Model Status

Putting yourself in the public eye as a music artist—whether you’re Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Jay-Z, a minor label indie band, or a composer—is putting yourself in the position of a teacher. It means automatically assuming the role of lecturer; it means announcing that you have something to say. For me, that’s one of the coolest things about the music business: the potential to do something good and to educate. The media should be conscious of, and prioritize, educational value over business objectives. Ideal, moral celebrities should be self-aware and own their responsibilities.

When thinking of people who exemplify the ideal music celebrity, I think of Ani DiFranco. Ani is one of those artists who is confident and comfortable with who she is and isn’t about to change herself just because a record executive thinks it’ll make her sell. Not only is she a talented songwriter, lyricist, and guitar player, a hard worker, and a savvy businesswoman, but most importantly she is self-aware. She’ll make informed political, feminist, or queer statements because she understands her sphere of influence as a public figure and her status as a role model. My choice of Ani comes, of course, out of some serious personal bias.

I’m not going to name drop anybody I would consider a “bad role model,” because that’s dangerous territory and them’s fightin’ words, but certainly flaws of such a failed role model would include lack of talent, originality, articulacy, education, or work ethic; a lack of respect for minorities, women, and the queer community; and alcoholism or drug addiction. When listed in this way, these flaws seem obvious almost to the point of not being worth stating. But if they’re so obvious then why do they apply to so many Top 40 music artists?

There’s a thin line between parenting and censorship. After all, who is to judge what constitutes morality? I don’t have a solution, just a problem. I think there should be more of a cultural awareness about the intrinsic educational quality of celebrity, as opposed to a disregard for this responsibility in order to make money. Though this is less of a problem in the world of contemporary composition and more an epidemic of the commercial music world, the same rules should apply to composers. When trying to frame my everyday decisions into some sort of moral context relating to my career aspirations as a composer, lately I’ve been more self-aware. By throwing my music into the public forum, I am throwing myself into the public forum as a figure to be judged, and I want to be judged as a positive role model.

What do you think of this theory? What would you say are the qualities necessary for a good role model and who, for you, exemplifies this ideal celebrity?

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15 thoughts on “Model Status

  1. philmusic

    “I think there should be more of a cultural awareness about the intrinsic educational quality of celebrity, as opposed to a disregard for this responsibility in order to make money…”

    Joelle:

    Part and parcel of celebrity is the yearly “choosing of the cause” that a celebrity will become a spokes person, contributor, etc etc etc. No doubt there are famous folks who authentically care about something other than themselves but for many of us it is galling to see issues we care about fronted by famous folks for which we have no respect at all. Sometimes there is also self serving agendas attached. Like more personal publicity for example.

    Ok celebrity exists and is a powerful influence on American culture.

    Perhaps one would be a fool to dismiss it or to think celebrity unnecessary.

    I guess that’s me.

    Phil Fried

    Famous Phil’s Page

    Reply
  2. Chris Becker

    “…but certainly flaws of such a failed role model would include lack of talent, originality, articulacy, education, or work ethic; a lack of respect for minorities, women, and the queer community; and alcoholism or drug addiction. When listed in this way, these flaws seem obvious almost to the point of not being worth stating. But if they’re so obvious then why do they apply to so many Top 40 music artists?”

    Alcoholism is a disease. Alcoholism is not the result of a lack of morals. It’s not a “flaw” in one’s moral make up or personal character.

    Drug addiction and addiction in general is not synonymous with lack of talent, education, or work ethic. Addiction is not a “flaw.” One is powerless against addiction, but once he/she admits this, they can find help.

    And when it comes to help with addiction, one size does not fit all, but that’s another subject…

    Now if we’re talking about behavior towards others, a lot of artists I admire were or are not the most wonderful human beings in the world. We love and need our devils along with our saints, but again, that may be another subject…

    The older I get (ahem), I realize that you have to give people a break. No one is the perfect friend, or the perfect artist, or the perfect spokes person.

