid. Just present and moving. Present and moving.
One hundred fifty years ago if you wanted to hear a song, you had to procure a copy of the sheet music, hire musicians to learn it, and sit in attendance while they played it for you live. Now every song ever is a touch away. I keep using ‘tinysong’ as a verb. It doesn’t work, but my friends know what I mean.
The guitar resolves to the fourth, which isn’t really resolving at all. A, D, F#. Alone it’s plain drywall. Eggshell, or some comparably concise pantone nomenclature for “a type of white”. But when played atop the major seven chord it’s busy, woodgrain, black and darker black and porous and cool to the touch, like the plastic imitation wood used in the CD racks every grownup had in their living room in the 90s. Major-fourth-on-major-first has been my favorite dissonance as of late. Four on one. It shouldn’t be right, but I relish it.
Years from now, while traversing my library for an unrelated musical query, this song will play. Everyone in the room will be forced to be at once ecstatic and calm with me. Rapture will fill my eyes and fingers in this rediscovery, combating the tranquility of the song.
And it will be delicious.
No I wasn’t. ↩
I spent the night dancing with dingoes and dragons and tigers. My blood and face and clothes were both hot and cold from Kevin’s gin flask. He’d already gone up to bed, and Michael and I staggered across Pittsburgh at three in the morning to our respective rooms. I was excited about sleep.
“Is she alright?” I thought aloud upon seeing a lump of a blouse on her side on the grass outside the Double Tree. I knew that the faster I went to bed, the sooner the world would stop spinning. The adrenaline I willed into my veins kept me alert, reactionary and rambling.
The girl sat up. “Oh, good.” She smiled. She was pretty with black hair over face. Two sets of noodle straps, one black and one white, adorned her slender shoulders. She caught my gaze and patted the grass next to her, brushing the hair from her eyes while beckoning me to sit. “Hahah, no thanks dude, I’m good.” Mike and I had already shrugged off one beggar that night, and I was in full beeline mode: priority number one was Go To Bed. Immediately I regretted my reflexive dismissal of the nice-looking girl. Why did I call her “dude”? I passed through the revolving door and was on the elevator before it occurred to me that I could go back - Mike had his own room to get to, and my roommates were still partying. I should go back, I thought in the elevator. Go back to the girl in the grass. My drunken brain was unable to parse the suggestion before priority one was in my sight.
I sat in my bed with my laptop illuminating the room. The towels on the floor made the room smell like chlorine. I checked Twitter in a trance while trying to will away the energy preventing my body from sleeping away the exhaustion of another day filled with sparkling, shimmering creatures. I thought about that girl while not-reading the goings-on of people I know or wish to know, thought about going back and sitting next to her on the grass in front of the hotel. “Hi,” I’d say. “Hi,” she’d say back. We’d sit there, on the grass, staring at skyscrapers that stood like tree trunks whose leaves were unmoved by the dank breeze of the city. We would sit there while I slowly sobered up, her too, maybe, and I’d make another friend, another person to add to the list of people I desperately wanted to populate the rest of my life with.
I’ve never been afraid of talking to strangers. I’m never afraid of singing in the car when other drivers might see me. The chances of me ever meeting whoever saw me are practically zero. The chances of meeting said person with either of us recognizing the other is even smaller. If we were to meet without memories attached to the other person, then the event never happened. It wouldn’t be the same person as our first encounter if there are no experiences associated with one another’s face. For all intents and purposes, I think whenever someone cuts me off in traffic, or catches me swaying my hips to some tune in my head in the checkout line, I’ll never see you again for the rest of my life.
Last year, three thousand people were at this convention. There were more this year, probably.
I will never see that girl again for the rest of my life. I thought this while swaddled in my pocket of crisp hotel sheets, and for the first time in recent memory, the thought made me slump.
My roommates arrived soon after that. We breathlessly recounted the events that took place in the short period we spent apart before collapsing into our beds. There were still two whole days left, I thought, momentarily forgetting about the girl.
The low point of my trip was a moment’s regret in not talking to a stranger on the street.
Needless to say, it was a pretty special weekend.
Thanks for making it great, guys.
If the sound of my heels sliding on gravel didn’t turn their heads, the collision did: my forehead bounced once on the concrete before my cheek broke the second impact.
It didn’t knock me out. Nor did I feel surprised or alarmed. I anticipated the slip moments before it happened, but I failed to take action to minimize the damage. I laid there, ass in the air, while I calculated my next action.
Self-assessment, the doctors said. It’s a new thing. I still think it’s pointless, so I kept my old cron jobs at high priority, resulting in the newly-added process to take longer than it was designed to. My resources are better spent elsewhere.
I laid there relishing the sensation of pain on my skull and in my neck, cataloging the experience until my assessment completed. The cold pulses of discomfort starkly contrasted the warm blood pooling around my lips and ear.
