I suppose there’s a reason why YouTube sold for 1.65 billion dollars, right? I mean, it’s just plain cool to be able to call up visual information with the stroke of a keyboard. Classic sports clips, inspiring speeches, and my favorite — music videos of artists that I like.
Today I searched for an old favorite of mine — Chris Whitley. Chances are good you’ve never heard of him, but I’ve felt a deep connection to him since meeting him after one of his performances in the mid 90’s. (I wrote about the back story here. Worth a look).
To my great pleasure, I found several gems of Chris performing and even an interview.
In the interview he expressed his opinion that there are two kinds of music — there are entertainers — someone who doesn’t write their own music, tries to tap into the popular culture, and is as much about the marketing as the sound. And then there are artists. (Chris did not elaborate about artists, but I will express my thoughts on the distinction here).
The focus of the artist is the personal connection to the work and expressing this feeling out to the world. Artists create what’s true. Artist are quite "selfish" in this way. They are not performing for the people, they are not trying to write songs that will be hits, they create for themselves because this is where they find connection.
Simplified, the artist’s reference point skews toward the internal and asks the question: Is what I am creating true?
The entertainer’s reference point is more heavily weighted on the external and asks the question: Will what I put out there be liked by other people?
The greater truth is that asking if you are a entertainer or an artist is probably a false dichotomy. At the deepest level, the purpose of creation is not only to express, but also to connect. Remember the old riddle, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?"
The answer is no.
By definition, sounds needs a receiver. An ear. Some device to record that sound. Likewise, no artistic creation, no matter how pure and true exists by itself. It needs a receiver. It requires someone to see it, read it, feel it, taste it, or listen to it.
So perhaps the space between being an entertainer and and artist is not a mutually exclusive divide. Like yin and yang, they are part of the same whole of creation, a constantly changing balance.
In the interview, Chris Whitley said he saw himself more as an artist. Chris is dead now. He never made millions. He never played at half-time of the Super Bowl. Again, you’ve probably never even heard his name. His music may not resonate with you. But I can tell you that his music never fails to stir something powerful in me, very often moving me to tears at the beauty I find there. He’s gone, but the energy of his spirit transcends his exit from this world and is as alive as it ever was. I hope that to some degree, the same can be said for me after I die.
Many entertainers reap huge financial rewards and fame. Currently much of America (and the world) is fixated on celebrity. People who create little are famous for being famous. When we are bombarded with these messages repeatedly, it’s not hard to be seduced by wanting same things in our lives, and perhaps making decisions without checking in with what’s really true for us.
When the emphasis of our desires moves too far away from the connection, well, you can read about those lost people on the tabloid covers as well.
Connect first. Then radiate.
PS — here’s a video … Chris was the best guitar player I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen lots of good ones.