Mark Terry

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Strange Form of Prostitution

October 27, 2009
A number of years ago I heard Terry Gross, host of NPR's "Fresh Air" interview Frank Zappa. It's always stuck with me and I was thinking about it today (because, you know, once you get past what you're having for lunch, how you're going to get your work done today, what's on TV tonight, the weather, and sex--not necessarily in that order--you've got to think about SOMETHING). And so I hunted down a transcript from it (The bold is mine):

Terry Gross: The songs that you've done are almost all parody. You're mocking conventions, and never kind of pouring your heart out, you know? And I wonder why.

Frank Zappa: Well first of all. There's no need for anyone to understand what lives in my heart, if in fact such an organ exists. Secondly, in contemporary terms, I think that it is a despicable thing to do, to earn your living by sharing your personal inner turmoil with somebody else for money. I don't like those kinds of singer-songwriter types who are always weeping about the tragedy in their life. I mean, why? Who needs it? Everybody else has got theirs.

Terry Gross: Well, I mean you don't have to be whining to sing a good ballad.

Frank Zappa: Well... Yeah but usually they are. And that's the problem.

* * *

It is an interesting form of prostitution, isn't it? I was just talking to a friend of mine and she has a friend who is a very successful painter who sells paintings for $10,000 each and often does shows of 20 themed paintings, and my friend said her friend (gets confusing, doesn't it?) the painter was totally neurotic, but didn't want to take meds or go into therapy because she was afraid her art would suffer as a result.



Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I kind of agree with Zappa but then again I think writing and performing songs and writing fiction are very different. When a singer performs he or she is acting out the song usually, playing the role suggested by the song. Even if the singer is performing a song written by someone else, about someone else's heartbreak for instance. Naturally when a song writer does his or her own song, it seems like the singer is singing about what's in his or her own heart. Which may or may not be true. But I don't think you often have singers saying, "Okay, I'm going to do this song about having a broken heart but it isn't about me or what I feel."

Writers have more of a choice. They can use their inner feelings or whatever to inform their fiction. They can attribute some of their inner feelings to fictional characters. Or, on the other hand, they can make a big deal out of the fact that they are spilling their guts and this is the real stuff about themselves, and, unfortunately (to me) there's a big market for that. Of course, just because writers sell their writings as the real inner turmoil they experience doesn't mean it's so.

But, as Zappa said, we all have our tragedies and no matter what art form you're dealing with just recounting your own tragedy doesn't make it of interest to others. (Cruel as that may sound) Most of our tragedies are special to us but that doesn't make them special to others. The artist has to add something. Go beyond just whining.

2:47 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Plus, of course, it was Zappa. One just can't imagine him writing about a broken heart.

2:52 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I think I do my best work both writing and painting when I'm a little sad. This makes me withdraw into myself and then I find my voice hiding deep inside.

4:45 PM  
Blogger Paul Neuhardt said...

I have never bought in to the "only tortured souls make good artists" point of view. There is too much great art (visual, written and performed) that comes from a base of joy and happiness for that to be the case.

Not all tortured souls make good artists, and not all good artists have tortured souls.

6:35 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

It's odd. I sometimes feel as he does about memoir, and then not so about fiction. I find the culture of confession to be pretty despicable in a lot of ways. I don't understand the Mackenzie Phillips types of the world. Even lesser-known memoirists who share about everything from anorexia to cutting to rape to . . . I find myself curious about motive. Why not simply come to terms with it in therapy? What about being PAID for these confessionals? I mean, the confessional culture SPAWNED, as much as anything, James Frey.

YET . . . as an artist, I understand that sometimes that's where your art comes from. I put my story into fiction . . . and it's more authentic fiction when I do.

So I go back and forth. I would not deny a person the right to create from that place. But I abhor a public who laps up the dirtier secrets the better.


3:54 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I do understand that it's all those odd things, often terrible, often wonderful, that make us who we are, and who we are feeds into our art, no matter the mode. But I'm fairly disconcerted by the McKenzie Phillips sort of misery, where, to be completely brutal about it, you have a woman who was briefly a celebrity 20+ years ago and has since become, I think it's safe to say, a "has-been" who suddenly comes out with a tell-all memoir that makes the reader feel like they crawled out of a sewer. And voila, suddenly they're making money and they're a celebrity again. And they invariably say something along the lines of, "I just hope that my story will help somebody else who's been in this situation."

Well, okay, sure, but you maybe got big bucks and 15 more minutes of fame, although anyone's willingness to experience fame under those circumstances has got something seriously broken in their personality. But then again, we knew that, right? People don't care if they become known as that incestuous, drug-addled sociopath just as long as everybody knows who they are.


5:29 AM  
Blogger Richmond Writer said...

Maybe it is loneliness that fuels the confessions. When I read them I am often struck by their isolation.

Maybe that tortured soul will take greater risks than ordinary people. Risks tend to stand out in art. They get an accountant fired.

Maybe there is more than one way to create art. Some people can do it from a secure happy place and some are only comfortable in miserable depression. Neither one can create art without that which defines them be it happy or sad.

6:05 AM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

That's a toughie. I don't buy it, but I'm biased. I had a manic-depressive boyfriend in college.

Part of learning to be an artist, of any kind, is learning to turn that switch "on," to get into the zone. Drugs or mental illness/challenge/whatever are a crutch, and the fallout for you and for all around you is too high a price. Yes, it will be harder to learn to shove yourself in the zone when you don't feel like it, but them's the breaks, and you can probably transfer that crutch to something else. Like, lately, I don't slip into the zone until I put some white noise into my headphones. I could train myself to get the same result with a glass of wine, but that would have a higher price tag for, I believe, the same or nearly the same result.

1:19 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I'm inclined to agree with you on this one. I'm more or less able to write creatively under most circumstances, but less so when I'm FUBAR, whether emotionally or whatever. But I do think there's a weird feedback loop a lot of artists get themselves into, a kind of, If I Do A Then I Can Be Creative, But If I Don't Do A, Then I Can't.

Which reminds me of baseball players that wear the same socks during the whole season. (Or Magglio Ordonez with the Tigers who for a couple seasons refused to cut his hair for fear it would jinx him). Jocks and artists are a bunch of superstitious folk. (Whatever meal Michael Crichton ate on the first day he started writing, it's what he ate every day while he wrote the novel. He apparently didn't plan it and said it was a fairly miserable experience if he had turkey and mashed potatoes on the first day of writing. I guess it's hard to argue with the results, but geez, he probably deserved a slap in the head).

1:25 PM  

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