A minute passed before I pushed onto my hands and knees. Gravity pulled my lips and face towards the browned sidewalk. I slid my tongue over my teeth and sat up, resting my ass on my heels, and looked around. Sitting upright seemed to be justification enough for the other pedestrians to not intervene. They unfroze, and resumed walking. I don’t blame them. I would have too.
I climbed to my feet, looking to the ground still - both to examine the fluid I’ve lost, and to keep any further fluid from landing on my shirt. After altering my course to the nearest service station, I too resumed walking.
I arrived ten minutes later. The blood on my forehead had yet to completely clot, but the bleeding had slowed enough that I was confident to stand upright without fear of ruining my blouse. I entered the garage’s entrance and a welder whistled, lifting his mask. He grinned around an expletive, then pointed me toward the door at the back of the garage.
Around the corner I sat in a dirty chair. The waiting room smelled like oil. Through the glass pane I could see other machines being serviced. One of them, a female, had her left arm completely removed. She stared at it blankly while her technician applied a magic wand to its exposed connectors. Blue sparks made her fingers spasm and clench.
A man was on his back behind her, raised 9.66 meters into the air. There were cables and intestines hanging below him. A little girl, perhaps 8 or 9, appeared to be braiding them. A potbellied man in a stained white jumpsuit supervised, nodding approvingly.
The little girl looked up and saw me through the window. She smiled. I smiled back, and saw fluid-stained teeth in my reflection. A large globule of blood dropped from my lip and landed on my blouse. The little girl giggled and resumed braiding.
Outside a car backfired. The machines jumped. The workers didn’t. Their organic eardrums no longer functioned at optimal levels thanks to the tools of their trade: drills. Saws. The roar of kilns. The technicians didn’t share the luxury of upgradeable parts. The did hard work with no reparations to its hazards. Still, they were happy to be here. Happy to be employed. Happy to be left alone.
A young woman in a pony tail snapped her fingers, loud enough for me to hear from the waiting room. She pointed at me through the glass then stuck her thumb over her shoulder, summoning me. I walked through the door, across the garage and towards where she stood. She inhaled through her teeth sympathetically while unfolding a metal chair for me.
“Had a nasty spill, didja?” she said, cigarette hanging off her mouth. She pulled a towel out of a plastic barrel and started wiping my face before I even sat down.
“Cron daemon priorities are all messed up.” I winced when her rag passed over the gash on my head, but immediately relaxed when the chair’s cool surface distracted my nerves.
“Apparently. Your equilibrium daemon up to date?”
I looked her over while I checked the changelog. She looked fit. Twentysomething. “Yeah, looks like it. I had better luck with the beta, I think, but that directory’s not public anymore.”
“Ah, probably an IP fuckall somewhere, I bet.”
It took me a full quarter second to parse that she meant not bandwidth or DNS errors, but patents. I nodded in agreement, and she blinked.
“You ain’t kiddin’ ‘bout your crons, are ya? Lie back, lemme poke around a bit.”
I put my hands on my knees and slumped in my chair. The cold metal pressed to my neck helped to distract from the pain even more than it did through my clothes. The repairwoman turned away briefly to pull a bus cable from her utility cart, then unhooked a bulky monochrome handheld from her belt. Her brow sullened once her scanner was interfaced.
“Hm. Your motor daemon doesn’t seem to be getting along with the latest assessment process. When’d you get that updated?”
“The doc did it for me,” I said. “I told him the one I had was just fine, but he wouldn’t let me leave until I upgraded.”
“Fuckin’ scam artists. Bet it cost a pretty penny to get it, too, dinnit?”
“More than that,” I laughed. “It took me half an hour before I got my blood pressure regulated again.”
She puffed on her cigarette and shook her head, reading the screen some more. “Fuckin’ scam artists,” she said again.
I looked to my left and saw the little girl from before standing on a stool. She was pulling one cable from the man’s back while another one lifted towards his spine, like a pulley. She was using so much of her body weight that her butt was practically on the concrete floor. When only a meter of looped intestine remained she jammed her fist on the lift controls in a practiced motion, and the man’s table lowered. She jammed another button and it stopped above her head. Then she gingerly tucked in the last of the roping hardware, folding it delicately between his spine and lungs. With a satisfied smile she put her hands on her hips, nodded, then turned to Potbelly. He beamed, and patted her on the head.
“There,” my technician said. “Found it.” She bent over with the screen turned towards me. “The new version of your assessment job kept booting your motor subprocess from the RTP resource. Looks like this version never learned to share before the vendor pushed it for sale.” She tapped her stylus on the screen a few times. “That should do it. I changed the permission settings on the resource. It’s flexible enough to be used by at least thirty processes - no idea why your self-assessment job decided he needed it all to himself.”
