An album I really love is Neil Young’s Greendale. It’s a strange album, a collection of songs that tell a story, but in a somewhat rambling fashion. It’s Young’s way of riffing on modern culture, sometimes well within the guise of story, and sometimes using the story as just a jumping off point for Young to get across certain ideas. Unlike most song lyrics, the lyrics are often somewhere between prose and poetry. It almost sounds at times like Young spent a lot of time creating the backstory, learned the characters inside and out, and then when it came time to cut the songs just improvised what was running through his characters’ heads.
In the song above, one of my favorite from the album, along with the opening song and the song Bandit, Young has a line that is always with me:
It ain’t a privilege to be on TV
and it ain’t a duty either.
In our society fame seems to be a value in and of itself. But there is nothing noble about celebrity, especially if it doesn’t stem from anything worthwhile. One is either creating or doing something worthwhile or not. Whether one gets known for doing that, or something that is a waste of time or a drain on society, is another thing completely. There are things one can do to benefit, enlighten, or help other people. One can also do things that, if not outright destructive, muddy the waters and add to the fog of ignorance.
Now this is where it gets tricky: There are certain kinds of escapism that I think are altruistic. In a chaotic, overstimulated world, sometimes it helps to have places one can escape their daily troubles through for a couple hours a day. The human brain needs time to disconnect. Also certain kinds of escapism can sometimes let ideas in the backdoor. You might watch a fantasy movie that is mostly entertainment, but might have something to say about warfare or some other problem in the human condition as a secondary function. But sometimes, even just a well constructed alternative universe, as long as one doesn’t spend all their time there, is a good thing to have after a hard day of work. (Especially if murder is the alternative for letting off steam.)
Orwell argued that all art is propaganda of one kind or another. Does a certain kind of art, or essay, or article, or whatever, have a positive function? And I don’t mean positive in the sense of cheery. Almost anything, even escapism, has some kind of political judgment in it, whether it is explicit or implicit. It’s hard to judge for oneself if something has value or not. There is no easy solution. The world is complex. Especially when judging something someone else does, there can be a lot of gray area.
However, I think is gauging what oneself is contributing, it must be under the attempt to do something the best that one can do. If someone is creating something just for their own glorification then one is just contributing to the ever growing ocean of bullshit that the world is drowning in. Death and taxes are always around the corner, and one must earn a living. But aside from that, I think if one is going to give birth to anything in this world, they should try their best to make sure it is something that is not just muddying the waters. It is better to create nothing at all than to create something meaningless, even if that meaningless thing somehow brings about the applause of the crowd.
When I view something someone else has done, I would always rather see a noble failure than a middle of the road success. (If those are the only two options. I am most happy to see worthy things get their due.) I don’t think achieving anything is all that spectacular. It is the reaching for something grander than I find noble.
It ain’t a privilege to be on TV
And it ain’t a duty either.