When I think of the idea I got, it amazes me that I didn’t know immediately that this absurd leap of hubris would be, in its way, just a long continuation of living on the skids – perhaps the final culmination. More humiliations, different kinds. And yet at the time, I felt energized like only a man with a prophetic mission could be. If it were anyone but me, I’d probably make fun of him mercilessly. And yet, as Orson Welles declared in The Lady from Shanghai: “When I start out to make a fool of myself, there’s very little can stop me.”
I’ll try to take you through the basic process that led to its creation, dear reader, and by now it’s probably back to just being you and me conversing intimately without the Boston hyenas inserting their warbling yelps into our conversation (of which they’re of course perfectly welcome to continue, I’ll write about them later…). So here, brief as best I can, is how I thought of it:
As much as movies are the great uniting force in American life (or used to be anyway…), music has always been the great divider. Go to any high school cafeteria and the tables will be divided by the clothes students wear and the music they listen to – while the clothes and music seem almost inevitably to be an affirmation of each other. Even two generations ago, you could almost tell the eventual schism of America’s dividing line between the tables those who took Bob Seeger to heart and those who took Pete Seeger; yeah, I know, that’s a blurring of eras and ideologies in the service of a not particularly witty homonym, but somewhere along the line, as a basically united postwar states of America began to unwind, so did America’s cultural consumption. As the decades wore on, all the shared experiences weent away. First our tastes in music, then our tastes in TV, then even our tastes in movies and food. Is it any wonder that Americans are continually misunderstanding one another when Americans of different backgrounds have no cultural experiences in common?
Fifty years ago, Americans fundamentally listened to the same music. As I said before, I realize that this is an absurd simplification, but the only musical division that truly counted between the tastes of the average American from New York and the average American from Wyoming had little to do with his location or worldview, but upon his age. If you were under 35 in 1968, your tastes probably centered around some form of rock, if you were over 35, your tastes probably centered around some form of jazz. Obviously, it was much, much more complicated than that. But the statistics of mass consumption do not lie. The #1 single in ’68? ‘Hey Jude.’ #2? ‘What a Wonderful World’ – even in his final years, Louis Armstrong’s fans showed they would follow him practically to the grave. But fairly soon thereafter, not even age was a reliable indicator of taste.
This is precisely the opposite of the lines we all were fed growing up about what music is supposed to do. Music, or so we’ve all been told, is supposed to be what unites us. It’s ‘the universal language.’ And yet, in this age of balkanization, broken society, and ‘Bowling Alone,’ people dig ever further into niches, and music is their greatest aid in doing so. In any one given sub-genre of music, there are literally tens of thousands of bands to listen to. It should be wonderful that so many musicians get so much exposure, but the end result for musicians is anarchy because no musician can guarantee a return on investment in them for their venues and record labels. It was always hard for an American musician, but hardly any jobbing musician knows for sure that any paycheck will pay the bills. Musical temp jobs, what we in the business call ‘gigs’ pay less than in the 1970’s, not when adjusted for inflation, but in numerical value!
But this is not only the situation of America’s musicians, this is the situation of America – more entertainment options than eve before: more television stations and shows, more breakfast cereals, more cheap crap to order from amazon, and internet streaming that allows for the entire world of music at the flick of a finger on a mouse. A democratic society knows what to do when its society has merely options that can be counted on one’s fingers, but when a society has innumerable options for what to think, what to feel, what to believe, whom to listen to, there is no way to weigh all the options in the balance. So many entertainment options are there that news itself has become what’s now called ‘infotainment’, where capsules of rage are marketed to target audiences on Fox News in the same way Comedy Central markets laughter. So crucial do we value our ability to be entertained that even the facts of the world themselves are subordinate to our ability to be entertained by them.
Living in DC as I did during the 2000’s, this was at least some of what was marinating in my head at that moment. So maybe, rather than having to correct the problem of the zeitgeist when it came directly to politics, perhaps someone out there could plug the root of the problem at the direct source of its hole, which is that entertainment itself was more serious than most people were taking it ten years ago (this was only at the beginning of ‘TV recap culture’ and think pieces about the sociological ramifications of every Beyonce dress). If we started looking at our entertainment as serious art, perhaps that newfound reverence would color our approach to other among life’s facets.
So I therefore got an absurdly grandiose idea into my head: create an arts organization based around singing various choral and a cappella pieces that, in a pique of my rather frequent manic delusions, I thought could take America by storm.
Step 1 – Find songs to arrange.
Step 2 – Arrange them in four-to-eight part harmony for eight hours every day.
Step 3 – Profit… How could this plan possibly fail?
And so I set about culling the trove of music, particularly American music, for the best of everything, all to finally be placed under one concert rubric that will finally show that music is music because all music can be both fun and serious: Gershwin, Dylan, Copland, Sondheim, Louis Armstrong, Otis Redding, Bach, Johnny Cash, Duke Ellington, Bill Monroe, Mozart, Springsteen, Public Enemy, Handel, Nina Simone, Stevie Wunder, Woody Guthrie, Haydn, Willie Nelson, Chuck Berry, Stravinsky, Billie Holiday, Irving Berlin, Robert Johnson, Bruckner, Joni Mitchell, Mahalia Jackson, Josquin de Prez, Muddy Waters, Palestirina, Hank Williams, Kurt Weill, Brahms, Al Green, Randy Newman, Cole Porter, John Lee Hooker, Claudio Monteverdi, Tito Puente, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, William Byrd, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Jerome Kern, Benjamin Britten, Dolly Parton, Kander & Ebb, Paul Simon, Leos Janacek, Frank Zappa, Lieber & Stoller, Thomas Tallis, Ralph Stanley, Merle Haggard, Dvorak, David Byrne, Lorenz Hart, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Carole King, and so on ad infinitum.
