Creative Currency and the Revenge of the Real: A Partial Memoir

from the cover of my now-redacted album

Today I am revisiting Heaven Is A Place, a 2016 effort by the aptly-named psychedelic noise band LSD and the Search for God. This type of music, with its beguiling walls of noise, became a coping ritual for me during a traumatic upheaval in my personal life in late 2019 and fully established itself during the global nightmare that was 2020. At the same time, though, a contrary creative direction emerged, one that seems to be more widely shared but which no one I knew fully articulated at the time: immediately, it started to matter whether what I was doing with my life was current and relevant, two pressures I had managed to resist well enough in my creative formation. I speak, here, as someone who for a variety of reasons was fortunate not to experience a great deal of threat from those events myself: the pressure for relevance, if anything, was augmented by this survivor’s guilt, but the narrative craft to confront such a thing was absent from my capabilities. The results were not good.

To wit, I flirted heavily with abandoning concert music. I recorded several abortive attempts at pop songs, but that effort was rent in two by the desire, on the one hand, to slip away into escapist sound worlds like those I was binge-listening to, and on the other hand, to confront the present in a way that could not be ignored, motivated by the heartrending storytelling of records like Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers. I lacked the craft for the latter or the commitment for the former, and neither expression is buildable in personal isolation: a lesson to be learned here was that rock music on a basic material level must be cultivated within a tightly-knit community, and that even if it is possible to write and record an entire album in a bedroom, its meaning does not resonate in solitude, and there is not a correspondent underlying mythology of great works for the drawer, as concert composers, for better or worse, have. The fact that our work is considered done when the notes are all on the page enables a greater deal of divestment from the way our music speaks. It is, in short, much easier to hide.

The sociologist Benjamin Bratton has called 2020 the “Revenge of the Real,” a moment in which existing social and linguistic types of thinking are faced with phenomena that do not respond to such a conversation. My creative community and I had nothing else to go on but such social-symbolic thinking, and we remain rent by the real even as we try to rebuild. A year or so ago, the Harvard Business Review described “professional ghosting,” in which the dating-site behavior of choosing not to respond to someone rather than to explicitly reject them comes to pervade our working life as well. What do you do when your livelihood and the things that give you life likewise continue to flicker, as in an electrical brown-out? I believe you treat them as sacred, intimate, communal and personal. If that means they must be small, so be it. If that scale is unremunerative, perhaps it is worth considering whether alternatives to remuneration are available. Something that has surprised and intrigued me recently is the emergence of barter in the creative professions: an unfortunate situation to be pushed into, but potentially one that can be built into something more sustainable than the ever-fading status quo. I’d like to leave this observation as food for thought, not as a prescription but as an inspiration for future reimaginations of our shared artistic universe.

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