fame


I have been debating with two of my brothers for over a decade about the longevity and importance of 20th century popular music and musical artists. In 100, 200 or 300 years, assuming basic continuity of our civilization, which artists from the last century will be household names, will be known at all outside of music historians, will be considered important in any way?

Our positions have changed a bit over the years, but I tend to argue like this: How many artists can you name from the 19th century? The 18th? The 17th? My music history education is probably better than average, but my lists quickly narrow. I can think of ten or so 19th century composers (and zero musicians) off the top of my head and have put in significant listening time with only Brahms, Chopin, and Beethoven. I can think of about five 18th century composers and have spent significant time with two–Mozart and Bach. I can only think of one composer from the 17th century and have spent no time with his music. By the 16th century, I don’t even recognize any musicians‘ or composers‘ names.

And none of the above wrote in English. If I had needed to understand the words to enjoy the music I would have no use for any of them.

So, I argue, why should we expect more than ten or so musical artists of our era to be generally known and considered important in 100 years, or more than five in 200 years, or two in 300 years? To do so seems to inflate the importance of our music, and to deflate the probable importance of future generations’ music to the generations that produce it and the probability of major shifts in the dominant culture. It’s an easy mistake to make, I think, for the Gen Xers and Millenials in the cultural shadow of the Boomers. After all, who have our generations produced to eclipse The Beatles or James Brown?

And there’s the way language changes. Even assuming English remains dominant, our modern English is quite likely to sound stilted in 100 years and pretty hard to understand in 300. How many people will listen to Bob Dylan purely for the sonic experience, especially once the historical context of 20th century folk music and Dylan’s “going electric” is long gone?

My brothers, on the other hand, tend to argue that digital storage of music and globalization have changed everything and my looking at history to predict the future is not clear thinking. First, there is unprecedented access to fame in modern times: The composers I cite could write down their pieces and try to get others to play them, but couldn’t put them on YouTube with a video to go viral. As far as I know it’s true that even the best known of my list of composers had nowhere near the fame of Michael Jackson. Maybe popes or emperors had a shot at that kind of fame, but not Bach. Second, my composers wrote on paper that can decompose or get thrown away with grandpa’s old junk after he dies. This is way, way less likely to happen with the way we store information now. A recording of music can theoretically live forever in easy access. Third,  the trend seems to be nichification, not extinction. The memory of and enthusiasm for Carl Perkins, for example, lives on in young people who are into neo-rockabilly, psychobilly, gothabilly and who knows what other sub-genres to come.  Finally, my wife, Reanna, points out that language may not drift the way it used to because of globalization and the internet. It seems like standardization (to Californian English) is the trend these days, not drift. Dylan may be only a little harder to understand in a couple centuries than he is today.

For all these reasons, they argue, why should we expect any really great music from the 20th century to lose its place in the popular culture of the future?

We will never know the answer. Still, it makes for an interesting exercise to predict. When or if general knowledge of 20th century music narrows to 10 artists, who will it be? Five artists? Two?

Here are my best guesses. This was very difficult, though a very interesting process to go through. Compelling, even. How can I keep my aesthetics and hopes out of it? How long can a dead musical artist remain in memory based on the force of their charisma or persona or being a major voice of their generation?  I am actually less sure about my guesses now that I’ve thought them through. Perhaps I’ll write another post about the process. 

I’d love to know, what are your versions of these lists?

100 year list: 20th century musical artists still generally known in the year 2100:

  • Aretha Franklin
  • Billy Holiday
  • Bob Dylan
  • Duke Ellington
  • Elvis Presley
  • Frank Sinatra
  • Louis Armstrong
  • Michael Jackson
  • Ray Charles
  • The Beatles

200 year list: 20th century musical artists still generally known in the year 2200:

  • Duke Ellington
  • Louis Armstrong
  • The Beatles

[Note: I gave myself five slots to fill on this list but decided not to.]

300 year list: 20th century musical artists still generally known in the year 2300:

  • Duke Ellington
  • Louis Armstrong
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As a kid I was in the newspaper every month or so. It was a small town and I performed in a lot of plays, played in a lot of concerts, swam in a lot of swim meets, made a lot of honor rolls, etc. Plus, my dad is a professional photographer, and in those days supplied a high percentage of the photos the High Desert Star ran. I’m pretty sure they just ran anything he sent them, to make their papers look professional, and write little stories to justify running the photos. My local fame paid off at least once, when my car broke down on a highway 40 miles outside of town. Within minutes, a woman stopped and offered me a ride. She said, “You’re one of the Lester boys, aren’t you? I thought I recognized you from the newspaper!”

The pace has slowed considerably since then, so it was a little thrill to get a photo of me and Karly performing in downtown Eugene for Summer In the City.

It’s very difficult to photograph dancers so they look like they are dancing. At least one of them, usually me, looks as if they are just standing there. This is one of the first photos of me dancing where it really looks like I’m dancing. Thanks, Kevin Clark!

