Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Fearless Fandom; or Weary Post-Concert Nattering On

I have legitimate bloggable thoughts engendered by the Melissa Etheridge concert I went to last night, but a concert in Austin on Monday on the heels of archeology at Gault on Saturday has left me mind-numbingly tired (we got home at one this morning and I normally turn into a pumpkin around ten) and - though I try to tone it down - I am a serious raving Etheridge fangirl, so bear with me.

We bought our tickets through the fan club, with the result that for astoundingly little money we wound up within 20 feet of the stage in direct line with the central microphone. So that feeling I always get sooner or later in a Melissa concert that she has just looked straight into my eyes and sung directly to me, may have not been an illusion at one point last night. The first time it happened was the first time we went to one of her concerts (not the first time we "saw" her live - that was in the Alamodome when she opened for the Eagles, and we were impressed enough despite the dreadful acoustics and the impossibility of seeing her from the nosebleed seats we were in to jump on the chance when she came to the Municipal Auditorium), while our friend J was dying. We'd been going to treat him, but he had his heart attack before we got the tickets and was still dying when the time came. So I was a little detached from events and didn't get on my feet, not even for "Bring Me Some Water," or "Similar Features," not even for "I'm the Only One," not even for "Like the Way I Do." But I did participate in the near-riot of footstamping that brought her back out for a third encore, and then she looked straight at me and threw out a lasso of notes that belonged on a mandolin and before she even started singing "Maggie May," without any idea how I got there, I was on my feet.

And I never have really sat down for her since. One of my major coping strategies for the Year from Hell was to have Melissa on heavy rotation on the media player at the soul-sucking dayjob and in the CD player in the car; and one of the thoughts in the back of my brain last night was that while we had our Year from Hell she was in chemo.

I think she would be proud of that if she knew, and justly so. But the connection I feel here, though real enough in one way, in another way is what another woman whose assistance I rely on in hard times, Louisa May Alcott, would call a castle in the air. Maybe Melissa became conscious of me as an individual in the third row for, oh, a note or two last night; but the connection between artist and audience is not between individuals, but between the originator of the art, on the one side, and those who continue it, on the other. The artist puts the art out there - music, lyric, story, dialog, light, shade, color - and the audience puts it to whatever use suits us.

When an artist and an audience are in synch - as we always seem to be at Melissa concerts - the result is art amplified, made greater than the artist can manage alone. When the audience is artist - and all artists are audiences - you get imitation, and influence, and sometimes an effect like the reflection of light from mirror to mirror to mirror till something entirely new becomes illumined, which is what happened when Melissa covered "Piece of My Heart" at the Grammies and turned the great anthem of love and loyalty gone toxic into a song of triumph over cancer. I love covers because of this potential for surprise and repurposing. (Listen to Dolly Parton's cover of "Stairway to Heaven" sometime.)

The transformative uses of audiences can be powerful; or they can be trivial; or they can be dangerous. That's how you get both Woodstock and Altamont. For that matter, it's how you get Freedom Rides and Nuremburg Rallies, for political leaders are tapping into the same vein. I am too tired to articulate this notion coherently, but at a behavioral level entertainers and politicians, fans and followers, are functionally the same.

Painters and writers, thank goodness, who don't have to be in touch with their followers as directly, are spared some of the side effects. There are reasons musicians, politicians, and actors are famous for substance abuse and unstable home lives. "You're the only relationship I have that makes sense," Melissa said to us last night; and I hate that this is probably true and is probably a direct result of the qualities that I value most in her. Who, after all, can long maintain a relationship with someone who routinely creates intense personal connections with a thousand screaming fans at a time?

The price of stardom is a high one, higher than I would be willing pay, so it is good that I will never owe it. The height of my own ambition is one I can never, by its nature, know I have achieved. I want someone to find something I wrote, and read it, and have a thought I could not have had, and which she could not have had without reading what I wrote. The thought doesn't have to be one I approve of, or comprehend. This can happen any number of times, but it only has to happen once to justify my existence. And it can happen any time. A year ago. Fifty, a hundred years after I die.

That's how art works. Many, many people have done this for me. Some people I can repay by paying for books and tracks and tickets, buying their merchandise, standing up at their concerts, waiting in line at their signings, commenting on their blogs. Others, I can only pay forward, as best I can.

I had a lot of other related thoughts as we drove home through the dark last night, but now that the caffeine and adrenaline have worn off, that'll do.

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