I have never seriously wished to be a rock star, but like everyone else, have occasionally fantasized about being one. In my college days and 20s, rock music was practically a religion. (Here, I’m using the term broadly to mean any styles of music popular among the youth, not the specific genre or style of music called “rock”.) Virtually all my friends have, at one point or another, tried to form a band or be somehow associated with one. Rock music is a perfect remedy for the feelings of insecurity, loneliness, and angst that come with being young. To top it all, most parents do not want you to pursue a career in rock music. That makes you want to do it more, so that you can feel you are your own person, not a product designed and programmed by your parents to be a certain way. The unfortunate thing I see now in my 40s is that your parents’ warnings have some truth to them, which is being ignored or misunderstood. Most of the parents don’t explain it well either. They sound like they are making excuses for their failure to pursue their own dreams. So, in an attempt to avoid becoming a wimp like your parents, you try even harder to be a rock star. It’s a vicious cycle.
When we are young, we live in a state of eternity. We operate under the assumption that everything will stay the same forever. Conceptually, we all know that things change over time, but that is not how we feel. In the end, it’s how we feel that determines the reality for us. The dinner table stories about the starving children in Africa didn’t have much reality for us either. In our 20s, it’s hard for us to feel our mortality because we are so fit and energetic. In other words, immortality is what we feel by default when we are born, and mortality is something we learn over time. (It’s somewhat ironic if we think about the fact that we try so hard to achieve immortality in life even though the understanding of mortality is the real achievement we should be proud of.) So, we drink, smoke, do drugs, get tattoos, and make fun of old people. We deliberately put ourselves in dangerous situations in an attempt to validate how we feel inside. We crave for these situations and atmospheres.
This state of eternity causes us to make all sorts of bad decisions in our youth. After all, this sense of eternity and immortality is delusional. The reality will catch up to it sooner or later. I remember in college thinking about how I would want to be a 40-something who would be respected by 20-somethings. I’m embarrassed to admit it. This is just another example of the state of eternity distorting my thinking. I thought this, because I assumed that our sense of value would never change. That is, I assumed that what we 20-somethings valued at the time would forever be (or should be) valued by everyone. Again, if someone had pointed out the flaw in my thinking, I’m sure I would have conceptually agreed that nothing is forever. It was about how I felt. The older people’s values were decidedly uncool to me. All they thought about were money, status, reputation, authority, retirement, a sense of security, etc.. Well, my observations were actually correct. As we get older, we do become preoccupied with these things. We are not the ideological creatures we once were. We begin to do things that we know are less than ideal, or even wrong, just so that we can live more comfortably. What I got wrong was the reason. I assumed that we became this way because we lacked the courage to stand up for our ideals. This is not entirely incorrect either, but it’s only part of the whole picture. It’s because we realize that ideals are overrated.
The concept of ideal, like the sense of right and wrong, is overrated. Even if you had all the courage in the world, even if you did everything perfectly according to your ideals, if you are wise enough, you would realize that ideals are overrated. This does not mean that you would throw away all of your ideals, or that you would suddenly start living an immoral life. It just means that your mind is no longer preoccupied with ideals. This, I believe, is a result of transcending our own thoughts. Just as we transcend our own physical selves with our thoughts, we eventually transcend our own thoughts too. We are able to step back from our own thoughts and see them for what they truly are. In that state, we are no longer slaves to our own thoughts. We are able to take them or leave them. We are free to do the right thing or the wrong thing. We can also let others do the right thing or the wrong thing. We go beyond good and evil.
From this perspective, the way I now see rock music is how I would imagine a bird would look at its own eggshell after coming out of it. I don’t look at it with a sense of shame. It’s not something to look down on, criticize, or ridicule. It’s something to leave behind and move on. It used to protect me, comfort me, and support me, but I no longer need it.
