The Transcendent Satisfaction of Playing with Other People

Izzy Reidy (Izzy True) on how the myth of the rockstar endangers the democracy of music.

I love attention. So much, in fact, that I learned guitar. So, so much, that I have arranged it so that I regularly get up on a stage, amplify my voice, and demand people look at me. I got the idea to do this the first time I saw a rock band. I was around 8 years old, at a craft fair for homeschooled kids in a dimly lit church community center. Five young boys were up on stage playing a cover of “Wonderwall,” which I’m pretty sure was the first time I had ever heard it. I was deeply moved. The sadness of the song (O! to listen to “Wonderwall” again with a child’s heart!), the weird mix of an attraction to and a profound desire to be those boys was so intense. That feeling of melancholy longing, focused on these powerful, mysterious figures (boys with instruments ages 10-16?) was intoxicating and completely new to me. From that point on, my dearest ambition was to be like them. That was by no means my first exposure to music, but it was my first experience with what you might call celebrity, and it leaves me feeling a bit torn. In the years since, I’ve found that the myth of the rockstar tends to discourage more than it inspires.

I was lucky; when I was growing up, music was everywhere. My dad plays old-time, which means I spent almost every weekend as a kid in the company of besotted grown-ups, wearing their fingers to nubs on banjos and fiddles (this, or eating bad hamburgers and feeling bored and vaguely frightened in the then-smoky bars my dad played in around Boston.) On my mom’s side of the family, there were summer nights which always ended in singing ballads and sea shanties, washing the dishes. For years I was a dirty, unsupervised child at various music festivals.

As a kid, I understood music to be a communal activity. My parents’ parties were full of food and other kids and people playing all over the house; festivals weren’t built around stages, but miles of tents with a jam session to every campsite. I’m sure there were politics I wasn’t aware of as a child: People whose particular skill, or beautiful voices, or knowledge of obscure tunes in obscure tunings made them more popular than others, and certainly I know people felt left out (hi, mom!). Still, the focus was never really on individual genius. Folk music is made to be played by whoever is around. Some have argued (hi, mom!) that old-time is actually only enjoyable to the people playing it, but the point is that they are playing it together. It’s structurally simple music, easy to learn and play with limited skill. The same tune might be repeated endlessly for 10 minutes, or even half an hour, an approach much closer to meditation than performance.  

Despite this education, those homeschooled “Wonderwall” boys had sold me on rockstars. The idea of being exalted as a true genius, of being rewarded with fabulous fame and riches and MyStEriOus AiRs isn’t really a hard sell, I guess. Who doesn’t want to be singled out as Very Very Special. Moreover, who wouldn’t be happy just to live off their art, let alone grow rich from it? I would be a great big liar if I said the appeal of all that has faded for me, but rockstars have done a great disservice to the world. The myth of the rockstar reinforces the idea that certain people play music and others do not. There is trepidation in even calling oneself a musician; I know a lot of people who play music, many of whom are very talented, who are afraid or ashamed to do it. To them it seems presumptuous: A “real” musician, how could you claim that for yourself?

A billionaire’s wealth is immoral and grotesque, but we are encouraged to believe, however unlikely, that through hard work we might one day have a piece of that pie. This lie (and a good deal of force, coercion, and oppression besides) has robbed more people than it has ever benefited, leaving an insane, bloated power in the hands of a very few at great cost to everyone else. This is by no means a one-to-one analogy, but I do think capitalism has a symmetrical way of replicating nasty hierarchies in everything it touches. Certainly in a culture focused on measurable success, the high-water mark in musicianship being a Beatles level of hysterical, global fame does tend to diminish the efforts of a few people hanging out and having a nice time, not making any money, maybe not even showing anyone else what they are up to.

The internet age compulsion to broadcast anything and everything we do also puts any new musician in a very exposed position at the outset. Even if they have no interest in performance, if they are playing with a few people there is a pretty good chance that at least one of them will be adding their efforts to an Instagram story. This puts an undue pressure on having something to show for yourself. If you are only playing for your friends and your family, you don’t have to be a genius. If you are playing for the whole world, the stakes seem a little higher.

There is good news though: For most of human history, music has been for EVERYONE. And, actually, it still is. There is no need for you to be the best, or even any good at all, to enjoy the benefits of playing music. A late bloomer might pick up an instrument and make a beautiful record, or they might never play for anyone but their grandma. Both outcomes are equally worthwhile. Music is there for anyone who will have it, and its value does not lie in its ability to generate popular content.

Bessel A. Van der Kolk devotes an entire chapter in The Body Keeps The Score, an influential text on the nature of trauma, to the healing potential of communal rhythm — the power of making sounds and movements in time with other people. The truth of this is something I feel instinctively. Though my reptile brain is pretty well caught up in a dubious pursuit of fame and that ole’ dream of a self-sustaining career in the arts, the most satisfaction I have gotten from music has come from the feeling that I get in those moments when I am truly playing with other people. I’ve experienced as much transcendent satisfaction playing in the rock & roll band I named after myself as I did singing dorky choral music around a piano with my friends at 14. People shouldn’t feel unworthy of the guitars in their closets — those things are for everybody.

(Photo Credit: Andi Carbaugh)

Izzy True (they/them pronouns) is a musician and artist living in Chicago, IL.

(Photo Credit: Andi Carbaugh)