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.

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