Updated: Dec 27, 2021
Life for the artistically and creatively oriented can prove to be quite taxing, attributable to a varied, amorphous, and boundless collection of reasons, causes, attitudes, and symptoms. One such data point on this psychosocial matrix would undoubtedly be the disheartening belief in lack of novelty.
Everything has been said. Everything has been done. What then, could one individual possibly seek to add to the conversation? How could the cultural milieu, the masthead affixed to an ever-backwardly-amassing body of work, even begin to be affected by one splinter on the bow? And to what extent is that even an artist’s responsibility?
As capitalism continues its steel-toed, adamantine, goose-stepping lumber towards The End Of All Things and every minute act attributable to the beauty of unfettered, unbiased, simple human existence is co-opted, commodified, and stamped with a price tag, what’s uhhh… yeah what’s the goddam point?
Artists have been the lifeblood of every countercultural movement since the dawn of organized society. Although the early hominids probably didn’t charge members of other tribes to witness their cave drawings, not soon afterwards, sculptures, jewelry, and other exchangeable art became an invaluable cornerstone of wide-scale commerce; a bridge between otherness. Thus, the artifacts that remained now stand as somewhat comprehensive illustrations or representations of the entirety of a People’s (at any given time and space in the often ill-dug trenches of history) artistic life. Which, to be fair, seems pretty unfair.
In recent years, as the pandemic has helped shift the American populace farther from the tradition of rugged individualism and closer to the more universal tradition of ‘the people vs. the 1%’, being unique has seemingly become less and less important. Hell, go to any live performance of whatever Pitchfork says is cool these days, and you’ll see a rather homogenous group of marginally malnourished folks wearing slight variations of the same goddam outfit, the vast majority of which forgo dancing with emotion to a simple bob and sway. Indistinguishable parts of a whole. Starlings in a murmuration. Repeated brushstrokes in a stereogram. How truly communist!
Sometimes standing out, especially when it comes to art, is one of the more radical things an individual can do. By simply following the messages at the spearhead of whatever ideological body one has chosen to dedicate themselves to, in any capacity, that trickle down like nourishing milk to their trusting, infant mouths, one misses the opportunity to know through being and experiencing.
Theory is all well and good, but practice is when the real change comes.
Through my own personal journey of trying to do things my own way and figuring shit out through tossing myself into uncomfortable, scary, dangerous, and wholly unpredictable situations in the name of knowledge through experience, I frequently engage in periods of intense reflection to synthesize and understand these experiences and their lessons. I know who I am and I know how things make me feel. I alone have lived this particular life with these particular choices. Eventually, having amassed so many stories through my choices, I decided to do something constructive with them. I went and got a degree in screenwriting.
One specific screenplay I have been working on involves a codependent relationship. Write what you know, am I right?! Fuck it. This led a professor to recommend I watch Sid and Nancy, the 1986 film which depicts the all-encompassing trainwreck that was the relationship between Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols and his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. I decided to take that as a compliment.
While I watched it, I came to the scene in which Gary Oldman is giving his own performance of Sid Vicious’s own performance of a Frank Sinatra song. In Sid and Nancy, the scene illustrates how Sid has somewhat lost himself to his own performance. He is completely alone on stage, besides the stack of monitors stage left that project his concurrent action. The cameras filming the scene are intentionally shown.
This scene also highlights the state of Sid and Nancy’s relationship with one another. The frame lingers on her watching him with a big, goofy Nancy Spungen smile. She’s truly in love with this guy. Then, as rehearsed, he proceeds to fire off a prop gun, ‘killing’ the entire audience as squibs erupt. He shoots Nancy last, she feigns death, smiles, bounces out of her seat and embraces her love on stage as the lights shuts off.
(Illustration by: Ana Felix)
What this scene was directly recreating and interpreting was (the actual) Sid Vicious’s performance of “My Way” by Frank Sinatra within the 1980 British mockumentary film, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. The differences between Sid’s original performance and the interpretation of it 6 years later were immediately apparent.
