The other week I saw Destiny’s Child interviewed (in the days when Destiny’s Child still existed, of course) & Beyonce Knowles was talking about how the band worked to do something different with its music.
‘It’s not just pop music,’ she said, or words to that effect.
Except, of course, it is.
Destiny’s Child produced music smack in the middle of pop. Surely. What else can ‘popular music’ possibly be, if not the outcome of efforts by mega-famous bands like that one? I mean, do they think they’re not pop just because they’re not Britney?
And then it occurred to me. You know what? I don’t think I’ve ever met an artist who claimed *not* to be doing something different. We ALL think we’re doing something different. Even the much-maligned Mr Matthew Reilly, icon of successful popular writing & habitual whipping boy, would likely claim he’s attempting to do something different with his stuff. In fact, if I ever met an artist who said, ‘Yeah, I’m just trying to write down the middle of the road, you know, just trying to write stuff pretty similar to the stuff that’s been already written’, I would consider them a liar.
I would say, ‘Really? Are you? Why?’
And I would expect to see them squirm. Because no one is trying to write that way. Sure, some writers might be thinking they’d like to make a few million bucks from movie rights & to hobnob with Brad Pitt as he pesters them to explain their character’s motivation for his upcoming role in the film, but can that really motivate you — every damn day — to sit down & do something as inward-looking & prone to failure as writing?
I think not. I think if you had to stare into that abyss every day & see only the pursuit of numbers (dollars, readership, etc) as your sole motivation, soon enough the void would begin to stare back & eventually it would chow down on your soul, tossing your bones over its shoulder and bemoaning the lack of condiments.
Sorry, sorry, what was my point again? Oh, right. The abyss.
Destiny’s Child certainly seemed to enjoy their success, & I’m betting they wouldn’t have traded in their popularity for a dash more individuality. After all, if that was their desire, they could’ve done it years ago. Certainly they could afford to. Somewhere after the first couple of million dollars they could’ve stood up to their record label & said, ‘Thanks for making us world superstars, now we want to fulfill our lifelong ambitions to mix soulful reggae with synthesised recordings of authentic gregorian chants. First, we will need a few castrati and some hash, if you don’t mind.’
So I think we’re seeing artists struggling with two desires here: popularity & individuality (aka ‘difference’). These are not necessarily conflicting desires, either, because I think fundamentally they are motivated by the same thing.
I reckon that behind the simple ‘I write in order to sell to Hollywood’, we’d find a world of other, deeper, unadmitted motivation. Something along the lines of ‘If I make a lot of money or sell a lot of books, it is affirmation that I am not crazy for doing this in the first place.’ (Which, indeed, in our success-mad modern world, is true.)
But the writing has to occur before the success, so there has to be something *even earlier* than the writing to get the writing happening, to motivate the writer to choose this activity instead of merchant banking or corporate law, say.
I would argue that the earliest thing we can locate is self-expression. Freud might take it further & somehow link self-expression to, oh, I dunno, sex, probably, but I’m not entirely sure Freud’s thinking would assist us in this discussion (he was, after all, mad, & a coke addict) so, as usual, I will leave him out of this. Self-expression it is.
Why would a self-expressionist desire numbers? As a specific example, why would a writer want to sell to Hollywood?
Because, I would say, everyone wants to be loved. A big sale might not prove you’re *more* loved than a small one, but on the other hand, it might just feel like a whole lotta love. Enough love that it doesn’t really matter whether it’s more or less. Plus you get to say, ‘And so I sold my story to Hollywood’ at parties, which earns you more love. And, of course, there’s the money, which can be used to buy yourself time in order to generate more love.
OK, so we want to be loved. There are other ways to be loved, of course. You can be loved for being the guy who delivers the sandwiches, for example, but that’s hardly enough. Because it’s not being loved for *you*, for your uniqueness, your individuality — your difference.
‘It’s not just pop music.’
No, it isn’t. It’s the expression of the very core, the essence, of Destiny’s Child. It’s not about us, it’s about *them*. Beyonce wants to be loved for what *she* has to say, for her specific music. She does not want to be loved because she creates in the same medium as a bunch of others who are also loved. ‘Love my music, love me’ is how it goes.
Yes, we all want to create something different. Because what hell would it be to admit that ‘my self-expression is deemed by most of the world to sound EXACTLY like the self-expression of billions of others’? What a nightmare to hear your editor say, ‘Wow, I really like this, it’s EXACTLY LIKE so many other things I’ve published lately, you’ll blend right in & if you don’t, there’s plenty more like you, thanks for that.’
We all want to be unique snow flakes in a world of snow flakes.
And here’s one more thing: when we say, ‘My writing is not like all other writing, it’s different, it’s unique’, we’re right. It’s not like all other writing *to us*. It’s different to everything else we read, because it’s ours. It’s unique because it’s the only time *we’ve* written this story. Because self-expression starts with the self, not with the world. And maybe we have an obligation to express what *we* find different, without regard to the cynically raised eyebrows of bored channel-hoppers who are filling in a few hours by skimming across the Saturday morning collection of music video shows.
Of course, one person’s ‘difference’ might be all the same to someone else.