It’s a fact of life that at some point in the creative process we all lose control of our work to those who actually consume it. Once I put the finishing touches upon a music review or piece of commentary, my portion of the creative process is complete; it is up to readers to decide what to make of it. But it’s easy to forget sometimes that for all the meaning we ascribe to our favorite songs, their creators may have had completely different associations with the work.
Ask any band that struggled to find succcess, happened upon a hit single out of nowhere, and then just as quickly was sloughed back to obscurity. You’ll hear a similar tale. That same band might go on for ten more years writing perfectly workmanlike music but they’ll forever have their name and musical reputation tied to that song which made it. So what happens when, decades on, you’re ready to admit as an artist that the music you’re known for is complete rubbish?
At a certain point the artist’s creation moves beyond his or her control, and becomes the property of the listeners who define its real value or meaning.
All of which makes this critic wonder: is there a point where artists should step back, shut up, and admit that, while they may hate something they recorded in their past, it has meaning to the fans, and therefore there’s a value to not dumping artistic baggage on music beloved to fans?
Apparently Mike Doughty has pondered that question and decided that the answer is a resounding no.
Doughty has spent the last decade writing low-key pop music in an acoustic vein, twisting bits of electronica into his sound as he sing-raps songs like “Looking At The World From The Bottom Of A Well” and “Na Na Nothing.” And he’s been lucky enough to be able to continue to make a living in the world of music, despite the fact that he left Soul Coughing (the band which made him famous in the first place) more than a decade ago. Still, hearing fans request Soul Coughing songs at his shows has apparently aggravated him so much he’s reduced himself to lashing out at fans individually on Twitter:
It’s been common knowledge that:
1. Mike Doughty does not have fond memories of Soul Coughing. He’s described his time with that band as a mentally draining, hellish experience he wishes he’d given up on long before he finally left the band after three albums.
2. He suffers from bipolar disorder, and fans have come to know that when it comes to a live show, the Mike Doughty you get on any particular day will vary from the congenial to the surly, much along the lines of Adam Duritz of Counting Crows.
3. He really really hates “Super Bon Bon,” and if you want to piss him off, you’ll get a rise by requesting he play it at a show. Though when I saw him live in 2008, he seemed perfectly happy playing Soul Coughing’s “True Dreams of Wichita” live, and no one even requested it — my video evidence is below.
Bearing those three things in mind, I can understand how an artist would rather go out and promote their new solo music and not have to constantly hear fans demanding the old music of a band they’re no longer a member. But there’s a point where it goes beyond just pulling a James McMurtry, telling fans that “some of you know what you want to hear, but you don’t know what you’re going to hear” and leaving it at that. No, Doughty won’t be happy until fans are willing to whitewash history and say that his version of the past is the best — that Soul Coughing is trash. If it gets to a point where you can’t see a fan tweeting that “yes, I understand you dislike Soul Coughing, but at least your music made me happy at a time in my life when pop music had meaning to me” and resist responding with “you understand but you still feel like punching me in the stomach with Soul Coughing references,” then something’s wrong.
At some point there has to be a shut-off switch where option three is simply to not respond.
Doughty’s not the only artist to have a problem avoiding historical revisions when looking back at past artistic contributions. I recall interviewing Chris Thile, formerly of Nickel Creek, and when he mentioned his album Deceiver, I told him a particular song made an impact on me when it was first released. His response was to sigh and deride that track (and much of the album itself) as “immature.” As a critic I was in a position to use that as a branching off point, to discuss aspects of his music he felt weren’t so purile. But there’s a difference between that and firebombing your fans with hate because they dare to talk to you about music you wrote which impacted them.
You may hate it, but you wrote it. Take ownership of that fact, and be willing to admit that once you put something out into the universe you can’t necessarily pull it back. What if those fans stopped buying your new music? Is there a point where you’d be willing to give it all up and – gasp! – get a damned day job, if that was the only way to get away from the music you so despise?
As a music fan, I don’t deny that performers like Doughty have the right to dislike something they’ve written in the past. And they certainly have the right to say so in a public setting, though they might wisely choose not to do so. But taking to Twitter as a public figure and then trashing the fans who try to communicate with you there, in a venue you’ve chosen to participate in, seems cruel in a deliberately intentional way. And in the end, though these rants do little to change my judgment of the music in question, they do change my opinion of man who created it.