I smiled. She smiled back. “Oh you poor thing - here, let me get Len over here and he’ll clean you up, eh?”
“Thank you.” I sat up as she pulled the cable from my jawline free. She gave a playful salute while hopping back on her heels, then turned to whistle to a stick of a man across the garage. He perked, waved, and saw the wetwear tech beckon him over. After grabbing his clipboard he jogged over, narrowly avoiding a golf cart pushing spare parts across the garage. Its tiny trailer was full of limbs and cables, dirty with blood and oil. A thigh still connected to a hip was hanging over the edge, and it whirred and clicked while kicking in the air. Pink flesh was charred with burns where the knee should have been. It sounded old. Mechanical.
“Whatcha got, Jen?” The mechanic lifted a pair of swimming goggles from his eyes and snapped them onto his forehead. They looked like they use to be pink.
“This one here scraped her face pretty bad. You think we got some spare graft we can hook her up with?”
Len looked me over. I smiled, but not wide enough to expose my teeth this time. He was handsome. “Yeah, sure,” he said. “I got a pigment that’ll match close enough, I think. Be right back.” Len jogged around the table holding male model from before, who was lying face-down now. The little girl was up on the table with him, standing in a straddle over him while she stitched up his back.
On his way back from the skin-bin Len almost got taken out by the same golf cart from before.
“Yeah,” he huffed, catching his breath. “This oughta do it, I think.” He turned to Jen, proudly holding fistful of drooping flesh up to my face. “You?”
Jen looked up from her handheld and smiled. “Damn near perfect, I think.”
Len beamed. “Alright beautiful, let’s get you lookin’ right. You mind standin’ for me?” He offered his hand to help me rise to my feet. “Thanks. Alright, let’s get you cleaned up a bit before I graft— whoa!”
I fell back onto my chair, bounced once, then landed hip-first on the smooth concrete. Hard. It hurt.
“Whoa there girl, you alright?” Len scrambled towards me and reached for my arm. “Jen, get over here and take a look at her equilibrium cron and see if -“
“I’m fine.” I waved them off. “Really -“
“Naw sweetie,” Len said, grabbing my forearm. “That was clearly a problem. Just let Jen take another look-“
“I said I’m fine.” I sighed, then smiled up at them reassuringly. “It’s nothing. I just,” Len offered his arm and I hoisted myself up with a grunt. “I don’t trust this version of the assessment daemon the doc gave me, and I’m still trying to figure out how many cycles I want to give it.” Jen looked just as skeptical as Lem did. “I took too much away from my equilibrium cron that time is all. I’ve worked it out now, though.” I smiled again, brushing my hair from the sticky wound on my forehead. “I’m good. Promise.”
Len didn’t look convinced. “Alright,” he said, and nodded slowly. “Alright, if you say so.”
Jen crossed her arms with a smirk and shook her head. Len caught her eye and jerked his head to the side. She got the message, graciously bowed, and started walking backwards. “Okay. Well, you stay upright, girl, y’hear?”
“Thanks,” I said. “I will.” She snapped a finger gun at me before turning to walk towards some other emergency in the garage.
Len pulled another towel from the bin and started dabbing at my wound. I turned to look straight ahead, as if I was getting a haircut. I tried to stay still while resisting the urge to overcorrect minutiae movements. Though my eyes were staring straight ahead, Len was soon in front of them. His tongue stuck out a little as he concentrated.
“So…” He kept his eyes on his hands while he dressed my wound. “What’s your name?”
“Tam,” I said. “Tammeron.”
“Nice to meet you, Tam.” He smiled, still not really looking at me. He had a nice smile. “I’m Lenny.”
I felt my cheeks flush. “Hi Lenny,” I whispered. At only 11.1 decibels, I doubt he heard me above the 86.7 db buzz of the tablesaw 64.8 meters to my right. His smile widened, though, demonstrating that he’d seen me say it.
“Hi Tam.” He said back, then finally met my eyes. “What say you we getcha patched up then, eh?”
I pursed my lips and I smiled back, nodding. I’ll be damned if he sees my teeth still covered in blood, I thought.
Is criticism a suggestion on how to gear one’s work into being objectively good, or what appeals most widely to consumers?
“Objectively good” is a set of qualities established by the few whose creative output overcame the difficulty in creating what they aspired to create.
Put another way: is the criticism that you receive, whether it be for your music, writing, or even your performance at work, gearing you towards the popular end of the spectrum (in other words, pandering specifically to the interests of your critics), or towards becoming a “classic” (adhering to the rules set by the pre-MySpace era of makers or, alternately, the ISO Standard)?
Take typesetting, for example: Those few with access to the printing press established the guidelines of “taste” - not just the aestheticism and artistry, but the readability and practicality of both the end result (type) and of the process (the letterpress itself). They were the deciders of canon, what Best Practices should be used, what was acceptable and what wasn’t. There are rules for this sort of thing, they’d say. Not just any one can do the things we do, they said.
