Friday, November 20, 2009

Inspiring Life-Long Fans

As a music fan that has developed strong and lasting affinity for my favorite songwriters over the years, I have given a lot of thought to what qualities an artist/band has that promotes deep and meaningful fan connection. And it isn’t just the qualities that the songwriter has - a devoted fan also possesses attributes that enable them to be profoundly moved by music at an elevated level than the more casual listener. Personally speaking, I believe that my fandom is fueled by an analytic and obsessive mind that - once inspired by the music or words - must dig deeper to question the meaning behind the art by revisiting lyrics, reading interviews, and mining for clues. I dream in lyrics, and they often follow me throughout my waking hours. My music obsession is at once a great love and a debilitating foe (particularly when Beyonce released that fucking “Single Ladies” song). But I digress.

Far more interesting are the qualities that some musicians possess that set them apart from other musicians in fan admiration. Every band has fans, but what separates the bands that produce great music that is fun to listen to from the bands that produce life-changing music that has a profound and inspiring effect on their listeners? In evaluating my own fan experience - and also observing the fan culture for artists that I don’t personally connect to strongly, but that seem to evoke very strong emotion in fans - I have drawn the following conclusion. A songwriter’s willingness to reveal vulnerability - lyrically, vocally, and through performance – is a quality that cannot be faked, and I believe it is the single most important component in creating music that resonates deeply with fans.

The ability to authentically reveal vulnerability is the key to greatness for any artist, no matter what artistic form they use. For a singer-songwriter, it is an especially critical quality because, not only are they producing the material (as the writer), they are also channeling the emotion (as the performer). Whether it reveals itself in lyric, in the tremor of a vocal, or in the form of nervous ticks during performance, the ability of a songwriter to uncover his or her own vulnerability offers the audience the human element that is critical to forming a deeper connection to the music.

Whatever you may think of Morrissey (vocally, he’s not one of my favorites), he is a prime example of an artist who bares all his self-doubt, narcissism, and regret within the lines of his songs. He typically writes in the first person narrative, not passing off emotion to other characters, but instead leaving himself completely exposed. His songs are dripping with a self-absorption that I can’t really appreciate, but his fans eat it up and he has one of the most cult-like followings in rock music.

Other songwriters are subtle in their openness by using characters to channel their own personal experiences and emotions. A writer like Springsteen can be perceived as writing more with empathy than vulnerability because the joy and heartbreak of his characters may not translate as his own personal experience. However, that does not make him any less endearing to fans. People connect deeply with the characters in Springsteen’s world because they portray basic human emotions that we all know– restlessness, loneliness, yearning, desire, and disaffection. It doesn’t matter if the vulnerability belongs to Mary, Wendy, Candy, Sam, or any of the other dozens characters Springsteen has created. HE KNOWS how they feel, and he knows how you feel, too. Springsteen is unquestionably worthy of all of the accolades and adoration he has received over the years. He writes about human fragility with the same Old Soul clarity that I attributed to Van Morrison.

One of the newer bands that has developed a fiercely loyal fan base, in addition to landing themselves on most music publications’ top ten lists for the decade, is Arcade Fire. Arcade Fire produced two of the most beautiful, honest, and musically stunning albums in recent years. String instruments, heartfelt lyrics, Win Butler’s ability to vocally convey emotion, layer together to create a humility and rawness that is so attractively genuine to the listener. Arcade Fire is a relatively new band but already fans have formed a deep connection to their music that will sustain the life of their career as a band.

Lastly, I want to mention a couple of my favorite songwriters that perform with such openness and vulnerability, that I didn’t truly fall in love with their music until I saw it physically come out of them. Is it strange writing about Stevie Nicks and Brandon Flowers in the same paragraph? Probably, but they happen to be - as performers - my sentimental favorites. Seeing Stevie perform ‘Rhiannon’ with such fury, or the heartbreaking ‘Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You,’ was pivotal for me as a fan. She has an amazing ability to connect with live audience and you feel as you are watching her that she is graciously handing over her heart for those few hours. Her fans sense her undying devotion and they are as loyal as any fan community out there.

Performing is not second nature for Brandon Flowers, and I think that he seems outwardly nervous and jittery, endears him to fans. There is a lot of realness to him. He uses bravado on stage, but equally there are moments of sincerity and vulnerability, gesturing and singing with such emotion that you feel he is begging, pleading with you to feel his words the way he feels them. I had bought and regularly listened to the Killers first two albums before I was aware of how they perform. The Killers, like Arcade Fire, are a young band with a hugely devoted fan community. And to witness them live is spectacular, just ask a Victim.

Of course, there are many qualities that attract fans to different musical artists. I like all kinds of music that I may not be sentimentally attached to, but that makes for great listening. Some of the best musicians and bands convey a detached coldness that, although is a quintessential rock and roll attitude, does not cultivate the kind of fan adoration of artists who open themselves up a little more. So many great artists that I didn’t get to! Help me write the next chapter! Who are your sentimental favorites, and why? I would love to hear from you!

-AZ

1 comment:

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