Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Popularity

About four centuries ago, the Marquis of Halifax, or, to those who him best, George Savile, wrote that "popularity is a crime from the moment it is sought; it is only a virtue when men have it whether they will [it] or no[t]."

My understanding of 17th century English isn't all that great. Still, I think I can figure out what my man George was saying here . . . .

and it is this . . . .

Once you start to compromise your principles to achieve "success," something defined, particularly in American culture, as "popularity," you have made a deal with the devil. Real success has nothing to do with a conscious and deliberate effort to cultivate fame; rather it is the value that one brings to any endeavor which they undertake -- artistic, scientific, humanitarian or even business. And one day you will pay for deliberately seeking popularity at the expense of an internal happiness that is more metaphysical than material.

I have never equated success with money, perhaps out of self-interest, since I'd come up a loser by any conventional measure. Not a Big L loser; just a middle-of-the-packer, somewhere lost in the huge pile of 1040s that defines the American middle-class, distinguishable from his the slightly less wealthy and slightly more wealthy worker bees on the white collar assembly line of modern professional life only by occupation. Some of us might be really smart, and some of us not. Some of us might have a head full of incredible ideas; the thought, though, of having to work long and hard at something discourages rather than encourages us, so we don't really get anywhere with our plans to change the world. Some of us might like playing the saxophone as much as we like practicing dentistry, so we don't devote as much time to our professional practices as our colleagues do who live to work. These are the kind of people who, when you ask them how they are, immediately launch into a monologue about how many hours they're "putting in" and how very important it all is compared to what you do. A friend of mine once referred to smart people who don't care that much about money as "poverty snobs." Actually, this was in college, and my friend Scott Gilmore, the same guy who slept under newspapers on my couch back then, called me a "poverty snob" because I might read a book on a Thursday afternoon rather than begin the traditional college weekend drink-a-thon two or sometimes three days early. Of course, Gilmore later began referring to himself as a "poverty snob" after he ran out of money, which usually occurred by the semester's second week, to defend the embarrassment of having to stay home on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday night because he couldn't afford to go out.

"I'm sorry, just soooooo, sooooooo, soooooo sorry that you have to go out and buy your friends," Gilmore would say, his voice pausing, dragging out the vowels, stopping to swig his beer while, at the same time, smoking a cigarette. Now hiccuping between words and sometimes syllables, Gilmore continued: "Those of us who know how to read would prefer to read The Economist's take on the that idiot Ronald Reagan, who you probably voted for, moron!"

Now Gilmore might have gotten threatened and sometimes assaulted by the local Philistines -- his housemates -- for his take on the sociology of poverty snobs and their resentment of the material world on more than one occasion. Actually, we stopped keeping count after the first 34 or 285 times this happened and focused more on clever negotiating tactics when he was taken hostage by the non-Economist reading crowd -- but you had to admire his honesty and forthrightness. Gilmore had his opinions and didn't mind sharing them with you, whether you were interested in hearing them or not. And these were not conventional thoughts at all. He could be a visionary on some matters, such as his prediction in 1982 that one day that Major League Baseball would begin inter-league play, thereby allowing his Chicago White Sox to beat up the Cubs every year. On other matters, though, he was far more conspiratorial and outright bizarre. "You know those bar codes that are on all the labels and containers of shit you buy," Gilmore asked me once. "They're part of a One World Government conspiracy to eliminate our currency and replace it with a bartering system."

Huh?

You know what, though? Good for him. Seeing what a nutcase this guy was and simply not give a shit what people thought because he was, in all honesty, about the smartest and most creative guy my own age I had ever met was an incredibly influential moment in my own intellectual development. I had always been drawn to writers, musicians, teachers, coaches . . . anyone, really . . . who did things their own way without regard to whether they were going to "please" their potential audidence. And I don't mean the kind of people who resist convention to make some sort of fashion statement or, as the emerging punk crowd did in my college years, wear Izod shirts with a circle and slash around and through the alligator on the left breast. I mean people who value their integrity above anything, and put their desire to explore, learn, play, communicate or teach in an intellectually honest manner before commercial success. I suppose because I have never really made a personal or career decision based on how much money it would bring me I have never understood those motivated solely by money or popularity. Yes, I've seen the uniquely American phrase, "He Who Dies With The Most Toys Wins," on more than one bumper sticker around town. Of course, there's another way of seeing that as well.