And then, well, MySpace happened, and suddenly everyone had a printing press, and everyone and their their mother rebelled by creating the most garish monstrosities they could dredge up in some sort of subversive protest.
Let’s take another example:
A band is insanely popular all over the world. They get extensive radio play, sold out concert venues, and multi-platinum record sales. Refusing to acknowledge their success is foolish, and if you claim to dislike them, you are accused of contrarianism. That is, not forming an actual opinion, but instead choosing to challenge or self-identify by the opposition of the general public’s opinion.
There are two possible explanations for this band’s success:
They are objectively good. The band acts as an organism that thrives in a studio, and its members create hit records by turning themselves inside out next to a microphone, exposing the artistry within them. They are beautiful people who need not embellish what they have the most fun doing before it is accessible by the rest of the world. They are objectively, innately, good at what they do.
Lowest common denominator. They create music specifically so that it sells. They are intelligent, but business-minded: they engineer pop music that will appeal to the masses at large. They have identified the lowest common denominator in popular music, and rehashed and tailored it until it was unique enough to build a brand upon.
There are, of course, gray areas. For example, when one band changes their sound from their first record to the next, obviously following popular trends so that they can stay alive as musicians without needing to go back to waiting tables, they are considered to have “sold out”.
If their sound is measurably improved with each additional resource garnered over their organic commercial growth, then they are “true artists” (whatever that means). But those are social variables - what I’m talking about is an artist’s absolute, measurable appeal. Art or work that is mathematically quantifiable as a “classic”, or the Golden Ratio of an aesthetic.
Try this: can you attribute the following bands’ success to their being objectively good, or by merely appealing to the lowest common denominator?
Well? What’s your knee-jerk reaction? And how much of that reaction is based on how you want to present yourself to the rest of the world, and how much of that is actual attraction or repulsion of those artists’ aesthetics? Is groupthink telling you to like or dislike it, or can you make the distinction of your own tastes without the cultural metadata attached?
Artists tend to be their worst critic, and there’s a very simple reason why: because they create art for themselves. When a designer makes something, they are trying to make something that they enjoy. “Would I hang this in my own house?” says the painter. “Would I listen to this song?” says the musician. And every time their answer is “No, I would not,” the artist is determined to learn more about and further develop their skill-set to achieve an output that adheres to their own personal aesthetic. That is how personal taste is formed.
But commercial art is a different beast. When the public decides that an artist’s output is no longer representative of their personal taste, that’s when they are considered inauthentic. If an artist’s misrepresentation - or inappropriately premature display - of their taste results in commercial success, all the other artists will call them “evil” - often publicly:
But [Kenny G] did show a knack for connecting to the basest impulses of the large crowd by deploying his two or three most effective licks (holding long notes and playing fast runs - never mind that there were lots of harmonic clams in them) at the key moments to elicit a powerful crowd reaction (over and over again).
According to Metheny, Kenny G is to jazz as Comic Sans is to design.
Perhaps the larger issue at hand is: are these two metrics, objective worth or commercial success, separate to begin with? Isn’t the objective of commercial art to be successful? What variables are at play when determining Radiohead’s success to be more or less earned, honorable or valid than Lady Gaga’s? If, out of everyone on the playing field, these players are the most appealing - how does one decide that their success was less “deserved”?
When someone breaks the rules and the results are popular, they are called visionaries. If someone breaks the rules and the results are unpopular, they’re called hacks and quickly fall into obscurity.
And, perhaps the most volatile, when someone breaks the rules, the results are popular, but someone decides that the public is somehow wrong for enjoying it… then who’s the loser?
So, how do we separate the bad ones from the good ones?
More importantly: how do you?
American Idol Syndrome
For a while, American Idol was my favorite sport. It’s still the favorite sport of a lot of Americans, because it has all the qualities of a good competition: protagonists, antagonists, referees and merchandise, favorites and underdogs.
After the first season, the show started digging into the lives of contestants. Before the 12 finalists were revealed, we were shown footage of the players’ hometowns. Viewers were given the resources to become emotionally invested in contestants that would eventually be our weekly entertainment. Sure, we saw mini-biographies of contestants who eventually didn’t make the cut, but the network made sure we had seen plenty of footage of the final round of contestants so that we cared about them when they arrived onstage. It’s drama.
We chose our picks and we rooted for them. And unlike Amateur Night at the Apollo, the audience never booed an off-key singer. Viewers appeared to finally be equipped with enough empathy to wish the best of every contestant, not just their own pick. I mean, totally great, right? American Idol was totally great.
