I was again thinking about Kurt Cobain and how sick to death I am of hearing people mock him for killing himself, complaining that they don’t understand “the whole tortured artist thing.” The problem with this is that Cobain was not a tortured artist. He was a tortured person for certain. He was a person who rose to fame and fortune thanks to the dollars of people who he despised. A possible conclusion to reach when one is unpopular is that popularity is evil. Deep down Cobain must have felt that if so many people liked him he must be doing something morally wrong. This is well enough documented in popular magazines and television documentaries. What goes unnoticed by those who call him a tortured artist, is that it was always his fame that tortured him. Cobain’s particular neurosis had nothing at all to do with his art. Van Gogh was a tortured artist. He painted in such a way and with such devotion to his vision that there was really no place for him on this planet. Van Gogh was compelled by an internal truth to change the way humanity looks at the world. Cobain just wanted to make music that made him happy.
Popular music is great not because it gives birth to new forms, but because its forms arise democratically. One does not need to be trained to write a song. On does not go to Conservatory to learn how to write a pop song. One does not need to know music theory to make music. One does not need to know how to read music to write songs! One gets a hold of a guitar or a piano, learns three chords, then hums a melody over the chord progression with maybe a few words about love or about Rock and Roll or about the government. Do this and you become a songwriter.
It is little wonder then, that appreciating good pop art is so much easier than appreciating fine art. I can break this down into two questions one needs to ask of popular art to decide if it is worthwhile.
1. How many hands are in on the creative process?
Every good band is either a group of people writing songs together or one person bringing in a song he or she has written and teaching it to the rest of the band, hammering out individual parts and so forth. Every good television show (and these you can count on one hand) is the same. The best shows are sketch performance and cartoons. Both tend to be made by writer/performers, in other words performers who do their own writing. Dr. Katz was basically three people. Home Movies was basically three people. Monty Python are six guys. Kids in the Hall are six guys. This is why the original SNL was the best. Most television, most movies, most mainstream music, by which I mean the garbage that litters the various awards shows, is all soulless and watered down. All of it is created by teams of writers and producers to be given to someone else to perform and direct. These works are more marketing campaign than art. They are not the expressions of individuals or small groups but huge corporate endeavors designed for focus groups and target demographics.
2. How well do the creators of the work know the rules of the game?
Bands like 3 Doors Down, Nickleback, Matchbox 20 and Creed are not formed by record companies like all that American Idol/Brittany Spears nonsense. They make their own name for themselves, but they do it by making music that is strategically mediocre. They care more about making it big than making music. Though I have said elsewhere than film is a Salon art and not a popular art, we can apply this rule to the co-called autonomous directors in Hollywood as well. It is true that Spielberg, Scorsese, the Coens and the like can make whatever they want, but only because what the want to make are blockbusters. They may be autonomous financially, but intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, they have nothing original to offer.