15 September 2012

First Strangers

People, when they meet me, do not typically suspect that I am a performer. Which is all for the best, really — what a pretentious and demanding thing to be, a performer.

You feel that way, at least, before you have become famous. If you are famous it will probably be accepted that you are giving a gift to or at least making a fair exchange with the audience by performing—performing for them. Before you are famous, you may feel continually that you are performing at them, taking advantage of their hospitality. Stop showing off, sing the ghosts of the schoolyard if you are prodigiously talented; sit down and shut up, if you are anything less.

This is the smalltime music-scene space I currently inhabit, and maybe always will. And maybe this space is not so small, and its boundaries will keep stretching even if I should ever approach them: the current omnipresence of the Kickstarter model for arts funding means that it is expanding, this band-as-charity, consumer-as-philanthropist feeling.

But at first we are all performing for each other. There is this economy of showing up. Joseph was talking about a pair of friends outside of the music scene who have attended a number of our shows. "It's too bad," he said. "I wish they had something I could go support." According to this system of values, attending someone's show both is a virtuous thing to do and may get you another body in the audience when you perform again. Pleasure may or may not factor into your decision to attend.

When I get onstage, I am trying to convince myself that it does (even if, the moment I step offstage, I feel that I have probably wasted everyone's time and goodwill and ought to quit). "People pay to see others believe in themselves," said Kim Gordon, writing in Artforum in 1983. As a concertgoer, I know this is certainly true. So I try to do that (though, to be a little more precise, it's really only about believing in myself as an acceptable vehicle for the music we are making. Somebody has to do the job. Here I am).

People are sometimes surprised to learn that I am a performer because I am not at all outgoing. Given the instructions to work a room I would get about as far as the nearest emergency exit. My specialties are the silent nod, the demurely appreciative laugh, the gaze inadvertently darting past my interlocutor's shoulders to find an escape route. This is with people I like reasonably well; I have caught my panicked brain automatically generating excuses to get out of a chance conversation with someone whom I'd positively hoped to get to know, musing on the matter in my solitude. And it is not just that, say, I love music so deeply as to overcome my shyness, because I was an actress in high school; I competed in poetry slams; I volunteered for every class and camp skit; I still make the occasional no-budget video with friends and post it online. It is an actual drive.

I won't claim I'm immune to the desire for praise and attention, but I think being shy has itself fueled my taste for performing. If a social butterfly wants to spend time with a bunch of people and feel the fact of her existence connect with theirs, she can go to a bar or a party and do just fine. Performing is a way to be in a room full of people without the burden of social interaction. There is a script—if not literally, then a set list at least, or a clear task at hand. There is no need to justify your presence in the room. The art you perform may make that argument or fail to, but it does not tax your interpersonal skills. (I used to try to develop a bit of stage banter before going on, but more and more I feel that it is not what I'm up there to do, and leave it to chance or cut it out entirely. For the same reason, I wouldn't stand up there and tap dance.) Likewise, I can't really handle elevator conversation at work but have no problem leading a meeting or speaking up in brainstorming sessions. The role assigned to me then is clear, and any anxiety I may have upon getting into costume is simple stage fright, nothing more serious or existential.

This month marks our third anniversary as a performing band, and it's only now, this past season, that everything is beginning to consistently feel right. It still takes me a few songs to find my sea legs. (At the gig of my dreams, we'd be playing for about fifteen minutes before they'd open the doors to let everyone in.) But after that it's possible to relax a little, almost have fun. I don't mean that it feels natural yet, or easy, but I can trust that the music will be there for my voice and my fingers to fall into. I'm one of many parts moving in a machine, not frantically and shakily building the machine in midair as I play. (None of us is an improviser at heart, I need hardly say.)

We've also started to notice a (small) number of people who listen to our music not out of the goodness of their hearts, but because, astonishingly enough, they like it. I am embarrassed to say what a triumph this seems. But we have made a long investment in something entirely untested, and though we've enjoyed the process enough not to count it as a loss no matter what, these strangers we've reached feel like the first true returns.

When celebrities gush about how they're "grateful to their fans," the instinct is to roll one's eyes, but for all I know it could be sincerely uttered every time. The kindness of strangers upon which we depend consists in their ability to make us believe that they are not doing us a kindness at all; our occasional doubts are accompanied by a rush of gratitude. Every person who turns to your art for pleasure advances the process of your redemption for having dared to perform, your transformation from someone who demands and demands into someone with something to give.

04 September 2012

Some Words on Failure

Right now I am reading Judith Halberstam's The Queer Art of Failure, after a long wait for it from the library. It is an okay read; I am skimming more than I should. I think this is a case where the underlying idea seems so inevitable that, once it has finally been expressed, the expression itself can come off as rather dull, almost trivial. (It may also be that Halberstam's writing moves with not much more grace than most academic prose, piquant subject matter aside.) But then I check this reaction a little, remembering that I am probably more disposed toward failure than most people, more likely to find it natural and self-evidently important.