"He Who Dies With The Most Toys Still Dies."

* * * * * * * * * *

I started thinking about the tension between popularity and "success" as I was reading the greater drummer Bill Bruford's autobiography about his the twists and turns his career has taken over a 40 year period. Although I've followed his career very closely, I don't know if my attraction to him as a drummer since I first heard the song, "Long Distance Runaround," in 1972 has been because of his playing, which I love, or his personality, which is fiercely independent, opinionated and continually in search of something new to hear, learn and play. Here is a guy who walked away from two of the greatest bands ever, Yes and King Crimson, because he thought he had done as much as could have with the musicians with whom he was working. Bruford could have had a much more profitable career had he not, as he did in the late 1980s, trade-in his rock credentials to lead his own jazz group, Earthworks, and work with musicians from the world of mainstream jazz. More important to him, though, was growing as an artist and trying to learn something new. If that meant descending from the mountain top as one of the greatest, most innovative drummers in the history of rock music to make a statement as a jazz drummer and bandleader, even if that meant laboring in obscurity and losing, rather than making, money, then so be it. Personally, I would much rather see a great musician reaching for something new rather than playing some trademark lick or fill from 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

I feel the same way about teaching and scholarship, which I think puts me at odds with a number of my professional colleagues. For me, an academic life devoted to doing the same sorts of things I learned in graduate school or that "established" my professional reputation -- the the degree that I have one -- makes absolutely no sense. I am about to finish my twentieth year as professional academic, and it simply boggles my mind to see that many of the people who started doing this when I did -- or even longer ago -- are still tilling the same soil. Naturally, though, academics who subscribe to professional convention will never understand me, and their response, by and large, is to diminish or look down their noses at how I spend my time or what I want to teach and write about. Psychologists often refer to these different thought processes as convergent vs. divergent thinking -- seeing one as opposed to many possibilities in a question or answer. I used to think that conventional thinkers didn't want to acknowledge the possibilities that existed beyond a narrow scope of inquiry, justifying their limited worldview as consistent with true theory and science. It took me a while to learn that convergent thinkers can't see beyond the formalities of conventional wisdom because their brains simply don't work like mine does.

I never know how to answer questions like these:

"Are you a popular professor?"

"Are you a popular coach?"

"Do students like your classes?"

"Do you think your band will ever be popular?"

And the reason I don't is because it doesn't really matter to me if a 20 year-old student, a colleague my own age or close to it, 13 year-old baseball player or slightly inebriated customer in a bar or restaurant where I'm playing "likes" my music. A person who truly understands and respects me and what I'm doing, regardless of context, will base their judgment on whether I am being true to myself and not whether I'm trying to curry their favor or please them. If anyone in my "audience" of students, youth athletes, paying customers, musicians and professional colleagues likes what I'm doing despite how I've chosen to do it, then great. If they would rather me do something differently, then they'll have to go somewhere else.

1 comment:

tres_arboles said...

Couple things: As usual, nice thoughtful essay.

The Savile quote reminds me of the recent Guy Ritchie gangster saga, Revolver, in which the protagonist only finally becomes invincible after he dissolves his own ego.

The "He who dies..." bumper sticker has always bothered me. In fact, my Facebook quote is "He who dies with the most toys is dead; why should I give a shit?" Call me a poverty snob!

And finally...off topic. My ten year-old son, after two years of badgering his mom and dad, started last month at the Seattle Drum School. I think of you each time we walk through the doors there!

Best,

David

PS--I saw the Adrian Belew-era King Crimson, complete with Bruford at the center of the most impressive mixed kit ever, as a Freshman at Oberlin. My ears rang for two days afterward.