Gary Oldman’s performance was notably, though minimally, ever so more over the top than the original. The audience was also significantly better lit in the 1986 retelling. Most importantly though, Nancy isn’t explicitly shown in the original audience and at the end of the 1980 performance, after shooting the audience, Sid simply walks back up the set of stairs on the set piece behind him and the curtains close.
What’s so fascinating about this is how what is, for argument’s sake, the same performance, can say such vastly different things with small artistic choices. The original Sid completely skewered Frank Sinatra, but that was the point. He was shamelessly lambasting and satirizing what Frank Sinatra, and a live theater audience, represent and suggest within society. It was intensely political, as all good art is.
With Gary Oldman’s performance, directed as he was by Alex Cox, it was more concerned with Sid’s reckless behavior and intense love for Nancy. It did that strikingly well and with artistic flair and that is precisely what that particular film was going for!
In one of the earliest recorded live performances of Frank Sinatra singing “My Way”, the Chairman of the Board slickly struts about the stage. He’s confident and wise, but with a faint hint of something underneath. Perhaps a knowing sadness or a self-effacing brand of irony? As he begins to mellifluously croon about his life thus far, he plants himself in front of his formidable and seated concert band lending their sonic support.
The camera pushes in and we see his expressions clearly. He is really fucking feeling this, huh? I mean he’s really putting his all into this song. Did this guy study Meisner? Hagan? Stanislavski? Probably not! Probably he is just one hell of a performer in his own stable, fatherly kind of way.
In watching all three of these performances, I thought about how art and music and performances recorded and trapped in time are such products of, not just the social climate and collections of personal histories that collaboratively produced them, but also products of the resources available to birth them.
Time keeps crawling ever forward, and with it, the human species. Societies change, sensibilities change, art and technology evolve and innovate, the earth wheezes, warning of its impending death rattle, and we continue to consume and create. So again, what’s the goddam point? The point is that we should live and create because we get to. Let’s face it, nobody with any real influence and power (read: money) to make significant change is reading this. It’s okay. You can relax! Deep breath in. Hold it. Reach up to the sky on your tippie toes. Exhale. It’s not your fault. It’s kind of really not your responsibility. If Sid had ever bothered going to rehab, he perchance would’ve learned to grant himself the serenity to accept the things he cannot change. But he didn’t. He railed and rallied against pretty much everything until it killed him. And we remember him for it. Many even celebrate him for it.
We can only accept the benign indifference of the universe and live accordingly, however that manifests itself to each of us. That’s what we get. We create, we protest, we resist, we gather, we writhe, we die. It’s never enough to simply believe in a movement or an idea. Change can only be ushered in, at any level, when differences and otherness are celebrated and encouraged for doing things their own way. Otherwise, things simply stay the same and everyone remains stagnant in their echo chambers, never bothering to really personally experience human existence on a broader level, simply being comfortable with how things are and a naive hope for how things could or ought to be. It’s the same in art and music.
By believing that there are no new thoughts to be shared, no new perspectives to explore, no new techniques to be learned, society as a whole suffers. By doing things your own way, informed by inspirations and shaped by contemporary experience, we can glow with the electric aliveness of human creativity and climb the hierarchy of needs. We create because we can. We exist because we do. We have a brief window of time with the divine opportunity to labor and toil under whatever society and circumstance. Beginning as a naked tabula rasa, experience and ideology are thrust onto and into us, creating an image of whatever society and circumstance deems ‘normal’ or at the very least, adapted to be best suitable for survival (under capitalism, this means being a good worker over a full human, always), until at some point, our only true responsibility and sphere of control boils down to what we choose to create and how we choose to behave - that is, how we express our individual selves as humans in this dehumanizing world.
All art and music and expression is a product of reflection. Each song has its own history of a particular life lived leading to it being written when it was and by whom, how it reached its technological immortality - in what manner was it recorded, trapping it in time to go on and create new histories with the lives it touches, which will go on to be informed by it, leading to new artistic spores to burst out, stretch a network of mycorrhiza and feast on what decomposes.