Music, Weaponized Vulnerability, and the Question of Us

The end of my masters degree was a little nontraditional. This is fitting, I suppose, because most of the rest of my degree was largely nontraditional. But in my last semester, I was fortunate to spend quality time with four teachers (now friends) whose work I admire and who all handle life pretty well. My questions to each of them varied, but the gist was the same: what on earth do I do now?

See, I’m a good student, but I’m a professional very much in the process of figuring out what makes a career and how the wheels keep turning. I know I don’t have all the answers I need, and I understand some things will be lessons learned the hard way. But I’m also an artist working with (and through) an injury that could have ended my playing career, and I’m an artist whose creative output travels to very dark places a lot of the time. If I want to keep making work that truly challenges me (and maybe society), I have to develop habits and boundaries that preserve my personal wellbeing through the creative process. And, for the sake of my mental health, I probably need to grow those in the next five years and adapt them over a lifetime.

My last semester was such a relief because I had access to people who do things that I do and still lead generally happy lives. And when I asked about balance and fulfillment and happiness and all that, I got serious answers. On the surface, they might seem predictable: slow down, stay healthy, keep your body happy, choose projects that move you, remember your basics. But the thing about having so many amazing teachers is that I’ve spent a good chunk of time learning about them. I know why they give me the advice they do, and that increased context helps me adapt the concepts to my own life.

I started searching for these answers because it became fairly evident over the course of the last year that I would need to keep myself alive to continue doing this work. Before anyone panics, let’s be clear: I’m okay. I promise. But as you might expect, art about sexual assault and misogyny is a heavy burden to carry sometimes. And that’s on top of working in fields that don’t always think I should belong, in a country run by an admitted sexual predator, at a time when watching predator after predator walk free is particularly public and eternally painful. Most days, I can handle the load—after all, much of the art I make on those subjects serves as a release valve for the tension and pressure—but it doesn’t always work out that way. I don’t expect it too. Never have, really. But I know it happens, and part of being a responsible artist (and self-caring human) is preparing as much as possible and knowing those days will come.

Because as I told one of my teachers, I tend to take my vulnerability and throw it out in front of me like knives. (His response: “I’ve noticed, yes.”) It’s a storytelling style and artistic decision that can serve me well, but there’s an obvious amount of risk involved. I know there are people in my life who wished I didn’t walk this path. Some days, I agree with them. But here’s the thing: I rip myself open because it’s not my right to borrow anyone else’s story without their willing, enthusiastic consent. But unlike some of my (fantastic) peers, who use the music they create to show us some hidden sliver of them, I use my work to illuminate a dark corner of . . . us. All of us.

I don’t normally dive into this in blog format, but we as a human populace actively suck at looking out for each other. We’re conditioned, especially by society, to prioritize our individual needs over those of demographics beyond (or intersecting with) our own. If something doesn’t directly affect us, we probably won’t be super vocal about it, but if we can find a way to connect others’ experiences to our own, we’re way more likely to advocate for and learn about these issues. And while vulnerability serves as my knives, empathy is the putty with which I mold their handles and control their flight. And that, to me, is important, because if I’m going to make you uncomfortable, I want to be as in control of that as possible.

And the thing is, this may be daunting work, but when I have the moment where it’s all put together, when the stars align for the best and everything clicks, it makes me happy. Aggressively so. (Anyone who’s ever seen me say, a little too gleefully, “I love making people cry!” can confirm.) It makes me happy not because the work is necessary or timely—I really, really wish it wasn’t either of those things—but because the feedback I get from audiences tells me I’m hitting a nerve and connecting to a very visceral emotion that lives in a lot of us. Which one I hone in on depends on the piece; sometimes it’s something in the vulnerability category, but I also try to reach for more destructive emotions. Anger. Hate. The need for revenge versus justice. Self-loathing and self-destruction. I think it’s necessary not just for the women and femmes and assault victims/survivors/casualties who encounter my work—it’s necessary for the men seeking to be better and the men who don’t think they’re part of the problem and the rapists who might not realize they’re rapists (and, of course, the ones who do). And all of that matters. So I reach for the things that make people cry and squirm, but I try to do so with as much control as possible, because I want to make sure I do so with as much respect and consideration for everyone’s individual journeys as possible.

For the record, while I will certainly be talking about target audiences and Who Needs To Hear This Stuff again in the future, I do generally try to keep the focus on non-cis-male perspectives. I will continue to do so. But I think it’s important that I point out that allocishet men are part of my audience, because a significant part of why I have to make all of this as eloquent as possible is because the women and queer folks in my life usually nod their heads in understanding when I’m still scrambling around trying to make a point, while my male peers and colleagues frequently do not take my word as the authority on my own experiences unless I can present them clinically and explain how I got from point A to point B in as many little, obvious steps as possible. And as much as I dislike that gap, that’s why my work is about us—all of us, including our differences in communication and understanding. And if I’m somebody’s first point of contact for this discourse, I want to make sure I don’t leave them feeling like I’m judge, jury, and executioner in one. I want them to feel like they can learn and act and have a positive, productive place in the conversation. I want to inspire them to make this a critical part of their personal politics.

So I use my vulnerability like knives, and I’m still looking for ways to care for myself so I can keep pushing toward the art I love. It’s not a perfect process or a quick one. But as someone who’s going through a really big life transition, it’s nice to have something like that to push toward—something that’ll help me and the people I make music with in the long run. But what on earth do I do now?

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. ♦

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