On a gig back in 2010, a female singer I played for was setting up to play the Library Bar at the Royal York hotel in Toronto. This was a small show, but a big deal because she had managed to finagle getting the vice president of ASCAP to come and watch her act. ASCAP is the biggest music publisher in North America, representing nearly all of our popular music including the biggest names from the US and Canada. She had insisted at the time that she wanted to help me out and so arranged for me to play a couple of my songs for him as well after the show in the foyer of the Royal York.
By the time we sat down I was nervous as hell. I don’t get nerves often but I couldn’t help but feel this was going to be something like a moment. An older man, grey hair receding but with sharp eyes took a chair across a small table from me in front of the entrance of the Imperial Room (pictured above). His face unreadable but clearly at his ease. I started into Luck Favours the Bold, a song that I had written recently and was pretty proud of. After the first chorus he asked me to stop.
“There are too many chords. You need to stay on one chord until the idea is done, then you switch. Try it again, but don’t switch chords ’til the phrase is over.”
In my head, as always, there was The Stubborn, but I was also ready to give this guy what he wanted and at least see where the exercise would take me. Okay, let’s try it. I tried it. It was… It was dumb. The guitar part was made of chords, but played and sounded like a riff. Imagine taking the Twist & Shout riff and saying, “Just do one note per phrase”. It didn’t make sense. But for whatever reason, he was pleased.
“There, you see? Isn’t that better?”
“Yeah.. It’s.. It does feel.. It’s not the same!”
“Also what’s happening in that second part of the verse?”
But I’ve been here before girl, and though fingers itch to rest upon your face
It’s been a while and these weathered feet they fear to change the pace
“What is that?”
“I’m talking about being hesitant. That to get involved is taking a risk for me, emotionally.”
“….” he said, looking unimpressed.
Next I tried out Know Your Name. This tune I was sure, this riff is so riff, he couldn’t possibly want me to change it. It’s the riffiest.
As a little girl, hope to meet prince charming
But as the days go on, her sense of wonder’s fading, fading
Cause there’s no lightening strike, no doors held open
So why put up a fight? Why waste time hopin’? Hoping…
It’s the life he knows, 7am every morni..
“Who’s this guy?”
“Who are you talking about now?”
“Well, it’s a new character. The song describes three different people, all facin…”
“You have to go back to the girl.”
“Look, no one cares man. No one cares about you, no one cares about this guy. No one cares that you’re ‘hesitant’ because no one wants to hear you’re not sure of yourself. You’re supposed to be singing to the girl. You need her to feel like you’re going to save her, you’re going to make her happy. Your only goal is to make lonely girls feel like the song is about them.”
“I… I don’t thi..”
“You need to write songs like that. Do you know Al Green?”
“‘Let’s Stay Together’ Al Green?”
“Yeah, he wrote perfect songs, ya know? It’s about the woman, about you rescuing her.”
At this point, my heart is breaking. Not at the criticism, either, or the reference. Who doesn’t love Al Green? But suddenly, I feel like I’m sitting across from a dinosaur. And I had had all this excitement, all this hope that I didn’t even realize I had built into this moment. Somewhere buried in my cynicism and distrust of the music industry was this little spark that said, THIS COULD BE HUGE. And then… what? Music is supposed to be what? No one cares about me? You think I’m supposed to be “saving” women? What the fuck from? A song can’t be compelling if it addresses anyone but a love interest… are you fucking kidding me?
Don’t get me wrong, I fucking LOVE love songs. Because even when I hate them, I’m GOING to experience that someday, and when I do, that song I thought was cheesy is going to make me break down inside. It’s going to shape my experience because I’ll know someone else was here. Someone else stood where I am and they said this shit and it’s so fucking true, and even if you don’t like the song, you understand for the first time the honesty with which it was written.
But are you kidding me? Is that all you are looking for from music? Is that all you want? And is Al Green the last time you listened to new music? Seriously?
Hope came crashing down. I felt crushed. I can’t be a part of that. Any of it.