    Reply
  3. BAVanWinkle

    I’m personally of the persuasion that no one owes it to society to be a role model. Most of the musicians out there are just working hard to be successful and adding the pressure on them to be upstanding citizens at the same time (when that may not be who they are at all) is unreasonable. Miles Davis and Charles Mingus were two of the best jazz musicians/composers to have ever lived and both had serious character flaws, which probably influenced their music (I don’t think we’d have Haitian Fight Song if Mingus were a pacifist). I don’t think we’d be better off without their influence even though they were terrible role models.

    Seperation of the art from the artist is essential to me. I know people who hate Wagner’s music strictly because he was a deplorable human being, and frankly, I think that is a terrible position to take. If someone’s music isn’t to your liking, that is fine, but leave their personal life out of the judgement of their music. With the constant shifting of social values, it is also impossible to fairly critique someone in this way without being tainted by your own personal beliefs.

    It also doesn’t help that media has basically eroded the idea of a private life for most public figures, making it near impossible for someone to be a good role model unless they waste a tremendous amount of effort in analyzing their every decision. I’d rather people judge me based on my music (the part of me that I present to the public) and not on every character flaw and moment of indiscretion in my life.

    Of course, this view goes both ways, it also means that someone’s mediocre music doesn’t get a free pass if their rallying for a good cause and you want them to succeed because they are a great person. Being a good person and a good musician are two entirely seperate things which should not be confused.

    Reply
  4. philmusic

    “…why do they apply to so many Top 40 music artists?” …”

    I think its a question of ownership. How can you claim ownership of a manufactured success? What kind of life it that? What would that lead too? By the way performing in bars every night doesn’t help much.

    Others feel that the profession cynically encourages self destructive behavior as (besides publicity)it increases profits for the middle men and the corporate suits. Thought the pop music world is full of trends and fickle longevity is the key to a successful music career.

    Stoned folks don’t ask for more money.

    Drugs kill.

    Phil Fried

    Phil’s clean page

    Reply
  5. Lisa X

    I think its a question of ownership. How can you claim ownership of a manufactured success? What kind of life it that? What would that lead too?

    Phil, it is allot like any other collaborative work on manufactured products like medicine, computers, space ships, etc. It certainly takes getting used to being a small part of a huge team that creates something unimaginable to a person alone. As with hand made products, the results are inconsistent.

    Others feel that the profession cynically encourages self destructive behavior as (besides publicity)it increases profits for the middle men and the corporate suits.

    This situation exists across the stylistic spectrum. Doesn’t the history of western classical music romanticize self destructive behavior too?

    Reply
  6. philmusic

    “…it is allot like any other collaborative work on manufactured products like medicine, computers, space ships, etc.”.

    Nope.

    Not in my experience.

    Phil Fried, a real person

    Reply
  7. Juan Calderon

    From my experience, I don’t think there is really what could be called a “bad” role model in the arts, especially when one is young. I would say ‘bad’ role models could be “gateway” figures into something more profound. It all depends on individual inclinations. In my case, my desire to perform and create music was ignited by Black Metal, Punk, and other such “junk.” A lot of it was pretty violent, biased stuff, I admit, but I just loved the vitality of the music back then. It was cathartic. So far, I haven’t killed anyone, nor am I addicted to anything… I don’t even smoke! Now I’m married and about to begin my doctoral degree in composition here in NY.

    Phil Fried’s Page, in case you haven’t seen it yet.

    Reply
  8. marknowakowski

    Not to pick a fight, but I enjoy pointing out the inherent contradictions in relativistic statements:

    Statement #1:
    but certainly flaws of such a failed role model would include… a lack of respect for minorities, women, and the queer community; and alcoholism or drug addiction.

    and Statement #2:

    After all, who is to judge what constitutes morality?

    The first statement implies a moral worldview, the second disregards the ability to make such a statement.

    To continue: plenty of people — including celebrities — don’t agree with the leftist Hollywood laundry-list of social causes, and are prepared to give (in your own words) “informed” statements to the contrary. Are they bad celebrities? Bad people? After all, “who is to judge what constitutes morality?”

    Reply
  9. Joyfulgirl

    I am overwhelmed by the quantity of intelligent, thoughtful comments on my tiny little essay. Thank you all so much for the input! There’s a lot to think about here.

