Some thoughts on grief and its treatment in songs

My very close friend Adam just wrote a very candid and thoughtful post in his blog about his ongoing process of grief and remembrance of his sister, who died when we were both in the eighth grade. I remember this time very vividly, not least of all because my own father had died three years earlier. When my friend was faced with his own tragedy, as different as the circumstances of our losses were–my father had had ongoing medical problems–I still related very deeply to him, perhaps sensing that despite these dissimilarities he would understand better than anyone else around me what I had suffered and continued to suffer. I journaled and wrote poems, sharing many of these with Adam. I have sometimes felt ashamed or selfish for having taken a tragic event in his life as an occasion to revisit my own pain, although I’ve forgiven myself somewhat for that, realizing that probably some unconscious part in my 14-year-old self recognized that I still had a lot of healing left to do, healing that perhaps could not have happened at 11, and sprung at the opportunity.

There’s a lot more that I could say about my own long process of grief, which, despite being able to live a rich and satisfying life and consider myself a whole person, I am not certain will ever be done. But what I realized reading Adam’s honest reflection was how superficial and therefore inadequate treatments of grief are in our cultural canon. It’s true that mourning is a deeply personal process and often a very private one, but there’s a fine line between that and secrecy or shame. As far as the medium with which this blog is primarily concerned, songs about the death of a loved one are far less common than those of romance or heartbreak, and with a much more restricted range of acceptable responses, even though I’m inclined to think that the former is the more universal experience.

For my own part, I’ve written dozens of love songs, but only recently have begun to write about my father, despite never having stopped being emotionally affected by his death over the past fifteen years. Part of that is that I want to make sure I get it right, and my relationship to this fact of my life keeps changing. But this isn’t a reservation I have about other people in my life whom I’m moved to write about: I’ve written a song to a lover during our time together, another when it ended and a third when we became close friends again.

Considering, as Adam does, the obligations that I have to myself and/or others who are still alive, it seems imperative that I should write about my loss. I’ve stressed in my past few entries that I consider music to be my contribution to the world: to be more specific, my duty as a songwriter is to render my experiences so that others might be be able to give their pain a shape and a name and realize that these struggles are not theirs alone. The insufficiency of the current body of work addressing this experience seems to demand that I should add my voice, trusting that someone will find themselves in it. Perhaps the most important function of art is to recognize and validate, both to ourselves and to society, feelings about which we might otherwise feel ashamed.

Some thoughts about Amanda Palmer’s thoughts about how fans support artists

I’m going to play to my small blog audience here and post again with regard to Amanda Palmer, who in addition to being a stellar songwriter and performer has some pretty interesting ideas about the music industry and ways in which artists can be supported by their followers and keep doing what they do (more here as well). My overall response is that I quite appreciate that she’s breaking new ground, creating new models, and that I don’t object to anything she’s doing (even though I, despite being a fan, have no interest in buying photos dug out of a shoebox somewhere). Her emphasis on building relationships with fans and thus feeling justified in unabashedly asking for support (and having to strike that delicate balance) actually reminds me a lot of nonprofit fundraising. I do believe that she deserves every bit of support and material reward that she’s getting: because she’s given so much of such great value to so many; because I take her at her word that she’s not living lavishly; and because I believe that she will ‘re-invest’ it in her art.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how a society should support artists. To me, art and entertainment (let me for a moment blur the aesthetic distinction between the two, and ignore the latter’s transformation in our consumerist society) are positively fundamental to the spiritual well-being of a community, and I become outraged anytime I consider how little support artists receive in ours. It seems absurd that artists are expected to work full-time day jobs and cram their expression into all the other hours of the day and night. Romantic though this might seem to some, I believe this prerequisite of suffering and, again, self-sacrifice is a recipe for creative burnout; pursuing one’s dream becomes inextricably linked with drudgery. It bears repeating that I am not opposed (or a stranger to) to hard work, and in fact I believe every able individual should be devoted to lifelong service. But that’s just what art is: service. Of course, not every would-be artist has talent, and there are some very talented artists who fuck around and shouldn’t necessarily be given a free pass. So maybe even hardworking artists should volunteer a reasonable number of hours a week at their community organization of choice, doing something objectively and tangibly beneficial. But the notion of having to have a ‘real’ forty hours a week job to be considered a legitimate citizen is preposterous; across corporate America every day there are millions of respectable workers not doing a fraction of the good that artists are doing to enrich and improve our world.

But this isn’t really what I meant to rant about. Let’s read a little excerpt from Amanda:

it’s also not a matter of whether an artist is starving or cruising on a yacht.
i would hate to see my fans turn on me once i actually have money in the bank with a “well, i would support you if you were starving, but now that you’re eating, no way.”
fuck that.
accept a new system.
feel ok about giving your money directly to paul mccartney. he may be rich, but he still rocks. show you care.
feel ok about giving it to fucking lady gaga if you’ve been guiltily downloading her dance tracks for free.
rejoice in the fact that you are directly responsible for several threads in her new spandex spacesuit.
it shouldn’t matter.
it’s about empowerment and it’s about SIMPLICITY: fan loves art, artist needs money, fan gives artist money, artist says thank you.

I don’t agree with all of that. Well, hang on: I do believe that artists deserve not only to be supported by the community, but also at more than a subsistence level. I certainly wouldn’t want to be Amanda Fuckin’ Palmer, paying my dues in a serious way for a decade, only to find that the more fans I get, the thinner the support gets, the more diminishing the returns. I do believe that for an artist like her, clearly creating something of great value to a large number of people, deserves to live comfortably enough to focus on art most of the time. (Perhaps at a certain point the ten-hours-of-volunteering-a-week is waived?) However, I object to the capitalistic notion that I feel is implicit here, that the number of people willing and able to pay your price for your product (the demand) is intrinsically equivalent to the amount of material return you are entitled to.

Here’s something that one of her responders said, and her follow-up:

i noticed lots of people commented apologizing “i’d love to give you money but i’m a poor student/artist/bastard”….

this is important:
i would never begrudge anyone who can’t give me money. never.

I appreciate that, but I would take it one step further: I would never want anyone to deny themselves my art because they didn’t have the money, or even because they didn’t feel like that was their priority. I create art for myself, yes, but I am a working artist because it’s what I give to the world. People who appreciate my art deserve to have it, even if they can’t or don’t want to pay for it. I’m serious. You know how many Tom Waits albums I own? Three. I love Tom Waits; I want to have his entire collection, to enjoy, to be inspired by (in art and in life), to share with others. You know why I don’t have the entire collection? Of the three albums I have, two of them I acquired the ‘honest’ way. Lemme ask you this: do you think Tom Waits, Shareef Ali, or anybody else benefits from the fact that I’m not able to buy his albums?

Anyway, Amanda is certainly right on that each artist needs to find their own way that is comfortable and effective for them. I’d say that my challenge will be to find a way to ask for support from my followers in a way that doesn’t dissuade people from enjoying the music even if they have nothing to give in return. One thing that’s tricky is that it’s a lot more challenging to leverage people who really could help out a little bit in a trust-based system such as this. There’s an analogy I could draw here about the models of private enterprises in public-oriented sectors, like education, versus non-governmental organizations, but it’s sort of an unnecessary tangent to an already rambling post. Plus, you’re smart folks; you get where I’m going with that, right?