I can’t be part of a machine that feeds on the insecurities of young women and tells them their only hope is that a ‘boy like me’ will come along and fix everything for them. Ironically, the song does eventually go back to the girl, but when it does it’s about the woman knowing her own worth before finding someone to love her (and unspoken, if that’s what she even wants).
On top of that, this guy just shat on MOST of my favourite music, much of which is not centred on man as a superhero. Why can’t I write a song about men being vulnerable and/or scared for their own emotional well-being? Why wouldn’t I write about the human condition NOT in how it relates to the heteronormative romantic narrative?
He didn’t see any of this happen behind my eyes. I smiled and thanked him for his time. He offered that he’d be here the next day (it was Canadian Music Week) and that I should come back with more songs or having worked on what he said.
“Absolutely, thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it”
“No problem kid, see you tomorrow.”
I walked away knowing I wasn’t going back. I would never. In the first few steps, my mind trying to make sense of it, I actually found a chuckle in myself… my mom is going to be so mad. My mom inquired often about auditioning for Canadian Idol or this contest or that opportunity. She had had the dream of music in her for so long, but life got in the way. It wasn’t fair, but life rarely is. Even though she never asked me to, I carried her dream with me for a long time too. I think seeing that in me, asking about this stuff was her way of saying “Are you still dreaming?”. I would always want to say “Yes”. Problem is, I actually got close. A few times I got to stand at the threshold and just look in. Too close. Close enough to catch glimpses of the futility and disappointment of trying to fit in to that world. To play it out by their rules. Time-honoured rules. And even the new ones that came with the digital age.
I couldn’t do it. I still can’t today. I don’t know if my music is worthy of a larger audience. And if it were, I don’t know that there’s much I can do to control that without contorting myself into someone or something I’m not. That or contort the music, which I can’t do.
So fuck it. No fame for me. Not even an attempt at it. And suddenly, with that thought, comes release. I have no one I need to please. I have no goals I’m trying to reach for anyone but myself. I’m here to satisfy my need to make music and nothing else. No games. No hoops. No expectations but what I bring with me. And the dream didn’t die. I don’t even know if I ever really held the dream in the same way my mom did, but it’s definitely different now. It’s matured, along with myself. [For those who know me, probably MORE than I have. BECAUSE POOP JOKES.]
A part of me can’t help but wonder if maybe I was just not cut-out for it. Maybe my supposed integrity gave me the out I always wanted, which was to not try and so not risk failure. But to create art, with or without an audience, is to risk failure. Every stroke of the brush, every sweep of the leg, every strike of the pick is an opportunity to look the fool, expose yourself, to be found wanting. And that’s a process I still love. Everything else is just the risk of having more people know about you or not. That’s a process I just don’t care for, and never really have.
So… yeah. Fuck it. And ASCAP dude, fuck you too. Fuck you for reinforcing my bias and distrust. And thanks. For confirming who I needed to be listening to. Myself.
ADDENDUM: I am aware of and inspired by those who have both integrity and tenacity and who bravely forge ahead in this industry. I also know, even among the executives, there are great people who care deeply about great music. I didn’t mean to sound pessimistic at your expense. I am in awe of your ethic, strength, and grit. Forge ahead in whatever way feels honest to you. As I’m really fond of saying, you do you.
music & lyrics by J. Everett
As a little girl, hope to meet prince charming
But as the days go on, her sense of wonder’s fading, fading..
Cause there’s no lightning strike, no doors held open
Why put up a fight? Why waste time hoping? Hoping…
It’s the life he knows, 7am every morning
Same car, same clothes, same cup of joe from the same tim horton
And he used to dream, even if he don’t remember
But this old routine, will be the suit that he wears when they put him under
Youth needs to know, that their hands can make the difference
And then push so hard, only to be defeated by their own resistance
‘Cause change is slow, waiting on love such a gamble
But don’t dig that hole my friend, cause complacency is not inevitable
Little girl keep your head up cause if you know your worth, the right one can find you
Old man know you’re fed up, take off the clothes you wear; they only confine you
Young man school your anger, you’ll only change the game if rage is behind you
I do know your name, yes I do know your name.