    First, to clarify some things. I probably should have expanded “There’s a thin line between parenting and censorship. After all, who is to judge what constitutes morality? I don’t have a solution, just a problem.” into an entire paragraph because, if you read carefully, it’s a disclaimer that everything I stated is food for thought, rather than a declaration of my moral constitution. It’s also a disclaimer stating that I’m not sure where the line between responsible media and censored media lies. I’m all against censorship: particularly censorship of the sheltered-parents-scolding-Ozzy-Osborne-for-corrupting-their-children variety. But I’m all for self-awareness as a creator of media.

    I really liked what BAVanWinkle said about calling for a Derridian “death of the author,” which I agree with on a critical level. But I was thinking, in this essay, more about role models for the 11-18 year old demographic, as opposed to a critically educated audience. I guess I was thinking specifically in terms of a rebuttal to a certain piece of investigative journalism, this documentary The Merchants of Cool (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cool/), about “The creators and marketers of popular culture for teenagers.” But for some reason, it wasn’t until I started reading these comments that I realized this connection.

    Also in response to BAVanWinkle, some art is inseparable from the philosophy of the artist. For example, experiencing a John Cage piece is enhanced when you keep in mind all the quirky idiosyncrasies, and anarchic philosophies of the composer. But I agree: Wagner wouldn’t be the same if you actually began wondering what was going on inside of his anti-Semitic head.

    To Philmusic: I didn’t, by any means, intend to glorify the adoption of political causes by celebrities for mere career advancement. I do think, however, there is a way to be advance a greater good as an agent of the media. For example, there is an intrinsic link between civil rights movements and media exposure: for example, The Ellen Show and gay marriage, or The Cosby Show and African American civil rights.

    To Chris Becker: I recognize that addiction is not a flaw, and that certain people are simply genetically prone to it (and I have a tremendous amount of respect for anyone brave enough to overcome addiction), but I also recognize that there is a population of people who use drugs and alcohol excessively for recreational purposes, which often leads to impaired judgment. But my list of flaws was mostly hypothetical, bouncing ideas around, and now we’re nitpicking the little details – pretend I didn’t add those to my list of flaws if it makes digesting the essay easier.

    Keep bringing on the criticisms! :)

    Reply
  10. ThePoetIsALittleGod

    DotA
    I think that was actually Roland Barthes that wrote “The Death of the Author”, rather than Derrida. Barthes was also just way chiller.

    Reply
  11. Joyfulgirl

    Death of the author correction
    My bad, my friend just reminded me that “Death of the Author” was written by Roland Barthes. But it influenced Derrida!

    Reply
  12. Lisa X

    Hey Phil, I’m curious, what experiences gave you the idea that music as a manufactured product is a special case, different than all the other manufactured things that enrich and improve our lives?

    Lisa X, slightly less real

    Reply
  13. Lisa X

    Just about everything keeping me alive, comfortable, and stimulated like this computer, my shoes, my vegetables, etc. have come to me as a result of some sort of manufactured success. So I’m wondering how manufactured success is unique in music.

    Reply
  14. BAVanWinkle

    heh… Well if I got nothing else out of this day, at least I know what name to ascribe to my philosophy now, and have some reading to do.

    And as a quick response to the John Cage argument. I think it is equally important to remove the person in cases of extreme or charismatic personalities such as his, if not more important. I remember when I was first introduced to Cage’s music, it seemed like it was more important to my prof’s to give a biography of the man than to play his music and talk about it. In retrospect it seems like trying to justify what he did, rather than enjoying it for what it is. And much of his music does not need such a defense. When I’m interested in the quirky personality of the composer, I read their biography. It seems like these justification always came along with composers who put rigid emphasis on the process of composition rather than the product, as if the process was the art rather than what was heard. But that is a gripe for another day.

    While I agree that context can add meaning, it should not be required. The Strauss tone poems, or for a more recent example Winds of Nagual, are great, even if you don’t know the story, but you may be able to enjoy them on a different level with it. But even those elements are seperate from the personality of the composer. Anyways, I’ll leave it there for now, as I feel I’ve derailed the conversation enough as it is. I will have to check out the link to the PBS documentary when I get home though.

    Reply

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