When I watched the X-Games as a little kid, I saw competing skaters rooting for each other, even though they were all competitors. That was the first time I’d seen that kind of sportsmanship. I remember rooting for, along with the rest of the world, Tony Hawk to do the first ever 900. Even though the clock had run out, the crowd cheered him on - and after eight or nine failed attempts, all the other skaters put their hands on him, encouraging him to try it just one more time. And then he did it. And it was lovely - just fucking lovely. American Idol, in the beginning, felt like that: a community of genuine, happy, pretty people doing and encouraging each other to do genuine, happy, pretty things. That camaraderie among competitors was present from the beginning, and it was just great.
But then something happened: Fox introduced a flavor of schadenfreude to the show that encouraged - harvested, even - harsh, useless ridicule that has shaped the tone of a lot of media elsewhere.
Instead of culling for footage to give the viewers a sense of connection with future-finalists, producers realized that the most talked about events on the show were explosions of conflict. This is hardly some grand epiphany - reality television by definition is the voyeuristic spectacle of real life conflict, vicarious ups and downs of people who somehow seem to be more relateable, more genuine than the characters of a scripted soap opera. Of course, how genuine the conflict we end up seeing is debatable: Craig Ferguson demonstrates how basic film splicing can alter the tone of any conversation.
And besides, Big Brother is, what, 15 years old now? Like I said, this is hardly new. But this shameless embrace of schadenfreude, this pointing and laughing at the “other”, is something I’ve seen in a frightening amount of New Media like Gawker, LATFH and the plethora of FAIL blogs, to name a few. It’s a gag reel that’s as useful as it is tasteful - and it’s something that I can trace back to about the third season of American Idol.
I call this effect American Idol Syndrome.
“Dreadful. Absolutely dreadful.”
“Sorry, dawg, but it’s just not good.”
The shock on the faces of contestants when they’re told this speaks volumes. How did this happen? How did these people not know that they were so incredibly bad?
The answer is actually quite simple: they were lied to. These contestants were lied to by every single person in their life whose opinions they respect. They were so convinced by their family, by their friends and teachers and classmates, that they went all the way to open auditions thinking - believing that they were going to go far - because they were lied to. So effectively, so convincingly, that they waited in line for hours - days, even! - to show off their talent to anyone that would listen.
Eventually, though, these contestants would perform in front of one particular set of judges. And these judges, unlike everyone else before them, won’t lie.
Which makes for some fucking great television.
“Awful. Absolutely terrible. That is quite possibly the worst performance I have ever seen.”
Producers and lower-tier judges leverage these contestants’ poor performances by graduating them to the next tier, shouting Great! Wonderful! You might be the next American Idol, producers said. You totally graduate to the next round!
And around season three, Fox discovered that nothing gets ratings like Simon making some kid cry on camera. Suddenly, no longer was American Idol about hope and joy, showcasing the genuine talent of lovely, (mostly) humble performers. Now it was a show about bullying and tears, filled with more crushed spirits than a Tolkien novel.
In the same spirit we, as a culture, embrace ridicule as a pastime. We encourage the public humilation of those we deem “less fortunate”. It promotes not charity or self-improvement, but pointing, laughing and then continuing on your way. That itself is pretty shitty, right? But even more insidious, I think, is the lies, this social acceptance of coddling. The American promise of You can do anything, Don’t listen to the naysayers.
Don’t tell me what I can’t do!, Locke screamed from his wheelchair. And everyone cheered.
This terrifies me. This terrifies me like nothing else in the world. I’m terrified that throughout my life, despite whatever I might’ve been told to the contrary, I am actually terrible at everything. I’m terrified that all my friends and family think that they’re just “being nice” by “encouraging me to do what I love”, and all that other bullshit. I’m terrified how it’s become socially acceptable to lie to people to their face about their strengths and weaknesses. It’s not about tact: it’s about the removal of any and all friction. Shouldn’t everyone be terrified of this?
So here’s my request to everyone, particularly to anyone whose opinions I respect enough to befriend: If I am shit at something - at anything, in any way shape or form - fucking tell me. Tell me immediately. Make me cry before I make a fool of myself in front of people that aren’t my friends. I promise that it’ll only make me want to do better.
And I hope that you recognize that when I tell you that you’re shit - and I assure you it will be in the kindest, most constructive way possible (please don’t misconstrue this as an attempt to give myself a free “Be a Dick” pass) (I’m really quite rubbish at being a dick anyway, it’s actually kind of hilariously sad) it’s because I love you and I truly think that doing the opposite - that telling you that you’re a unique snowflake who can live your dreams no matter what they are (which is dangerous career advice for any one) - is not only a disservice to you, but is one of the most unkind things I could ever do to someone that I care about.
If everyone were constructive and honest and nice about the reality of any one person’s ability in anything, I think a lot of problems would get solved. It’d create a few problems, too, but I think that it would solve a lot more.
When something I’m doing is shit, tell me it’s shit.
