I wanted to live, so I pretended to die.
I had to shut down cash out and get buried alive.
Out of the black and into the daylight
You had to dig me out, dust me off and pull me off the cross and
Break me back open, break me back open, look inside
Break me back open, break me back open, shine a light,
It's gonna be bright
Veruca Salt, “The Gospel According to Saint Me”
I just got back from a trip to Sacramento, CA with my family to catch the reunion of one of our favorite bands, Anberlin. The Tooth & Nail alt/emo rock alumni had just wrapped up their “final tour” in 2014… T-shirts were $25 and PBRs were $6, marking a strong odor of “cashgrab,” but their performance was truly alive. The lead singer, Stephen Christian, was climbing into the crowd to sing with the sold out venue, pulling fans onstage and giving them a microphone, turning trivial banter from the crowd into heartfelt, irreplaceable moments. They played for two hours spanning their discography, rocking deep cuts and old songs alongside fan favorites and radio singles.
At the one-hour point, Stephen spoke about how the break from Anberlin had given them a chance to rediscover their love for performing, for their families, and for their understanding of what it means to have a positive, impacting platform in a cruel, dying world. Personally refreshed and motivated to make a difference in the world however possible, Anberlin is here to stay.
This speech caused me to think deeply about the struggles musicians have against the “non-music” sides of being an artist, particularly as it pertains to developing and satisfying a projected ego. Take, for instance, Anberlin’s alumnus status as a Tooth & Nail band, which often garners assumptions from listeners that Anberlin is a “Christian” band; juxtapose that with the PBR statement I made and I can feel teenage, youth group Fallon judging the heck out of present day Fallon, not only for abandoning all those years of spouting Minor Threat lyrics incessantly at his friends, but for supporting a Christian band that would facilitate an environment of “drunkenness” or whatever. When playing music in social or spiritual climates of any sort, we both artist and listener, have been conditioned to take rigid sides on all sorts of issues. The ironic thing is that we’re all coming together for the same reason: the music.
Once the expression, contemplation, and enjoyment of art is given the backseat, both community and the art itself begin to destabilize, turning into something different entirely. I know from my own life as a touring musician that once I started cutting songs and rushing records to make a tour schedule, I compromised the core of my craft to maintain relevance in the eyes of other people. If my devolved (albeit, subconscious) motive were written on my sleeve, no one would have had a reason to continue supporting me, except maybe a pitied solidarity. None of us want any of that!
Everyone wishes to be seen a certain way, but being attentive to this desire over the creative process ultimately starts looking like something else entirely. What won me over with Anberlin wasn’t even the spoken intention from Stephen Christian’s monologue, it was the life in their art being overwhelmingly connected to the music itself (makes a better argument for their charity promotion than the $6 PBRs). In the same way, what makes my art better is that I put care and effort into each step of the creative process, not that I put CD cases on a merch table and then forget to put discs inside (yes, this actually happened and it was horribly embarrassing). There is nothing inherently wrong with being an artist and making money or working toward activism through it, but there is something wrong when that being a primary motive is snuck into your efforts to share your art. Popularity through manipulation seldom breeds a humanitarian result.
Being an artist in the age of tabloids, social media, fandoms, and analytics can often be nebulous; we are so easily distracted from the heart of our cause. It’s not a bad thing to be inspired by Green Day’s loving audience interviews in Bullet in a Bible, but chasing that isn’t how they got there. It’s healthy to periodically reevaluate your reasons for taking the actions you do in the name of art. Again, this applies to both artist and patron. Creators of art, consider what influences you to share your art. If you aren’t content keeping it to yourself, figure out why that is and ask yourself, “Is this really what I want to do? Is this what it can be?” (can>should) And appreciators of art, be deliberate in how your support manifests itself; how we do this determines the health and livelihood of how art is shared. If we’re sincere and intentional, we can build better art culture for all.