Adam Schatz is a musician. His band Landlady has just released the album Upright Behavior on the Hometapes record label. His saxophone and keyboard sounds have appeared on albums by Vampire Weekend, Those Darlins, Hospitality, Sleigh Bells and Quilt. His previous published works consist solely of a column about donuts and not-donuts for Brightest Young Things. You can follow him on Twitter here and hear Landlady here. (Photo credit: Sasha Arutyunova.)
The moment we accept entertainers into our lives, they cease to be human beings to us.
Us the consumers, the receivers and the drainers. Us the benefitted, the keepers and gainers. No one likes being told they take something for granted, but we’d be significantly fucked without oxygen. Or socks.
Consider how much great music, film, visual art and writing has been created and exposed as a result of us doing positively nothing. Just by being alive every day, we have more and more available to us.
Perhaps it’s the saturation or the consistency of being that makes us numb to most human miracles on a regular basis, but we simply can’t see clearly most of the time. The carrot is in focus and the rest is unregarded. When I say we, I mean me. But allow me to make this conservative educated guess, and include you in the Us.
We recognize greatness when it hits us, and while that certainly pulls out honest appreciation, it in fact distances us from perceiving the creators as human, on the same level as us at the core. For if we truly could see that the eyes of the entertainer have the same composition as the eyes of ourselves, we would not judge the way we do, and we would not expect the way we expect. I assume, anyway.
D’Angelo spent five years between his acclaimed debut album Brown Sugar (1995) and his revered follow-up Voodoo (2000). That was in the 1990s, and due to time-inflation, expedited technology and depleted attention spans, my calculations show that those five years would feel like a hundred in our modern era. So the 15 years between Voodoo and the jack-in-the-box Black Messiah have felt like a proper eternity.
In that time, we the fans have been kept wanting, hungrily sniffing any breadcrumb that might be a sign of recording or progress. We’ve grown accustomed to rumors of his shortcomings, issues with timeliness, weight fluctuation and substance dependency. We stare, and I don’t detect humanity in our gaze.
When Black Messiah, credited to D’Angelo and the Vanguard, appeared in the final moments of 2014, those of us who forgot we were waiting for it felt explicit joy. The first 10 seconds were indisputably funky and melodically personal, and the remainder of the album followed suit. He did it again, and maybe it’s a high standard of quality control, or maybe it’s the magic synthesis of D’Angelo’s collaboration with those who encourage, play with and take care of him, but however it happened, Us the people were delivered a truly great album.
We shall be sustained for one week and move on because our brains have been tricked to absorb and dispose, and the way we consume and collect music nowadays prevents us from truly living with a record over the long term. And if we don’t begin to improve, if we don’t begin to resolve, I fear that in six months, if D’Angelo cancels a tour because the pressure feels too much, or for any reason that is personal and by definition none of our damn business, then we will toss out the epithet “trainwreck,” a truly old-fashioned word* that we love to type on the newfangled internet to disparage anyone who’s falling apart in the public spotlight.
Or “meltdown.” As if Dave Chappelle deciding he didn’t want to keep feeding us continuous comedy and opting to take some time off is a concern of nuclear proportions.
We don’t consider “control” to be a right given to those who chose to make something and put it out into the world. But control is all the artist can keep. Money is never steady. Praise and critique are erratic. Control is a constant, and in this age of free-flowing feedback and communication, we have the power to take that control away. But we have no right.
I am an artist and I am a fan. When the interactivity of the internet became available to me and to every artist, it offered us a way to connect, to present ourselves to our fans. But every discovery and exciting connection made is an equally potent reveal about how easily We the People can tear into one another, how an artist can watch it all build up and fall apart, how a seemingly necessary part of the presentation gives an open-source invitation to anyone to throw out an opinion, and if comment threads have proven anything to us, it’s that an internet connection is step one to subtracting the human element from how we treat one another, and certainly how we treat artists.
It used to be so old-fashioned, and we could just boo Bob Dylan when he decided “Maggie’s Farm” needed an edge.
My New Year’s Resolution, one that I challenge myself to keep, is this: Remember that artists are people, too.
I must find the value in that, and never, ever, take for granted the gift of a truly great work of art. And just because we’re being asked to pay for it, doesn’t mean it isn’t a gift.
The sorry state of the music business indicates that people will never buy an album out of responsibility to the artist; that people will take the road most convenient over the road most responsible; that, on a large enough scale to shift weather patterns and save a sinking ship, We will never decide all of a sudden that We feel bad for the artists we’ve been streaming and stealing from.
Because that artist is a picture on a cover or a hyperlink or a headline on a website or a face on a poster and absolutely not a person. Not like the consumer is a person. Not like Us.
I am biased because I am an artist as well as a consumer. But I also believe that makes me qualified. I see these faults in myself as the music lover the same way I see the cracks in the ground as the lover of making music.
The only way we could ever think to change the way people at large view and treat artists is actively to make the change in ourselves. This year we resolve, and maybe, slowly, we all evolve. Nothing happens immediately, but some things do happen surprisingly. Most importantly, none of it hurts.
We lose nothing by being more aware of the humanity in everyone, and maybe we gain something from fewer minutes spent clicking around the internet in exchange for a few more minutes spent outside. If we all become more grateful for awesome records and aware of the humans who create them, the world will maybe become a little bit stronger.
We have to try, you have to try. Because what makes a great song great are the vulnerabilities and personal wrinkles in the people behind the song. With any music that moves you, it doesn’t take long to detect the human touch.
No matter how long it takes a D’Angelo record to break the surface, his human touch sees it through. We can complain that very same human touch takes too long and keeps us from hearing what we feel we deserve. But we’ve gotten more than we deserve already, and that same human touch decides when it is finished. That same human touch is the DNA of the music we love.
On this matter, famed drummer, producer and D’Angelo confidant Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson writes:
“He started tracking in 2000 during Voodoo. So the ONE thing we can establish with D’Angelo is his utter disregard of time. Be it release dates, be it prompt for shows, be it quantized meter or be it musical references; it is his sound.”
There it is. If you are moved by the impossibly moveable pocket of D’Angelo’s music, it comes from his internal Time. The Time that had him more than two hours late for a show at Brooklyn Bowl two years ago. The Time that began an album in the year 2000 and kept it unfinished until 2015. The Time cannot be separated from The Man, and the Man is still very much a man.
Take it or leave it, but we’ll always take it, because we can still recognize greatness. And in 2015 and beyond, I hope we can be thrilled by the amount of greatness we get to touch. We will never lose the right to be critical and hold our artists to a standard of excellence, but we must learn the grace of taking more breaths, and realizing that nothing great comes out easily. I am lucky to have received everything I’ve ever taken in. We are so lucky to be alive in a world where it can all happen.
“The thing about writer’s block is that you want to write so fucking bad, [but] the songs don’t come out that way. They come from life. So you’ve got to live to write.”
*Trains are SO old. The first movie was of a train. That means trains have been around since before movies. We’re still waiting for the sequel.