Growing up in a small, landlocked city affords the pop culture-curious tween few opportunities to meet celebrities. This problem is compounded if this tween had, say, watched “Almost Famous” too young and decided she was destined to be a Girl Reporter. This might force her to resort to such strange surrogate interview subjects as “Friend Dressed As Julian Casablancas,” who could be quite the talker, and “Inkjet Print of Brandon Flowers,” who could not.
Unfortunately, all these circumstances happened to line up for me. This was reflected in an embarrassing cut-and-paste zine of faux interviews and a lamentable lack of New Mexican middle school brushes with fame.
But this lonely trajectory was interrupted briefly when I was 15 and my naïve persistence paid off outside the Launchpad, downtown Albuquerque’s premiere bar-that-lets-in-children. After seeing Of Montreal in concert, my best friend and I ran alone out to the alley and positioned ourselves directly in front of the door to the band’s tour bus. I saw frontman Kevin Barnes round the corner in full drag. A-ha! Girl Reporter Nina thought smugly. Just as I suspected: He needed to enter this door.
Orthodontia first, I demanded a hug and a photograph. He blinked dazedly through his glittery eye shadow, bending from platform go-go boots to give a terrifying blank stare at the camera, immortalizing himself between two giddy tweens in a moment whose allowance might be one of the best parenting decisions in recent memory. I had met a real-live, famous musician!
I promptly went home and typed up an imaginary dialogue between us.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, what I really craved from these encounters, real and imaginary, was the verification that the music I cherished was more than an internal aesthetic exercise. I wanted to be able to connect with an artist — to share an experience with a person I didn’t know. It didn’t have to be in the form of an interview; considering the artist for the three or so minutes it takes to throw a couple verses around a refrain works, too.
What devout music listeners struggle with is a form of Freud’s Fort/Da game: We derive pleasure through both throwing external reality away and reeling ourselves into a collective consciousness. We easily retreat into our own thoughts as a song plays, but on some level use music in our quest to orient ourselves with the outside world. Finding someone it feels good to listen to an album with is satisfying, just as I’m sure it’s satisfying to be the one making albums that others hear.
The intermediate space between these satisfactions is the listener’s acknowledgment of the internal life of a musician. When we exploit a song for our own emotional purposes, we tend to demand an engagement with the entirety of its content; in doing so, we effectively erase the songwriter and jealously substitute our own first person narrative for the singer’s. Our relationship to musicians as human beings can get lost if we view bands as operating on a level completely separate from ourselves, even when they totally are.
Of course, while self-substitution in pop music can be meaningful, it’s important to remember that the listening experience is a mode of contact between an audience and a performer. Think what you will about “The Death of the Author.” For everyone who has developed theory of mind past age four, it should be simple to remember the internal creative life of a musician. Yet for some reason, selfishness or shyness or otherwise, we so often ignore the potential for dialogue with the artist that can emerge, if only on an imaginary level.
Luckily for parents of tweens everywhere, these encounters don’t always need to happen in sketchy alleyways outside RVs. Social media have largely broken down the mystique surrounding celebrities. For example, while my childhood friends had to resort to sending Justin Timberlake desperate love letters through some questionable intermediary P.O. address, we can now tweet our devotion directly @FamousMusicians. Though they are completely out of reach, they are also, on some level, completely within reach.
But even if my 140 characters are sent like a letter to Santa or staged as a fake celebrity conversation, considering the humanity of those who create is the crucial flipside of being an unselfish listener. Using music as assurance that we are not alone can always be supplemented, if only for a moment, with a reminder of the vast variety of human experience. And if I ever forget this, I’ll always have my tragically awkward photo with Kevin Barnes to remind me of the way insurmountable differences between glittery artists and braces-wearing listeners can be filled in with a mutual love of music.
Don’t kill your idols; interview them.