When I’m doing something shitty, call me on my shit.
And, most importantly, tell me how I can fix my shit.
Because the last thing I ever want to be is cocksure.
I see sounds.
Describing how I perceive music in so many words is still a struggle for me. The inadequacy in saying that I “see” sounds, how there’s no word in my lexicon of descriptors for how it really works in my head, the need for these words, is only as new as my knowledge of how unique it is. Each attempt to describe it feels like sparring, words and I, in a match arduous and stubborn. We’re both stubborn - the words in their elusiveness and me, determined as I am to find them. The fight is tiresome and exhilarating.
The assignment was to write a paper about a unique phenomenon or disease or disorder or malfunction of some sort - a project ostensibly designed to build empathy. The course was held in one of the carpeted classrooms of my school, so it couldn’t have been a Science or Biology class. Social Studies, maybe. A girl with not-black hair whose name I don’t remember went to the front of the room, wearing jeans and no glasses. She was bright. I liked her.
She wrote her paper about a phenomenon called synesthesia, where neurons carrying data from the input of a perceptive sense crosses paths with another sense’s pipeline on its way to the brain’s processing center, resulting in a “mixing” of the senses - touch, smell, sight, etc. Sense-signals are delivered to the wrong decoding facility, basically.
One form of this phenomenon, she said, was sound-to-color synesthesia, in which some or all auditory information is sent not just to the hearing-center of the brain, but to the visual center as well, which in this case results in every sound having a unique color.
“Wait, wait, wait,” I said, interrupting her - it was a pretty informal class - “you mean everyone doesn’t have that?”
Fear and Hate
Rands is one of my very favorite people on the Internet. Earlier today he tooted the following:
I, respectfully, disagree. I think Rands may be confusing fear with hate - which itself is an extension of fear.
Fear is involuntary.
Fear is an evolutionary process that helps us differentiate between the potentially-dangerous, potentially-edible and potentially-fuckable. Fear is a reaction: “Oh no! A new thing with which I am unfamiliar!”, or “Oh no! A thing that I have previously encountered that resulted in unpleasantness in the past!” What one does with that fear is another beast entirely.
I’m not nitpicking for the sake of contrarianism - I genuinely think it’s irresponsible to not acknowledge the biology of emotions and the human brain in general, both for interpersonal relationships and general happiness. The brain has a reason for every signal it sends - and deciding between acting on or ignoring these signals is a learned skill that benefits the lives of managers, engineers, artists and athletes alike.
That said, embracing and/or confronting your fears has become as much of a business-world trope as being “fearless”. The act of being afraid is something that occurs outside your control, but its results can be conquered or quelled. The act of worrying, however, is something entirely within one’s control - and worrying is useless.
Either act, or don’t. But don’t whinge.
I was a strong-willed kid who didn’t like being sick. And refused — vehemently — to take medication. My parents tried every trick in the book and I fought back with new ones.
Eventually, after all of their cajoling and threatening and bargaining didn’t pay off, they took me to the doctor in the hopes that this figure of authority would tell me I had to.
[…] Here’s what the doctor said:
“You don’t have to take the medicine. But then you don’t get to complain.”
I took the medicine. It was worth it not to have to stop complaining.
Those who complain without action - even through an ostensibly harmless passive-aggressive toot - are people that I don’t have time for. Which brings me to my counter-assertion to Rands’ toot:
Hate, not fear, is a decision.
When your fear manifests as repulsion and avoidance, it’s reasonable to argue that this too is an act of self-preservation. But the definition of hate is the accumulation and acknowledgment of select memories and opinions that are more negative than positive. When you are afraid of something, that is a preliminary reaction. When you hate something or someone, you are choosing to act on that fear. More on that “choice” part in a moment.
Everything that exists in your life has at one point rendered an experience or memory in your mind. What you choose to canonize about any person or thing or idea or event is just that: a choice. I’m not suggesting hopeless optimism, or selective memory for the purpose of making you or your life appear better than it really is where real change would be beneficial - nor am I condoning the repeated tolerance of unbearable, toxic people. Hate is what occurs after you’ve decided that your fear of something that’s new or different from yourself is something that should remain and dictate your actions.
“Well, relationships are all about a shared history, right? If that’s forgotten, all that’s left is a stranger.”
“That’s true. You can’t really love OR hate someone without at least knowing enough about them to inspire that emotion in the first place!”
“So to really hate someone, I have to put in at least SOME effort into making the memory of why I hate them in the first place.”
When you say that you hate something, you have made a decision to be unhappy.
Think about that for a moment. If you say that you hate something, you’re saying that you have and will continue to allow something or someone make you unhappy.
If you have a friend that makes you feel like shit, you don’t let them keep making you feel like shit, do you? So why should you let anything else in the world make you feel like shit? Either change it, change yourself, or instead choose to be happy elsewhere.
