There seems to be a cycle going on in the world of music. Kind of like the cycle of life, except this one is a bit weirder. It goes something like this first they’re a loser, then they’re the scrappy underdog, then they become rockstars, then addicts, then sober, and then a group of old guys doing a reunion show every now and then–because why not?
Now the issue with this is that nobodies lives are like this at all. Rock, hip hop, pop music, EDM, indie, whatever. Nobodies lives play out that old and played out stereotype that is the successful musician. The closest we get to representation of our lives is when the musician is at, what I call the loser phase.
The loser phase as it plays out in popular music, is that period when you’re just starting out being an adult. Friends come and go, you find out how much paying the bills really suck, you have an asshole boss, you hate your job, you go on date after date trying to find “The one.” Music works well with these tropes, because it’s the only stage of normal adulthood that musicians often find themselves in. It’s why whenever you hear a successful musician sprout off about politics, they sound less like a wise elder, and more like the kid who is a poli-sci major. It’s also why, nearly every successful musician is stuck at perennial adolescence. Or the “Fuck you Dad!” period of their lives. After all there are extremely rare cases where some musicians day job before they were famous had an supervisor or managerial role. Where they could no longer say, “Fuck Authority,” because they became the “Authority.”
That change in perspective from any other adult is an incredible moment, because it shifts the perspective of “Why are things like this?” to “This is just how things are.” Ask anybody who is in a high level authority in their job about what it was like from being the worker, to being the boss, and I’m sure you’ll find a lot of interesting anecdotes that is relatable to your own life.
So from the loser phase we go into the scrappy underdog part of the story arc. The scrappy underdog part of any rockstar life, plays out the same way: they had a dream that their music would make them be somebody, they started off small playing local venues, got turned down by nearly everybody, then one person took a chance and signed them–and Bam! Success! This resonates with people the same way Joel Olsteen resonates with people. That if they keep doing this or that, then one day they’ll be rich, and they won’t have to worry about paying the bills anymore, or being part of the plebs. Everybody is guilty of it, I am, you are, we all live in fantasy worlds where we’re all secret kings, and then one day we’ll be discovered. It’s the affliction we all suffer from. Yet we’re not going to get the cure from any musician.
Imagine this. Imagine somebody on their deathbed, imagine asking them if they had any regrets in life. I’m guaranteeing you that being a rockstar, isn’t one of them. In fact most people grow out of the secret king fantasy by the time they retire. I mean look at retired people, how many of them do things to be successful? Success to them is seeing their family, seeing their kids grow, and going to some vacation every now and then.
So we went over the loser, scrappy underdog, and success phases; now let’s go over the addict, and sober part of the story. Rockstars, rappers, pop artists, etc. all still go through the hedonistic use of drugs. It doesn’t look like it’s going to stop anytime soon, no matter how much of a stereotype it is, and no matter how often more senior musicians tell people not to do it. Why is that? Well part of it is because pop music is a young man’s game, and young people are more inclined to do drugs. But it’s also because they can. You see most of the time, most adults can’t get a job unless they pass a drug test, and then when they do pass a drug test, they can’t use drugs because if they do they’ll lose said job. People who are hardcore addicts, as the saying goes, “Either die, or end up in jail.” Yet in the music business there’s no piss test you gotta take, you got all the money you want to blow on drugs, so you don’t need to rob people to get a fix. So when they eventually do get sober, and release a song about their struggles with addiction, it’s the end of their new material.
Finally when we get to them doing reunion tours playing old songs, the question has to be asked, “Why aren’t you writing new songs? Why has your musical progression halted? Why are you singing the same old tune?” The answer is, because no matter how deep in addiction they were, no matter how much of a loser they were, they are no longer relatable. Their common ground with us, as a listener, died the moment they got sober. Because if you takeaway the drugs, all they have is a large pile of money, famous friends, the ability to travel the world, and do so much more than you or I could ever do.
This perennial adolescence is also why, as adults, when we get older we kind of listen to the same bands we grew up listening to. The reason they tour isn’t to document their lives, rather it’s for the listener to go down memory lane, back when they were young and the world was filled with endless possibilities. Which is fine and dandy, but imagine if any other artform was just limited to your 20’s-30’s. Imagine the movies, the books, everything was just limited to that 10 year window. Isn’t that a bit shallow? Look at all the great authors Tolstoy, Hemingway, Dostoevsky, Milton, Orwell, etc. imagine all the great novels that wouldn’t exist if they just wrote about pre-fame, fame, and post-fame. Some of their greatest works are about older people!
So let’s look at artists who broke this stereotype. David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and Johnny Cash. Who made some of their best music when they were old with one foot in the grave. Not only do they write about something we can all eventually relate to–death. But they did so in a way that we could all relate to. Now imagine an artist who doesn’t become famous, who lives the daily struggle that everybody else goes through, and whose perspective remains grounded in the common man. That, my readers, is a far more interesting artist than most popular musicians. And why you shouldn’t gun for fame, but rather, aim your sights to being the best possible musician. Because after all, everything decays: money, clothes, wealth, etc. But what doesn’t decay is art. So make great art, and you’ll be remembered forever.