Sunday, May 9, 2010

Waiting for a Chicken Tenders Platter at Applebee's...

One night last week, I had a work-related evening appointment which lasted until nearly 9 PM. I wasn't thrilled about having to fix myself dinner at that hour, so I went to an Applebee's near my house. Lately the Applebee's chain has been hosting live music at some of its locations (along with other odd variations on the “family restaurant” theme, such as face painting.) I ordered my usual and waited.

As I waited I heard a young woman, a solo acoustic singer-songwriter type who was strumming away on her guitar and singing lyrics of the “confessional” sort. Most people were oblivious to her, but because she was situated next to the bar, some of the patrons there applauded her at the end of each song she sang. One middle-aged man was paying particular attention to her, repeatedly asking her if she would come away to Australia with him. Later on he began to harmonize with her, contributing “oohs” and “ahhs” that were actually in key, surprisingly enough. Still, his “contributions” got on my nerves, and I was glad that I was sitting several tables away. At one point, the man asked her, “Can you rock out?!” “Yeah, when I have my band!” was her answer.

I found myself asking myself why this woman was singing at an Applebee's on a week night. This led to the larger question of why there were so many people like her, both male and female, whose chosen ambition was to make it big as rock or pop stars or singer-songwriters. After all, the field is very crowded and after a while, everyone starts to sound the same. “Making it” in the business has come to mean being signed by some major record label, and becoming rich and famous shortly thereafter. But the music “industry” has many gatekeepers who have turned music into a standardized, commoditized package consisting of a limited selection of musical “flavors.” I am sure that it's very hard for an artist to be widely heard outside the dominant system.

What of those who are outside the dominant system? It seems to me that one key to their continued existence (and happiness) is that they've lowered or altered their expectations of what they want to get out of their music. They have turned their backs on trying to be famous. If they are trying to make a living, it's via teaching (or busking) or performing at weddings and other functions – and they have a backup “day job.” Otherwise, they play just for the fun of it. (Maybe that's what that woman at Applebee's was doing.)

This got me thinking about blogging. The same sorts of questions could be asked of many bloggers, especially the left-leaning, anti-materialist sort who write politically-tinged blogs. “Why do you do it?” And, “Don't you know that you all are a dime a dozen by now? Who pays attention to you, anyway?” “You think you're gonna change the world just because you went to Guitar Center and bought a guitar and an amp?” “You think you're gonna change the world just because you started a blog?”

There's an uncomfortable reality behind these questions. One blogger said recently that in the United States, we have the illusion of freedom of speech. This is because while anyone can say almost anything they want, the chances of any ordinary person being heard by a large audience are very small. The balance of media power is still skewed very much in favor of a small number of very wealthy people who have inordinate media access, and who use that access to unrelentingly hammer home their message, their worldview, and an agenda that is harmful to many.

But there is a further problem, namely, that most of America has been advertised to death by now. As a result, most of us are jaded. In the minds of many of us, anyone who has a message must have some ulterior motive which will cost us dearly if we allow ourselves to be persuaded by the message being offered. “Besides, we've heard it all before,” many of us say. “Why should I trust you?”

I don't have easy answers to any of these questions. I have to admit that when I first started blogging, I guess I had some half-conscious idea that “I could change the world” – maybe just a little. Now I'm much less optimistic. At this time in our national and societal history, when we are facing a comprehensive predicament that will require intelligence, maturity and the starting of adult conversations that most people would rather not have, the best I can hope for is that I can engage a handful of others in an adult conversation. And I appreciate the conversations of some of my fellow bloggers, conversations which I have been privileged to join. We can think of ourselves as participants in a “house concert.”

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