Hemingway, The Weakerthans, Taylor Swift and the value of art
An ancillary Facebook friend, one I can’t even remember, liked an article on BuzzFeed about books that changed lives. I’m a recovering English major, a journalist and a writer—and still I groaned. It’s such a lazy way of describing what great art can do. Or even, what any art can do, whether or not it’s canonized as great. But I clicked the link and was surprised. The article was filled with user-submitted comments, snapshots into a moment or time period when a book served them well.
I guess headlines are bound to oversimplify the message. I don’t know if anything I’ve ever read has fundamentally changed my life. A book doesn’t grab you by the scruff of the neck and toss you in the right direction. What happens is subtler than that. It’s a slight merge, a granular change in thinking.
There are a few works of art that I know, for a fact, shifted my perception. I wouldn’t say that my life was changed, but (sorry Drake) nothing was the same.
I don’t remember when or why I first read, “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway. I only remember the feeling that took me over when I finished the story. You don’t have to identify with the central theme of the story for art to be great. But I think it helps. I finished that story and I felt this overwhelming feeling of this is the thing I’ve been waiting to read. For me, it tackled this existential loneliness and the need to feel interconnected in the great big nothing. Or maybe it’s just the story of an old man slowly dying in the electric light of a café. I just know that I finished the story, and immediately started it over. I couldn’t get enough.
Over the years I’ve returned to “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” often. I’ve written a thesis centered on it. Each visit to its few pages gives me something new. Hemingway told stories that defined the iceberg model. You read the tip of the mass, the surface level, but beneath that is a mountain of foundational information you never get to see. And as I change, what I can see below the surface changes with me. The story is in a constant state of flux and each reading shifts me almost imperceptibly.
In contrast to ACWLP, I remember precisely when I discovered my favorite band. I was reading Chris Jones’ opus on why the term “we” is used to describe people’s favorite sports teams. And he professed he would never use “we” for The Weakerthans, despite his near obsession with the band.
I loved the article, and trusted anyone who wrote for Grantland, my favorite site. I listened to the most popular The Weakerthans songs on Spotify and was blown away. But I moved on. Like ACWLP, the band kept drawing me back. I kept digging deeper and deeper into their catalogue. I listened closely to the lyrics and realized how poetic it all was (again, recovering English major). The songs started to take on meaning for me. I connected them with times in my life. “Left and Leaving” will always be me not being able to sleep at night. “Sun In An Empty Room” will always be leaving Chicago. I’ve spent hours listening to “Live at the Burton Cummings Theatre,” straight through. The Weakerthans play the type of music I would want to play if I could, you know, play music (more than five or six chords, anyway). It’s weird, lyrical and non-linear, like all my favorite writing, but told through music. I still listen to them just about every day, and the band might not have changed my life, but they did give me a cornerstone, something to return to. And isn’t that enough?
I think that’s what great art does, it provides context and clarity, more than a driving force. It’s collected knowledge and beauty distilled through effort and talent.
Which brings me to Taylor Swift. Listen, I want artists to get paid. And a lot, nay, a whole expletive lot of people love Taylor Swift. She deserves to get paid well. While her music might not be the music that shifts my perception, for many people it does just that. And by all accounts she seems to be a thoughtful, talented singer/songwriter.
She pulled her music from Spotify recently, however. I’m not sure what to make of it. After all, I’m the same guy who will argue that filthy rich athletes deserve to be paid more (by almost all accounts guys like LeBron James, Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant are underpaid by their franchises).
Swift spoke to Time, after her representation and Spotify released differing payment numbers and statements. If Swift wants to pull her music from Spotify, that’s her choice, and neither she nor her record label are in any way obligated to do anything. But Swift’s interview with Time is full of references to the value of music, and the perception of how much her music is worth. Spotify, she said, was lessening that value by giving her music away. She told Time:
“With Beats Music and Rhapsody you have to pay for a premium package in order to access my albums. And that places a perception of value on what I’ve created. On Spotify, they don’t have any settings, or any kind of qualifications for who gets what music. I think that people should feel that there is a value to what musicians have created, and that’s that.”
Sure, money can determine the value of art, quite literally. I suppose it is distinctly measurable by dollars and cents, and the payout amount for each click. But Spotify, undoubtedly, helps music reach millions of people. It’s where I first heard my favorite band. With a few keystrokes I had the entire discography of a group that would stay with me forever.
So sure, books and other art might not change lives. But art, great art, does have a near-mystical way of causing a wonderful feeling of interconnectedness. We can create something that cuts through the messiness of life and provides a little clarity for other human beings. Isn’t that a thing that should be shared? And sure it should be paid for (and perhaps at a greater rate than Spotify does). But if it’s truly lasting, won’t we go out in droves, and pay a lot of money, to see it done in the flesh?
We can measure art in dollars and cents, but in a way I think that cheapens it. Art can’t literally change our lives. But it can inspire us to do it ourselves. I sit here writing this, getting ready to publish my words, my precious time-consumed, for free. I’ll do so because I want someone to read it, and to me, for now, that feels like enough.