Just looking at that list, my mouth still waters. And yet, what in the hell was I trying to do with all this? Did I think a bunch of DC interns were really going to turn on the magic of America’s greatest performers? Of course I didn’t, the point was both much less and much more extravagant in its ambition. I didn’t want to build something that would make me into a musical celebrity, or at least so I told myself. Like so many delusional rock musicians profess, my heart’s desire was to heal the world through music. I wanted to build an organization that could show America that all of this music was all of our music, and that hiding in our little bubbles through which we define our paltry little identities only trivialize us, make our lives more meaningless, more mediocre, and only increase misunderstandings between people. I didn’t even want to keep these imaginary profits for myself. i wanted to create a non-profit. I wanted this chorus performing not in Churches or Embassies, but in every shelter, nursing home, hospital, public park. A press line I was particularly proud of was when I wrote that the organization “will judge its audience by the content of its character, and its music by the character of its contents.”
And yet I also wanted the strict rules of a corporation. All it would take, so I reasoned, is getting one chorus in DC off the ground, and then one for Montgomery County and another for Northern Virginia. Just three choruses to conduct every week in addition to the Jewish one I conducted every week in Pikesville… within a year or so I would (so I convinced myself) have a rock-solid business plan to monetize, franchise and corporatize it all around the country, singing my arrangements ready made from songs I choose. If people wanted to provide their own arrangements, so much the better. They’d sign a waiver and my company would get the copyright!
It would be nice to think that ‘America just wasn’t ready for an idea as good as that.’ But let’s just imagine that my hairbrained scheme took off in any capacity – it would inevitably have changed shape day by day from the original conception until it was whittled down like every other passion project any other person has ever attempted into something completely the opposite of what it was supposed to be in spirit and letter, and by the time it had, they might easily have exchanged its founding nincompoop idealist for some musical hustler who knew how to actually keep an organization afloat.
But therein lies the exact problem. You would think that success would be easier in a balkanized society like ours, where everyone is free to follow their bliss and make their own way. And yet the more deregulated our society gets, the more Americans find it difficult to make their way in the world, and they find it more difficult today than at any point since the Great Depression. In a world where there seems to be so many roads to prosperity, there are only two roads that seem to get anybody there. One path – corporate life, political life or civil service, is so regimented that any that any small deviation from the dotted line risks automatic demotion, the other, the entrepreneur, is so free to pursue one’s passions that there is no help along the way. But in our society, what are us dreamy artist types but entrepreneurs who have to be as much Elon Musk as Beethoven to ever achieve any prosperity? What are those shy, investigatory academic types but ‘Life of the Mind Inc.’ where they are far more rewarded for towing the academic orthodoxies than they are for revolutionary research? Both paths favor the cleanly organized, the self-starter, the creative type has no shot at all of any prosperity unless he or she is 1% Beethoven and 99% Steve Jobs. Is it any wonder why so many artists and academics turn to various forms of radical anticaptialism when those of us whose creativity is not matched by ability at self-promotion are thought as valuable to society as toxic waste?
In career, as in so much else in contemporary America, a requirement for being part of a community is to surrender almost the entirety of your individuality. If you want to do substantive work outside the nine dots, society will throw every obstacle in your way. Even when you think you’re living outside the nine dots, you’re rebelling in a pre-proscribed way. The rock and pop and hip-hop you listen to is underwritten by corporations, the radical politics which millions of Americans subscribe both right and left is either programmed into you by the corporate funding of Fox News and Breitbart, or by academics whose chairs are endowed by wealthy donors and alumni. So ironclad is the American establishment’s hold on us that the more we think we’ve rebelled against them, the more tightly they can grip us. It would seem there is no way to rebel against it except to travel to the very foundations of its ethos and reform it on the inside from the very bottom up, because the more we rebel, the more we seem to surrender our very identities to the rebellion, and rather than gain a sense of self through rejecting the larger culture, we lose our sense of self rather than gain it.
There is no plausible explanation for the era of Trump that doesn’t square the fact that whether we subscribe to the right-wing noise machine or intersectional internet, the payment for full membership is a renunciation of a large part of our selves. We come to define ourselves no by our personality, but by our identities. Were I personally a Trumper, I’d be more white male than I am Evan. Were I an intersectionalist, I’d be more a fighter against white male privilege than me. And were my identity anything but a white-passing male, the demand to be more what I am than who I am would be still greater. I’ve seen it happen to too many people I know from both sides of American discourse to not see how indoctrination in their movements alter the curvature of one’s thinking. Bias becomes inherently suspect in anyone who does not share their own biases, accusations become tantamount to proof, and disagreements are not merely civil or even shouting matches (the later, after all, is the Jewish way…), they are cause for the end of friendships over differences of belief – so what happens if people change their minds tomorrow? Do you reaccept them into your lives? Do you view them with suspicion until they’ve fully reformed? And once they’re suspected of heresy, can they ever reform enough to earn your trust back?
Anyway, this was supposed to be about my thought processes in 2009, but I see that as always this year, 2018 has taken over. Let’s pray 2019 is very different.