In times of turbulence (or, I should say, times when for whatever reasons we are acutely aware of turbulence) I and many in my line of work contemplate the big question of whether music is a sufficiently “important” pursuit. My honest answer is “yes and no.” I’ll explain the ambivalence in a moment, but it is perhaps best illustrated by this conversation I overheard recently between St. Peter and a recently departed musician reconciling his contribution to humanity.
St. Peter: Good day, sir.
Musician: Whassuuuuup! Dag, those gates are pearly!
St. Peter: (blushing) Yes, I know. We get them polished every Tuesday. Anyway . . .
Musician: So can I just go in or do I need to get my hand stamped or something?
St. Peter: Well, it’s not quite that simple.
Musician: What do you mean? I was an agent of good? If it wasn’t for that tainted batch of acid, I would still be down there making a joyful noise unto the Lord.
St. Peter: Hmm, I’m not sure I’m buying it.
Musician: Are you kidding me Pete? I mean, music is the universal language of love. Doesn’t that speak for itself?
St. Peter: Maybe sometimes. Are you saying that you healed the sick and uplifted the downhearted?
Musician: Broseph, you clearly never heard my solo on “Wild Thing” (begins air guitaring)
St. Peter: Perhaps not, but really, I have to say, I question whether your work quite lives up to that standard.
Musician: (feigning a dagger to the chest) Et tu, bro-te? Are you saying I needed to practice more?
St. Peter: Well, that’s probably true, but it’s kind of not my point. Was your music created with the intention of moving people’s hearts? And if so, did your comportment offstage support that goal?
Musician: Rock and Rooooollllll!
St. Peter: (raised eyebrow)
Musician: (incredulously) Broski, get a sense of HUMOR. Of course! I always tried to make the people happy not only during the show but AFTER!
St. Peter: (eyebrow raised further) Sex with groupies doesn’t count.
Musician: Well, er, uh . . .
St. Peter: Okay, this is not going to work . . .
Musician: Wait, wait, there was that time that I . . .
St. Peter: Save your breath, “bro.” Don’t worry, you’re not going all the way down there. There are a lot of great musicians in purgatory and you’ll have a perfectly decent time there while we wait for the policy on this subject to be clarified administratively. Your case will be reviewed in the order received once we get there . . . between you and me, that’ll be a while. Step aside, please, the shuttle leaves soon.
As you can see, there are no easy answers to this question. Okay, so I can’t say for sure that this conversation actually happened (I concede that I mis-hear things sometimes) but it is instructive nonetheless.
To me, the St. Peter imagery (while admittedly cheeky) underscores what makes it actually a fairly straightforward question. In essence, what makes one’s time on earth a net positive? Or, to put it a different way whenever/however a day of reckoning might come, what will make your case look good, so to speak? Or when the end of the year or the next birthday comes, do you look at that year and think “I made use of this time to make the world better” or not?
Now, of course, how you make this calculation is a very individualized thing depending on your beliefs of life, spirit, deities and what comes next, among other things. If you don’t feel that you have any responsibility to do good, then it’s pretty easy (though in that case I haven’t the vaguest idea why you’ve read this far). For the rest of us, there are infinite ways to evaluate that responsibility and measure what actions sync up with it.
Speaking for myself, music both does and doesn’t fit into the equation. It does in the sense that the potential to catalyze true beauty and move the hearts and souls and minds of other people is a profound and utterly necessary thing. Whether Thelonious Monk or Nina Simone or Muddy Waters or Peter Gabriel , there is so much music that has lifted me when I was down, challenged me to be a better person or otherwise galvanized my soul – and doing so in a manner completely unrelated to the artists’ lives away from the stage or recording studio. This demonstrates conclusively to me that the substance in music (at least some music) is utterly necessary to humankind and I’ve seen so much evidence of this.
But is it ENOUGH? That’s a matter of reckoning for each individual, really. It’s no secret that Miles Davis had some, er, personal idiosyncrasies that would make one question whether he was a “good person.” It’s also no secret that he produced music of profound beauty, music with a depth and sensitivity that has moved millions of people. So did that cancel out the other stuff? I don’t know and you don’t know either unless you were there for his meeting with St. Peter. And if you were, why haven’t you posted the video on YouTube?
Miles is, in fact, often cited when I or others ask this kind of question, and frankly I find that it is most often to obfuscate the question. That is, “Miles was a jerk and we’re glad he existed, and therefore the mere fact that I make music absolves me of the responsibility to contemplate this issue.” And maybe that’s valid, what do I know? But for my value system it’s irresponsible to dismiss it that simply.
It’s important to note that if we’re just talking about careers in broad terms, then that’s only part of the equation. To me music is a “service” career, but there are all sorts of others (politics, education, social work, etc.) whose practitioners struggle with the same questions. And in the end there are great public servants and corrupt or apathetic ones . . . and there are people in all sorts of other fields that are not inherently based on doing good who are making a difference in people’s lives.
In the end, is your life centered around goodness? Are you using your work as a vehicle for that? Are you using your time “off the job” for that? Are your seemingly mundane moments and interactions governed by that? THESE are the questions I ask myself all the time, and I’m always trying to make the answer “yes.” On the days when I am devoted to making music, that is where that energy is funneled. On the days when I am devoted to teaching, parenting or running errands, that is where that energy is funneled.
Do I think I’m capable of making music that can profoundly impact people? With all due humility, yes – if that weren’t so I certainly would no longer be putting my body through the grind. And I will keep trying until I no longer can (or probably longer – who are we trying to kid?). Do I think that music could be potent enough to outweigh apathy or avoidance in the face of my responsibility to live a life of kindness, courage and awareness? Regardless of whatever St. Peter might have to say, I don’t intend to find out.