By Daniel van Voorhis –
“What came first – the music or the misery? Did I listen to the music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to the music?” Rob Gordon in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity
I often find my mood regulated by the playlist that I am listening to at the time. I sometimes wonder if these are manufactured feelings and somehow less than sincere, or if by listening to a range of musical modes I am able to tap into emotions that I might otherwise bypass for artificial feelings I find easier to cope with. My own psychology tends towards listening to sad songs on late nights (Damien Jurado, Tom Waits, etc…).
I recently watched the HBO documentary “Montage of Heck” about the life of Kurt Cobain as well as the HBO documentary “Sonic Highways” about the history of music and recording through the eyes of the Foo Fighters. While the latter was far superior (more content and story than pathos), both made me think about the nature of the artist as both prophet and jester. Are we being responsible consumers of popular culture if we reward those who suffer, and are we possibly encouraging them with our dollars to suffer more for our aesthetic tastes?
While Kurt Cobain and others serve as cautionary tales for drugs, fame, depression, etc… we might consider the nature of our engagement and gawking at these cautionary tales and their music for our own catharsis. And it’s not just Cobain, Amy Winehouse, etc… but also goes back to Mozart and Beethoven, Berlioz and Billie Holiday (and if you begin to list the visual artist or authors, the list would go on and on). The artist is often slightly more attuned to certain emotions and able to create a template that is particular enough to them, but broadly relatable to the masses.
Granted, sometimes it is all manufactured from artist to consumer. However, there are those various artists that come about only a few times in a generation that create such a following by digging deep into their own (often dark souls) that reality soon imitates art.
I found myself the other night reading David Foster Wallace (who committed suicide after years of writing about depression, existential struggle and suicide) while listening to Elliot Smith (about whom I had recently read an article; see below for the link).
Elliott Smith broke into the national spotlight for a very brief moment in the late 90’s. He was nominated for an Oscar for Best Song (Miss Misery) off his soundtrack for Good Will Hunting. I remember watching him, in a white suit, pick his guitar and sing uncomfortably under the lights. I think he was introduced by Charlize Theron or someone (I’m sure the internet could answer this question). Elliott Smith was from the midwest, but broke through in the Portland scene in the early 90’s. Unlike so many of the overly self-aware college rock heroes, Smith kept to himself. He didn’t keep to himself like a preening, troubled introvert. He was troubled by personal demons. His ballads played like warm, comfortable lullabies with a hint of a monster under the bed. When he died under mysterious circumstances about a dozen years ago, the media wrote paeans to the man they barely covered, save as a curious oddity from the 90’s alternative scene. A dozen or so years after his death, we still lack any official biography or well-crafted story of his exceptional life, troubled mind, and lyrical depth. Of all the “in memory” articles that have littered the deep internet of rabid fandom, pitchfork.com nailed it with the best piece I’ve read on Smith. It is an oral history that tells just enough of the story as is responsible and doesn’t revel in the dark details for their own sake. Check it out. Interspersed in this article are audio clips of his music, so even if you are unfamiliar with his work, you can still get something out of it. Click Here to read the article.
Elliot Smith is just one story of the troubled artist, but in our age of faux-emo, “Hot Topic” shopping poseurs, and nouveau-goth kids, it might be worth asking the questions: how do we manipulate our own emotions via music and the arts? Is it socially responsible to encourage the production and dissemination of this kind of art? Ultimately, our answers cannot be definitive and we probably don’t know enough about the individuals to understand what they were going through when they produced their body of work. But maybe, as we engage with these artists for aesthetic reasons while we also ask these questions, it might help us empathize with the hurting and the broken. It might help us connect, on some level, with the pain and brokenness in ourselves. It might help us be sincere, wear our heart on our sleeve, and fight the twin cultural enemies of narcissism and irony.
All the Best,
The Man About Town
Written while listening to: Either/Or by Elliot Smith (1997)