Yes, I am quoting a webcomic about dinosaurs but Ryan North is one of the smartest people I know of so shut it. ↩
A large portion of the music I listened to in 2008 was spawned from the Helvetica soundtrack.
Sam Prekop (Helvetica track listenable here) is one of the artists on that compilation, and just recently I learned of a band he is in called Sea & Cake. This track in particular I want listen to on headphones on repeat while lying on my back in a room with those carpeted-concrete floors that were never really that comfortable, industrial but presentable and dirty but intimate and authentic and practical and hell on your backbone and shoulderblades when you’re trying to get a quick nap in the band room before the busses arrive for the next competition in whatever city this week’s marching band competition was in.
I met the members of El Ten Eleven in a dive bar adjacent to one of my favourite concert venues in Ohio - they were very kind, and encouraging and humble when after their show I told them that they were equal parts inspiring and soul crushing in their display of talent and joy in music making.1 There were only 30 or so skinny white boys in the crowd that night, and my drinking buddy (also the owner of this delicious spawn) and I were right up at the front of the tiny little stage. In between each song it was dead quiet, everyone present evidently such fans of the two performers on stage that their excitement after applause was displayed through stunned, rapturous attention to the stage to see and hear how these sounds were made from just these two people (answer: double neck Gibson and a loop pedal.2). In an attempt to break the strange tension created by the shoe gazing white boys shiftily standing before delightfully bouncy math rock I had muttered “Reaganomics!” at the trailing end of a round of applause. The band heard me and laughed, commenting on it, saying “That’s great! Who said that, that’s awesome” and I just grinned some, but didn’t raise my hand or anything because, man, skinny white boys be judgmental like skinny white boys be and I didn’t want anyone to think that I was trying to be the “outrageous” guy at a concert, even though muttering such a thing, trite and tiny as it was, was clearly the action of someone trying to be “outrageous” in a public setting in this particular instance, at least in comparison with everyone else there, so I never really identified myself and just shifted a little where I stood, grinning until the corners of my mouth were shaking because in tandem with the liquor I was genuinely happy to be here, in front of these musicians I admired so, and now having made them laugh, even anonymously, filled me with more joy than it should have, probably, and I had been grinning all night already, so much and so long that my entire face hurt but in that cathartic way that makes you think, This pain is a direct result of being happy, This is a good pain to be thankful for, Remember this pain in your cheeks and your temples and your teeth, Remember and associate it with all the other times that your face hurt from prolonged genuine grinning, and while standing there in front of them I secretly hoped that my utterance would become a story that they tell other bands they go on tour with, or a story they tell on stage while tuning a guitar in between songs in some far off city.
There were a couple of drone-y electronic songs on the aforementioned soundtrack, one of which was Motohiro Nakashima’s “Meow” that I had 4-starred, which means “Download More” in my iTunes library3. The album that track belonged to was fairly nice, and I was searching for more places to get some of this guy’s (girl’s?) stuff, and upon further googling, I found someone had upped an album of his/hers that I hadn’t been able to find on Amazon or iTunes).
And it’s basically The Loveliest.
Which I suppose is the opposite of the rudest.
I sent the download to a friend of mine and told him such, complete with reference followed by the accompanying link for reference to which I was speaking (which was in turn a reference to yet something else), and then commented to him how difficult for me it is to imagine a world in which obscure references died in obscurity, rather than propagate through exposing the source of it after mere seconds of inquiry, and the original intent of this post was to say just how great it is to be able to have access to and share information with anyone, instantly, forever, and how the unit of measure, the modicum of encapsulation of all bytes, memes, whatever of information can be from a second-hand account, at worst.
Which, in turn, reminded me of this:
[The Tuyuca language] requires verb-endings on statements to show how the speaker knows something. Diga ape-wi means that “the boy played soccer (I know because I saw him)”, while diga ape-hiyi means “the boy played soccer (I assume)”. English can provide such information, but for Tuyuca that is an obligatory ending on the verb. Evidential languages force speakers to think hard about how they learned what they say they know.
— Difficult Languages, The Economist — which is sadly now-paywalled which I guess kinda detracts from my “information is freely available everywhere these days” bit, but there ya go.
“Nono, I bet someday we’ll be opening for you!” That’s what he said to me! I mean, good gracious, just how lovely those two were, I can’t say enough. Also they had a very lovely merch girl who gave me a discounted shirt because I had spent all my cash on bourbon. ↩
“Sheer badassery” would also have been an acceptable answer. ↩
I have several smart playlists populated by rated songs, with the 5 starred tracks being sorted into “Completely Great”, and the remaining ratings into “Download More”, “Revisit!”, “Fix Metadata”, and “Yuck”, respectively). ↩
My mother moved again. This means she needs someone not-her to move furniture. This weekend’s not-her was, as is usually the case, me.