By which I don't mean that it's more likely to be my destiny (though, sure, that too). But the art and the stories and the modes of life that keep my interest tend to come with some negativity built in. The records that buoyed me through the gray late winter were the Mountain Goats' Tallahassee and of Montreal's Paralytic Stalks, two narratives of flamboyant despair that anthemically proclaim "I hope you die, I hope we both die" and "I made the one I love start crying tonight / And it felt good." The kind of music I put on and thoughtlessly hum along to until whoever else is with me suddenly tunes in and stops and stares with concern. Until this point it has seemed that I am, if not nice, at least well-behaved and appropriately invested in maintaining a positive attitude. Now something has been called into question. 

I tend to forget that my particular brand of deep-seated skepticism is not necessarily the human condition. This startles me again and again. During college, noticing the mellowing of my personality and convictions, I began to assume that I would be pretty well aligned with the mainstream once I graduated from my mountain cloister and rejoined it. This assumption thudded to the beer-slicked sidewalk the first time I walked down Clark Street on the night of a Cubs game, having just arrived in Chicago. Taken a few at a time, they would have been a perfectly digestible part of the greater world I expected was somewhere outside my door, but the sheer numbers of these blonde and ball-capped persons having the time of their lives in a noisy hell forced me to revisit my status as the alienated weirdo I had always been.  

In the business of being an alienated weirdo, I have often come up against lives that are more strongly guided by the capitalistic imperative of growth and progress (if only implicitly; one senses that their owners half-observe its quiet motions as they do the streetlights turning on every evening, only ever registering that something must have happened). Reactions to these collisions have ranged from incomprehension to offense. There have been, of course, the teachers aggravated by the fact that the specter of bad grades could not convince me, young Bartleby, to do an assignment I found fundamentally flawed. The people, often for some reason in the self-evidently virtuous field of medicine, who are frankly annoyed by the apparent uselessness of my pursuits, which in addition to not making much money do not even seem fun.

Or there are the genially mystified ones like my father, upon whom, after a dozen conversations on the matter, I have still not been able to impress that my band is not nor is especially intended to be a moneymaking concern. Along the same lines, although I enjoy and am doing well at my current job, you couldn't especially count me among the ranks of those who "care about their careers." I live with an economic level of comfort that is probably par for the course of my age and level of education, but it still continually astonishes me. When someone asks whether I'm worried about losing my job I say no not because I don't believe it can't happen, but because there's some small muscle within me whose only purpose is to stay ready for resuming life as a waitress or temp and calculating the price of every bean-soup dinner.

I'm not entirely sure how I got this way. For a while as a kid it seemed I was supposed to be the successful one. There is this relevant thought, from an excellent essay by Alexandra Kimball: "Poverty doesn’t allow you to develop a linear career trajectory or a coherent professional identity, because when cash is hard to come by, you do whatever job will bring you more of it." Being an artsy kid in an economically unstable family, I got the worst of both worlds: none of the drive toward professional identity, and also none of the drive toward money. 

My mom has also located the focus of her life outside of her low-paying, dead-end job. I think she spins that as a sort of living-in-the-moment thing these days, and means it. But behind the spunky middle-aged optimism is the history of a woman who was first-chair violinist in her high school orchestra, who dreamed of being a veterinarian but had to leave college in her first semester due to depression and lack of money, who grew up with a mother who—as I learned only in the last five years, and second-hand—apparently thinks so little of women's capabilities that she believes they should not hold political office. (My grandmother, whom I love as much as I do anyone, surely soaked up this belief along with an upbringing's worth of other messages telling her that she was dumb and fat and unattractive and duty-bound to meet the whims of men; I can forgive her this, while also recognizing the subtle toxicity it must have introduced into her family.)

So there has been all that, and then also an early religious infatuation that presented being a nun or monk as an ideal way to live—another form of opting out of the drive to succeed. My brand of Christianity was never the delayed-gratification school of stockpiling one's treasure in heaven. There is a line in Simone Weil that I cannot now find, about gladly running to sit in the pit of hell for a thousand years if God ordered her to do so. I was no longer religious by the time I read that, but I immediately understood. Spiritual "success," if the term is meaningful, can surely not be so neatly allegorical; if this world truly does not matter, it cannot just be an off-brand version of the one to come. 

Philosophy and its extensions into anarchism probably took care of the rest by the time I was a teenager. Looking down into the roots of things is itself discouraged by the requirement to keep climbing and acquiring; it is so much time lost, and will not change anything except yourself once you come out the end of it. I always bristled when anyone characterized punk rock or anarchism as nihilistic — I aligned myself with these movements not because I hated the world as a whole, but because I dearly loved it and wanted to create structures that would let me spend more time there, appreciating things, rather than racing ahead somewhere profitable. (It is, of course, the voice of capitalism that insists that anarchism is nihilism, seeing no other alternative to itself but death.) Having examined the matter, I have determined that I am not here to make money or have babies to carry on the family name (or, probably, to carry out grand political projects either, as I eventually realized).

Not going in for an afterlife, I also know I have only a little time here or anywhere else. Weirdly, this results in laziness as much as it does activity. The inefficient machine of my creativity runs on vast quantities of indolence; I have just now been spurred toward the keyboard after several straight hours of reading while lying sprawled across the loveseat. I fail constantly at small talk and social life and family obligations, and happily, this leaves more time to lie around and read, walk around and look at things. There is, of course, one sense in which my ambition is foolishly, desperately huge, its goal to add beauty and resonance to the world through art. The thought of this success hangs always suspended before me, cushioned and protected by the pockets of failure I have positioned all around.