"You have the best job in the world" is something that is said to me often when I run into friends and readers at concerts around town.
I can understand why people get this impression, and I do indeed feel blessed to be able to write about music for a living. I'm grateful for the opportunity, and I take it seriously. However, I never forget the reason that I was attracted to such an opportunity to begin with.
Whenever I get it right, it's because I allow myself to feel what the fan in the crowd feels, and manage to get it down on paper, hopefully with some sense of broader context. And that's because I was a music fanatic for decades before becoming a music journalist.
As a kid, music rescued me from depression, it gave me a sense of purpose, it taught me the importance of self-discipline, and it broadened my mind, helping me to become a better human being in the process. For me, it has never really been solely about entertainment. It's about so much more than that.
Recently, I learned about an address given by Karl Paulnack, director of music at the Boston Conservatory, to freshmen entering the school and preparing for a life in music. Tragically Hip guitarist Rob Baker shared a section of Paulnack's speech on Twitter, and it so moved me that I felt compelled to find the full transcript. Here's an excerpt from it.
"Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don't expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that's what we do."
That's what we do – yes, and by extension, that's what needs to be done. Paulnack was addressing musicians here, but his message is applicable to anyone who is willing to let music teach them its lessons.
Is this a tall order for popular music to fill? Certainly. Which is why it's an even more significant accomplishment when it happens, and also why we need to extol such accomplishments over and above merely reaching for the low-hanging digital-era fruit.
Music – playing it, listening to it, writing about it, feeling it - is for me an extension of the idea that "the unexamined life is not worth living," words attributed to Socrates as he stood trial, forced to choose between exile and death. It offers the possibility of noble endeavor. It can offer a code of living. Yes, it can make you happy and, temporarily, blissfully ignorant of life's travails.
But it also hints at the possible tangible existence of some mythical shining city on a hill, wherein the veil is lifted, and we see our true potential to somehow make the world a better place.
In an era when the true, root purposes of journalism are routinely questioned and just as routinely disparaged from the top down, journalists have no choice but to do their best beneath the glare of cynical, often uninformed, and occasionally even sinister scrutiny. I write about music, so it might appear that what happens in politics would have no effect on my particular "beat."
But of course it does.
When the president declines to attend the annual Kennedy Center Honors, a traditionally bipartisan event meant to celebrate the melting pot that is our country’s culture and music’s role within it or when federal funding for arts initiatives is rescinded – that’s the territory inhabited and covered by me and others like me.
We’re in a culture war, however painful that might be to admit. In 2018, I plan to do my best to remain on the right side of the battlefield.
I may not have “the best job in the world,” but it remains one that I consider important, because music can transform the lives of those who open themselves to it.
I know. I’m living proof.