You'd think I'd know ego when I saw it.
Last week, I ran across the article Keith Richards Is Not a Second Banana: The Guitarist's Conundrum, and it got me thinking about the nature of ego. Normally, I picture ego as the "hey, look at how awesome I am. Look at me. LOOK!!!" thing. You know, the lead singer thing. And this is something which generally bugs the hell out of me. It's one of the things which has turned me towards Indy music and away from any music from the mainstream. And it's not regulated to music; the increased prevalence of this attitude in the NFL is one of the reasons I abandoned the sport. This tasks me.
I like to think of my approach to music as being more workmanlike than anything. I know many won't believe this, but I don't play guitar in bands for my ego. Honestly. If I did, I would have to be the most delusional person in the world. I have, after all, played for empty rooms, and while doing so, the biggest thought I had was just how funny was the whole situation.
Playing was never an ego thing for me. While most of my friends would admit to picking up instruments to look cool or to get girls, that was never in my thoughts. I just wanted to be able to build something, to create something out of nothing, to be in charge of something over which I had full power. If my playing sucks, it's because of me. If I do well, it's because of me. Take autotune and other such abominations out of the equation, and music becomes a sort of meritocracy. Yeah, some people might have an easier time picking up an instrument, but those who work at it will become better. Work tends to level the playing field...and I like this, particularly as I've found it not to be the case in so many other elements of life.
Not picking up an instrument for ego might be believable, but it gets a bit harder to swallow when you make the move to live performance. If it's not for ego, then why would someone climb up on a stage and do this for the public? Why else would I invest my time and money I will never recoup to record an album if it wasn't to make myself feel more important? Truth is, there's always an element of commerce and public relations when you make the move from bedroom to stage, and it would be dishonest not to admit it.
This, I am beginning to realize, is where one's definition of ego comes into play. If ego is just the lusty adoption of lead singer behavior, then I would be right there with the punks in voicing my disdain. But in my solo career, I have to do a ton of this "pay attention to me" stuff as a matter of necessity. I have to do PR. I have to brand myself. I have to flyer. I have to banter. I have to schmooze. I have to ingratiate myself to bookers and bar owners. Yes, there are parts I actually enjoy (designing flyers, for instance, allows me to locate my inner visual artist). Much of it, however, makes me feel dirty...like an ego faker.
Which brings me back to the article. If singers are the ones who crave the spotlight but guitarists (as the article suggests) are more interested in nonchalantly building everything and holding it together...well, who's to say that ego lies in one side or another? And who's to say that desiring the role of public face is any cheaper than wanting to be the all-knowing creator? Is behind the scenes really more a morally pure position than out in front?
Is there really a distinction here? Are they divisible in the first place?
When I had my big mental breakdown of 2011, I had a very unhelpful session with a counselor. In prepping for the session, I tried to boil down all my anxieties about becoming a father, about failing in my attempted career as a professor, about the lackluster reception of my scholarship, all of this I tried to distill to its essence. The best I came up with was, "how am I supposed to continue, how am I supposed to raise and nurture a new life, when I've come to the realization that there is no justice in our lives, that hard work will not necessarily pay off, that we're all at the mercy of random, uncaring forces?"
The doctor had no answers for me. At the time, I suspected it was just because he was bad at his job...or just didn't like me enough to put in the effort. Now, though, I'm beginning to suspect that the lack of insight was really due to my own failure to properly judge the situation. I was mistaking lack of visible ego for moral purity. I was thinking that simply wanting something enough and sweating a lot in an effort to reach that goal would be enough. Is it possible, I'm beginning to wonder, that I failed because I lacked...ego?
Yeah, I wasn't an attention-grasping academic. But I'm beginning to think I failed ultimately because I wasn't egotistical enough to sculpt my work to the places where it might be well-received. Yeah, my lack of ego made me not try to be an obnoxious bink. But it also stopped me from thinking strategically about my scholarship. It stopped me from promoting myself once I did figure out how to make something that everyone might want. I thought that if I followed my muse, fame and fortune would naturally follow. That, I think, was my downfall.
Now I'm beginning to realize that ego would've helped. As a musician, I've tried to find a niche my music can fill. Why didn't I do the same with my scholarship? I promote myself as a musician. Why didn't I do that as a thinker? Why didn't I realize that being unfocused and unstrategic was not being pure and honest to my muse...but was instead just setting myself up for insignificance? Ego would've helped.
I'm not saying if I would've had ego, everything would've worked out. Hell, I do all the self-promoting ego crap in my music career but still am relatively insignificant on the scene. But maybe I would've stood a better shot.
Maybe this means I need to be the new priest of ego. I must stop people from making my mistake of not thinking enough as an entity to be promoted. I will spread my new knowledge to the masses Ego, I will proclaim, is good. Ego, my inner Gordon Gekko yells, works. Ego for all!
Or is that too much lead singer-esque?