She had classical music playing on the television when I walked in. It stayed on as I moved couches, lifted potted plants, hung blinds and wrestled with the butcher slab that has been around my whole life. It’s been missing a leg for nearly a decade. It’s finally on the curb.
It was a good table.
Listening to classical music, I could hear where all the musicians were emulating what was on the page. That’s when there was a crescendo, I’d think. They’re trying to be mezzo-piano, but that second trumpet is a little too eager.
There be staccatos all up in there.
I’m no longer able to parse joy from classical music. I dissect it critically, and only hear the interpretation of the song - not the intent of the song’s composer.
A friend of mine once told me that when he goes to a concert, he wants the band to play their songs exactly like the album versions. I can understand that. He’s a systematic person who wants to see how this music happens, to feel it on his face as he stands there witnessing it first hand.
I prefer the opposite.
I think too many musicians feel obligated to give a completely predictable performance. “I made this song,” they say. “The album version is canon. Any deviation from this is no longer the same song.”
Academic music programs reinforce this notion from grade school. “Play this song how it was intended to be played,” they say. “What’s written on the page is canon. If you don’t play what’s on the page, you’re playing it wrong.”
After 15 years of rehearsals and recitals and concertos and competitions - I’ve decided that I really, really hate that.
Music is as fluid as humans are fleeting. Playing a logarithmic retelling of the same story will get old very quickly. I respect Broadway performers tremendously, as they aren’t allowed the artistic freedom to deviate from the pre-determined plot, which must be performed impeccably, passionately, every single performance - sometimes for years.
I’m no longer interested in classic plays or old movies. I’d rather go to an improv show. I don’t want to hear Tchaikovsky’s Thirteenth Whatever again. I’ve heard it all my life. It’s original context is lost. When we hear Public Domain Concerto #29 we think of Christmas, or of a jewelry commercial, or of an old cartoon. All of these shared memories are sometimes destructive to art, I think. Everyone agreeing that this thing is a happy thing, that’s great. Everyone agreeing through sheer commercial conditioning that this song is now associated with a product or a brand, that’s terrifying to me. Having other people decide what this thing that a person made for his or her own reasons should be associated with is what art has been reduced to in popular culture. Classical music, with its convenient lack of licensing fees, has been perverted this way. All of the contexts of the agreed-upon “greats” have been decided for us before we’ve even heard the song.
I’d rather go to a jazz show and watch people make something on stage - something that’s never been made or seen or heard before. I want spontaneity. I want tangibility. I want conversation.
When I go to a concert, I don’t want to hear a mechanical recreation of a four hundred year old pop song. I want to hear you.
You, the person standing in front of me.
You, alive - alive! living! breathing! thinking! - with thoughts and feelings and memories and experiences and stories and gestures. You are infinitely more interesting to me. There are two decades of memories and experiences in my head - and you have that many - probably more! - that are completely different that mine. I want to hear what you, a person both complete and completely sovereign from me, have to say.
I want your brain splattered on the stage. Not Schumaker’s. Not even Mozart’s. I’ve heard and played Mozart all my life. You, though - you I’ve just met.
I can’t wait to meet you.
I’ve only ever been in orchestras and symphonies and choirs and shit where the objective is to perform an exact replica of what the composer of a piece has tried to represent on the page.
I’m getting serious about music again after a long while, and while I greatly admire and am somewhat guilty of idolizing singer-songwriters like Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens, Sondre Lerche, Bon Iver, St. Vincent and so on and so forth, the concept of a band - a collective that exists together to make music, is something that I’ve never had the pleasure of trying.
Being like the aforementioned acts and conceiving a piece of music from beginning to end, then auditioning for a touring band is what I always imagined - or, rather, fantasized - what I’d do someday. But the concept of being in a band, being in a room full of people who are all trying to make a new sound, and everyone in the room eventually all agreeing what the sound is and ought to be - that’s magical to me.
My favourite bands, you can hear the chemistry of them. You can hear how they act as an organism, their group think, the hivemind, no words needed much more than “here, listen to this” and then one dude joins in then another and an hour later they finish, they’ve made it, this thing, from all of their brains collaborating on this new original thing.
Sometimes you can hear the band having fun while recording (Matt & Kim). Other times you can hear all the history, where all the revisions and cuts were made as they worked to write their opus, something specific needed to be engineered from the ground up to express what’s in their mind(s) (Flaming Lips, Radiohead), and other times you can tell it was just the second or third take and magic just happened (Elbow, Spoon).1
I know that there’s drama. And I know that there will always be disagreements. But to find a room full of people - or just one or two others - whose musical tendencies aren’t necessarily similar to one another, but complement one another, and perhaps even challenge one another, and then get them all to sit in a room and Make - together - that’s magic.
I think I wanna start a band.