Is it an offense against the dignity of an artist to make music that resonates with the general public? Is it demeaning to create songs that are melodic and pleasant to listen to and full of hooks that are catchy, or to write songs that are structured in such a way to resonate with a large general public? There are a great many artists who think so. One of the hypocrisies of the contemporary hipster relates to the dignity of the artist and the way that some people feel that it is demeaning and degrading to create something that is designed to appeal to others when they seek to engage in art as a profession. The problem is not that it is wrong to create art for oneself. A great many artists create art for themselves with no expectations of making a living from that art and are thus free to create art that they choose. The hypocrisy comes in expecting other people to pay you to create art when you do not in any way wish to create art that is appealing to them. When you have career ambitions as an artist and you want your art to make you a living, then you need to pay attention to who your art is appealing to. If you want to make art for only people who think like you and have the same opinions and background and tastes, then you have no business seeking to make a living from major labels and major publishers who make their money from creating something that has broad commercial appeal. That is not being a principled artist, but simply dealing in bad faith.
Why would one think about a subject like this? Recently I watched a documentary on the song “Hook,” by the band Blues Traveler, which was a top 20 hit in the mid 1990’s, and a song that deals with meta aspects of the creation and marketing of songs. In the song, John Popper, lead singer of the band, writes intentionally gibberish lyrics that nonetheless have meaning, and insults his wide commercial audience by telling them that he can create any sort of nonsense, but as long as it has the right tone (inflection is his word) and has a catchy hook that the song will become popular even if the lyrics of the song are a direct insult at those who would be interested in a song because it is catchy and accessible. Is this just? Is it true that those who appreciate catchy and accessible songs do so because of limited mental capacities? That would be quite a stretch. Is it proper to make fun of the people who are buying one’s music and who are providing for one’s living as a result? Insulting one’s customers would appear to be a poor strategy for building and maintaining the goodwill of others. And again we circle back to the initial question, is it an insult to an artist’s dignity to expect them to consider their audience when their pay springs from a promise to create accessible and popular music?
In art, there is often a tension between creating something out of ourselves and creating something that will be appealing and relatable to other people. Some of us simply don’t relate well to others. We don’t live the same kind of lives that others live and we don’t have the same kind of interests or perspectives that others have. This does not mean that we cannot do the work of putting ourselves in the place of others, but only that developing the capacity of empathy and understanding is difficult. Some would argue that the more difficult it is to relate to others, the more important it is to do so, but that is a subject for another discussion. For our present purposes, it is sufficient to note that many artists feel a great deal of tension between what they want to say and what others want to hear. These two things seldom intersect perfectly. Sometimes they do not intersect at all. Sometimes what we want to say is not something that others want to hear or see, and that puts our well-being and our livelihood in conflict with our sense of personal integrity. How then can such a situation be resolved in a way that is fair both to ourselves as well as to our obligations and duties to others? Perhaps in such experiences it would be best to reflect upon that struggle and that tension? Too few artists, I think, are open and honest about their struggle to relate to the general public. They write where they are, and tend to alienate those who do not care about the privileged and pampered lives of the rich and famous (the careers of artists as diverse as Good Charlotte and Taylor Swift are demonstrative of that problem), rather than pondering on what it is that separates them from others.
One of the problematic aspects of hipsterdom is the belief on the part of hipsters that their being different from the common herd makes them better than the common herd. The fact that being a hipster requires that one differentiate themselves from others means that the desire for hipsters for influence and social power and their desire to be different are contradictory and mutually self-defeating. No matter what a hipster does, the fact that they seek to have influence and be viewed as someone whose thoughts and opinions matter mean that their hot takes will become conventional wisdom in some benighted portion of our society. This, in turn, forces the hipster to make ever more outrageous statements and go further away from sanity and conventionality to vainly try to find some sort of space where others will not follow them. Being a hipster is the opposite of being a teacher. A teacher seeks to reach others where they are in order to impart wisdom and insight and knowledge that is (hopefully) useful and of practical benefit, and that bridges the gulf of ignorance that separates those who do not know from those who do. Being a hipster is the vain task of trying to look down on someone else from a supposed mountain peak while denying others the opportunity to climb up that mountain to join them at the supposed summit.
And in the end, the solution to the dilemma of the artist and the hipster is the same. To the extent that one has careerist ambitions, one has the obligation to strive to reach out from beyond the other end of the chasm to the audience on the other side. Some artists have done this well. Singer-songwriter Nik Kershaw, for example, created the song “Somebody Loves You” to point out what it felt like on his side of that chasm, in a song that was catchy and accessible enough to be well-appreciated by his fans (myself included), remaining true to where he was without looking down on those fans. To the extent that the hipster wants to remain apart from others and not be followed or imitated, they can abjure any desire for social power. If uniqueness and oddity is not combined with a sense of social power, no one will want to imitate it. That does not mean the hipster will be liked, but they will not be an active threat to the well-being of the society they are a part of because they will have no goals to corrupt society through the possession and exercise of power in the hands of those who have no good intellectual or moral sense about what to do with it. In the end, if the artist wants to create art in a solipsistic fashion, the easiest solution is to do it on one’s own time and without expecting to be supported in it as a living. It is only the desire to receive money and power without showing any gratitude or concern for those who provide us with both that makes it a dilemma for artists and hipsters to begin with.
This reminds me of the group “America” in the 1970s. They wrote songs with catchy tunes, but the words made no sense. They did this deliberately; their focus was on finding words that rhymed and flowed to the beat of the music. What floored me was that their listening audience didn’t seem to care either; songs like “Horse with No Name” were major hits. The group’s members made no apologies for “dumbing down” their music (their songs had no message.) Their legiitmacy was in bringing a unique sound to their listening audience. I personally feel that the old adage of people living up or down to others’ expectations is true–especially in this case–for the group America viewed its fans base as mindless followers.
That is not flattering, to view one’s audience as mindless followers. It appears as if there are many ways that artists can fail their audiences, and expecting too little from them is certainly one of them, because it leads us to be uncharitable towards those who support us.