Do you think it’s phony, Jon Bon Jovi writing about struggles of blue-collar workers? How about James Hetfield talking about self-destruction in the latest Metallica album? These are multi-millionaire rock stars. What do they know about the reality of common folks? Sure, they are self-made men who climbed up the ladder to success — but that’s not who they are now, is it?
I have to confess that I thought it was phony. Their reality of living in mansions, trotting around the globe playing concerts in huge stadiums can’t possibly keep them connected to their former identities, even if they once were starving artists.
But then I also realized that I write about something I’m not: people in my songs are depressed and desperate, going through existential crises. I’m a happy middle-class husband and dad, holding down a stable and loving family, with a nice house in a nice part of town and a minivan in the garage. I often joke that I achieved my American dream as an immigrant when we got the house and the minivan. I’m not the characters in my songs.
Am I phony?
Well, it’s not for me to decide that, but I stopped judging Bon Jovi and Metallica and other artists who clearly have their own voice, and their own persona. Especially when they stay true to them. Artists evolve over years, I’m not saying they can’t. But there also should be common threads that run through their works. Developing and then not losing sight of that common thread is a sign of mature artist.
We create that core identity and choose our pursuits based on what we need, not what we have. Jon Bon Jovi still identifies himself as a working class man, he is still passionate about speaking to the struggles and triumphs from that point of view. And James Hetfield’s modus operandi is anger, frustration and being let down. He’s not as interested in victory and triumph, because most of his songs are tragic and don’t offer any sort of resolution. That’s what he identifies with. You may think that’s dishonest or phony, but it’s a lot of act to put on, year after year, in front of thousands of people.
My coach Tom Volkar had me go through an exercise of identifying my four core values. One of them is compassion. I finally understood why I have the desire to write the songs I do. When I’m being true to my values I feel fulfilled. I experimented with film music or guitar instrumental music but couldn’t sustain those efforts because they didn’t express my compassion. I’m not doing it to be a nice person or because it makes the world a better place (though I’ll surely be overjoyed if the latter happened). I’m doing it because my compassion is my source of energy.
I’m not saying all successful artists are genuine and authentic. But as artists we create because we have the need to express something. And what that need is may not seem so obvious if you simply look at a person and see his/her surface. It’s more telling if you look at an artist’s output — and there should be a body of work, over a span of some years — and see if you can spot a theme, whether it’s a certain attitude, content or message. Then you can start to figure out that artist’s identity, and from there you can decide whether that resonates with you.
Jon and James are clearly doing a good job expressing themselves, because many people identify with it. I’m not saying that the number of people resonating with a particular piece of art is a direct measure of how successful that art is, but it is a significant factor. All the marketing budget in the world will do no good if the offering didn’t deliver the goods. So I definitely respect them for doing what they do. We artists should and need to create from our deep desires. I’m not so idealistic and naïve to think that no other considerations go into musicmaking — but what we have the burning desire to create should be the main driver. If we’re not genuine there, then we have no hope of making genuine connections. Our creations end up being fleeting and disposable entertainment that just fills the air for a few minutes and be forgotten.