In May, this blog got 1,082 “views,” which means that many of its pages showed up on other people’s computer screens for some amount of time in 31 days. That’s my new record, and my first 4-digit month. I got quite excited as the number approached. I was checking my stats page several times a day. It was exciting and uncomfortable. I almost decided that I would not let myself check my stats for all of June. It’s not that I was wasting a lot of time on it, it’s just that I started feeling embarrassed about it.

NME Stats at May 31, 2010

I started this blog as a way of letting my friends and family know what I’m doing and thinking about, as a way of attracting Reanna’s attention (or someone else just like her), as a way of staying connected with friends and family and recording my history as I made it, they way I used to do with a yearly zine of the same name. I knew that writing my ideas publicly made me think more critically about them, and I liked the idea of living out loud, being the same person to everyone.

I’ve accomplished all these things, and this blog has been my most consistent source of inspiration for the last coming-up-on two years. It’s been great. My excitement over breaking 1,000, though, has got me thinking. Am I also trying to be famous?

To be clear, I don’t think I’m getting famous by writing this blog. It’s just making me think and feel about it. Even if I keep this pace up, 1,082 views is only about 34 per day, and I posted almost every day this month. I get a few people I don’t know finding the blog with search engine terms that I’ve written about, like “schizophrenia diagnostic criteria” or “are anti-inflammatories bad for you,” but most of my traffic comes directly here, on purpose. I imagine that means that there are maybe 40 folks who read this fairly regularly, and that’s easily accounted for by family and friends from school and Not Back to School Camp.

Still, 1,000 views means a lot more people are reading my writing  than they were two years ago, and that number could keep going up. My friend Jeannie recently beat 6,000 views and I thought, “Wow, that would be cool!” But there’s no way 6,000 views are all friends and family. A blog with 6,000 views is beginning to hit the public sphere–almost 200 a day. That’s not fame either, of course, but I bet those numbers keep going up, and maybe I could get there too, and I’m feeling a little tension about it.

Part of the tension is aesthetic. My aesthetic ideal of fame is from my music and record production career: I’d like to become just famous enough that fans of my kind of music are waiting for my next project, but not famous enough to get recognized on the street.

I’ve always felt comfortable with that picture, but now I’m becoming a therapist, and it appears that the therapist-fame aesthetic is different. My supervisors tell me that I should be unfindable–no public phone numbers, websites, etc. Clients should not be able to contact me except through the clinic, and they definitely shouldn’t be able to find out about my personal life. I can see the wisdom in that, but I don’t want to do it. I can make my phone, myspace, and facebook private, but I’ve got this blog and my band’s website, plus I show up on other websites that I prefer to be publicly affiliated with, like Not Back To School Camp, my swing dance group ELLA, and my family‘s music sites.

Another part of the aesthetic tension is about transparency. I have to be one person to everyone on this blog. Being the same person to everyone is an ideal for me but makes me uncomfortable. I have psychology-research friends, therapy friends, and co-counseling friends, all of whom would be distressed to some degree to learn how deeply involved I am in each field. My atheist friends can see that when I say I am agnostic, I really mean it. I’m not a hedging-my-bet atheist. I think about God a lot and take the idea seriously. My religious friends will see that I mock fundamentalism pretty regularly. And so on. The more well-known I get, the less I get to show people the parts of me I think they will like and hide the parts I think they won’t like.

And then there is the ethical aspect of fame. In a way, the better known I am, the better off my friends and family are–the more traffic I can drive to our businesses by mentioning them, the bigger audience I’ll have built for books I write or records I make. I can also bring more attention to worthy causes, potential problems, things like my Headlines From Psychology, that people would be better off knowing. The more fame, the more impact. A famous Nathen would be a stronger force for good. If I do say so.

On the other hand, the extent of my fame also forces transparency onto my friends and family, and they don’t all share my aesthetic preference for transparency. I didn’t really get this as an ethical issue until Reanna asked me not to use her last name on the internet. She wants to control what people can find out about her, and who doesn’t? I regularly tell people who video me dancing, “No YouTube!” But it didn’t even occur to me to ask the friends and family I’ve written about whether I could use their full names, or even post their photos. I’ve been considering starting that project soon. I like using full names, talking about real, specific people. So and so said such and such. This, however, a big reason Kerouac died friendless. I guess ethics trumps aesthetics.

[Oh! Here’s my opportunity to make that project easier for myself. If I’ve used your name (or if it seems likely that I will) in NME, please email me your preference: last name or no last name.]

I wrote most of this in early June, not knowing if I my views would continue spiking. It turns out they did not. At the end of June I’m almost exactly where I was at the end of May. I suppose it’s possible that staying level is an achievement, though, since I posted almost every day in May but only every other day in June. I’ve also lost a good deal of my both excitement and tension about my stats, though I still check them every day. Maybe it’s having watched them level off again. I’m tempted to start posting every day again to see if I can get another spike, but I think I’d rather post even less frequently and give myself time for more thoughtful essays. I’ll keep you updated.