Thursday, May 14, 2015

Bono Busking and the Business of Artistic Fame

Last week, Jimmy Fallon posted a video that shows what happens when you take a legendary band like U2, put its members in disguise, and set them loose on the New York City subway to busk their own music. At first, only a curious few spare them a glance. But when the faux facial hair comes off ... well, watch for yourself:

I’m sure viewers with an artistic bent will find themselves torn between disgust and envy at the way in which disinterested passersby metamorphose into a bobbing sea of smartphones. The premium that fame commands in our society is perversely powerful. Take, for instance, what happened when J.K. Rowling decided to write a detective novel entitled The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Initially, the book only sold a measly 1,500 physical copies despite receiving lavish praise from critics. But when her identity got leaked, sales grew by 150,000%. Stephen King has noted how his once-rejected stories found happy homes at the very magazines that snubbed them before his name commanded cache. And as for the example of our Irish rockers, the irony lies entirely in their appearance. The super-scraggly quartet of apparently starving artists only looked different than the boys from Dublin; the songs were the exactly the same.

Of course, that’s the point. The songs were the same—and that encourages me.

A lot of creative types get down in the mouth about this business of artistic fame, complaining about how the vagaries of capitalism mean that only the flashiest and most fashionable get noticed instead of the truly talented. And though I’m very much a proponent of free markets, I understand where they’re coming from. It would be nice if my strange little stories garnered as many kudos and as much cash as, say, writing the website copy for a Craigslist-meets-local-gardening startup. They don’t, though, and that’s okay: I’m going to tell them anyway.

Why? Well, once you get beyond the basics of living, aren’t applause and pecuniary compensation really secondary matters? They don’t get the narrative wheels turning. They don’t mold new melodies. They don’t staple blank canvas to the frame or help you compose a fitting anapaest or teach you the fingerings for that alternate tuning. The song is the same whether you’re busking by yourself at the 42nd Street station or on a stage at the Super Bowl.

So sing no matter the circumstances. Paint. Perform. Play. And know that I’ll be writing right along with you.

(Hat Tip: Matthew Fray)


James D. Witmer said...

Loren, this is great. Not the way culture values fame over quality - not that we only enjoy things we already expected to be a sure thing - but your encouragement to create anyway.

My own experience says it's not the lack of stardom, exactly, but a deep need for affirmation that makes the dynamic so discouraging. Getting past that, finding security in a better place, is critical.

Loren Eaton said...

Thanks, James. You know, my first impulse is to feel envious, both for affirmation and fiscal reasons (which I personally feel is just another kind of affirmation). But that buys into the wrong mindset. In the end, it's all the same stuff. We delight others, and we delight ourselves. And I think that's enough.