November 13th, 2008

hat

You Know You Can Follow My Voice

Before the move, justbeast  and I went to a Dar Williams concert in Cleveland--we'd wanted to see her for so long, and though she mainly played new things (I am not so much a fan of her new, poppier direction, which sounds kind of mainstream and bland to me), along with an awesome cover of Midnight Radio from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. (Hedwig!), the thing that realy struck me was the guy who opened for her.

His name was Shawn Mullins. You have probably heard his big hit song even if you can't place the name. "Rockabye" was all over the radio when I was about 18 or so. I remember talking about the lyrics with my ex-husband back then. And I was listening to Shawn tell his story, and play his new songs, a couple of less-popular ones he'd done for the Olympics and Scrubs, etc. He talked about how strange it was to go from playing bars to opening for the Backstreet Boys.

I could help but think: here is a guy who has had The Breakthrough, the thing all artists work for, the song/book/whatever that launches you, and it brought him as much mainstream success as you could ask for, a song that topped all the charts, that any random twenty-something can half-sing ten years later. It happened for him. And he's opening for a woman who's never had a radio hit, never had anything like his success, but who is beloved by her fans that she got by playing to a niche, playing her passion, playing small venues, playing rural Pennsylvania and New York. By, I suppose, being Hedwig--weird and personal and intimate and unlike anyone else.

I found myself hoping that Shawn Mullins invested while he could, because his success, as it is for many, was fleeting. Art is a long game, and the niche approach, while it doesn't bring the glitter and the enormous bank accounts and international acclaim, can carry you along where the big Breakthrough can be over in a year or two. Dar's fans are the kind of people I know: devoted and fierce and passionate. They don't listen to the radio. It doesn't matter to them--the things they love do, and those kinds of fans are worth their weight. And Dar herself has that glow, of a person doing exactly what she is built to do, the kind of enlightenment peculiar to artists that I see in some of my author-friends, some of my singer-friends, and some of my jack of all trades friends. It is my favorite kind of bodhisattva.

Shawn Mullins did a great show, but he didn't have that light.

It's fairly obvious that I'm applying this to my writing, though it's not exactly the same thing. But it was comforting to me, somehow. I don't know if I'll ever have a Breakthrough. It's impossible to tell, and clearly difficult to repeat even if you get it. But I can take the other path, and it is a good path, maybe even a better one.

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