As a career, rock music has no longevity. In your 30s and 40s, if you see rock music as an eggshell, how could you be sincere about it? You no longer need it or desire it, but you would have to pretend like you do if you wanted to be successful. So, you become a fake, a “sell-out”, or a “has-been”. All that risk taking and hard work that is involved in becoming a rock star doesn’t really pay off in the end. By the time you get your first pay-off, your career would be over. The worst of all, all of your friends who used to admire you are also starting to look at rock music as an eggshell they discarded a while ago. They are all ready to move on. They don’t get any kick out of the fact that you are making a living as a rock musician.
In my 20s, I would have said, “Who cares as long as the young people in their 20s admire you?” Well, again, the state of eternity talking. Just as the people in their 20s do not give a damn about what people in their 40s think, once you are in your 40s, you don’t really give a damn about what the people in their 20s think either. All you care about are your peers. Your peers form the standard by which you judge yourself. In your 40s, your career as a rock musician is just another job that doesn’t pay much, unless of course you hit it really big. Sadly, even if you hit it big, it’s not all that rosy.
I once sat across from Lou Reed at a dinner. Every time I tell this story, people are more amused than impressed; the same kind of amusement I would get if I had told them that I saw a camel running down the Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. This would not be the case if I told them that I once sat across from Steve Jobs at a dinner table. My friends would be impressed, not amused. The exact opposite would have been true, if I were still in my 20s.
Being able to make a living as a rock musician is no easy task. I know a lot of people who are making a good living now as fine artists, but I know no one who succeeded in making a living as a rock musician. Obviously the competition is much tougher in the music world, given that I knew more musicians than fine artists. In fact, fine arts is a much better career to pursue. It does not require you to reach the masses in order for you to make a decent living. A relatively small group of collectors can support you financially. And, once you become successful enough, your career can last indefinitely. It’s still risky as far as the careers go, and many people don’t make it, but the pay-off is at least proportionate to the risk you take. Rock music simply isn’t. It’s basically a no-win situation.
Trying to explain this to a 20-something who is trying to be a rock star is an uphill battle. Firstly, his first response would be, “Well, I don’t care.” Of course he wouldn’t care, because the whole point of pursuing rock music is to prove to himself and to the people around him that he does not care about the future, and that he can live in the moment and not be afraid of it. He is trying to prove how courageous he is.
My argument to him would be this: You are not being courageous because you haven’t comprehended the risks yet. If you have not understood why you should be afraid of something, then pursuing it does not prove your courage; it just proves your ignorance. If you were truly courageous, you should be carefully listening to all of your parents’ warnings about becoming a rock musician. If you have done enough research and understood the risks, and if you still wish to be a rock star, then your claim about courage perhaps has some truth to it.
Taking a risk in life is meaningful only if the pay off is truly what you want. When we are young, we take risks for the sake of taking risks, because we don’t even know how courageous we are. Many people ruin themselves or even die in the process of trying to prove their courage. In other words, we are not courageous enough to admit that we are afraid. A while ago, I read a story about a bunch of college kids in a car daring the driver to drive through the toll booth at full speed. The car bumped the side and lost control, and they all died. If one of them were courageous enough to admit that he was afraid, he could have prevented this. Out of so many meaningful things in life that they could have taken the risk for, they chose to waste it on this.
I’m not trying to say that rock music is inherently meaningless. For some people, it is very meaningful, and worth taking the big risk for. But for most young people, the pursuit of rock music is no different from driving through a toll booth at full speed. It’s just a daring act driven by insecurity. Pursuing Avant Garde music or poetry is more sensible and meaningful because the possibility of making it big is zero to begin with, and you can’t enjoy any peer respect since most of them wouldn’t even understand what you are doing. You wouldn’t go into these fields so light-heartedly.
These are tricky decisions to make in your 20s. If what you really enjoy, where your passion is, is a career that happens to be quite safe and conservative, it is even more confusing. Suppose you are really passionate about computer programming. That’s a pretty safe career. There isn’t much risk in pursuing it. So, among your friends who are pursuing music, art, or literature, you might look like a chicken. But if you are truly courageous, you have to be able to stand up for yourself. You have to be able to say to yourself, “Yes, it’s a safe career, but I love it, and that’s all that matters.” That’s not easy to do in your 20s. It’s hard to resist the temptation of driving through the toll booth at full speed or of becoming a rock star.
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