I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, musicians are a curious lot, full of life, talent and contradictions. There is one contradiction in particular I have been thinking about lately: the conundrum presented by the contrast between our seemingly independent and often renegade spirit with our pathetic need for external validation. In full disclosure, I have been thinking about it because of how it affects me personally.
The process of creativity, by definition, requires an ability to look at the world and the things in it from a less than average and alternative perspective. Rather than acceptance of norms, customs, rules and socially acceptable values, creativity demands the creator to push the boundaries and think outside the parameters these establish in order to come up with alternative themes, ideas, techniques and ways of thinking. Throughout history, successful artists have earned their success in spite of, or perhaps because of, their inclination to give the proverbial middle finger to what was up to that point normal or acceptable. Think of Mozart and Dylan, Da Vinci and Pollock, Hitchcock and Tarantino… all recognized geniuses in their art, yet considered at best quirky, if not anarchic and anti-social. It would stand to reason that in order to reach this independent thinker mindset, the artist would need to disassociate himself from the common denominator that is public opinion. More often than not you will find that in any conversation with an artist at his most euphoric creative bravado, they profess not to care what anyone thinks about them, me included, by the way; and I can honestly attest that when I say it I mean it.
But then… comes the time for a creation’s commercial release, whether it is a song or a movie or a painting. All of a sudden what the audience or critics or industry professionals opine about the work becomes the bar by which the artist measures his artistic worth, which stands to reason because this ultimately influences the creations commercial or practical worth. At this stage the tables turn and we are suddenly engaged in a popularity contest. At this point our fragile self-confidence is easily shattered by one naysayer, which we intently pay attention to while ignoring the praise of others. And thus the insecure, neurotic side of the artist is unleashed.
In my preoccupation with this apparent contradiction I reached my own conclusion: there is no contradiction. The fact is that both the wildly independent thinking and the need for validation are rooted in perfectly human characteristics reacting to two different phases in a process. The phase of creation, as mentioned before, requires the disassociation with the norm, where the “I don’t care what you think” attitude is an essential ingredient in asking the questions that lead to a new approach or solution, and which give the artist sole control over the task at hand. But no artist can live off of their creativity if the creativity is not commercially viable, and that’s where the popularity comes into play. At the point where the creation phase transitions to the commercial phase, the artist loses control. This creates uncertainty and, ultimately, insecurity.
I would argue that, ultimately, these reactions are not limited to artists. I believe basically everyone except for maybe Buddhist monks, have similar reactions to equivalent situations. The effect may be magnified in artists because the same hyper sensibility required from an artist to create manifests itself when the mindset shifts and control is lost. And alas, we are just insecure control freaks, which sounds like the majority of the people I know, only hyper-sensitively so.