This past Friday, I went on a solo date to the Angelika Theatre in Soho to see 20 Feet From Stardom, Morgan Neville’s documentary about background singers. As a female music-fanatic I knew I’d thoroughly enjoy a film featuring Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and the Ikettes, but I was completely unprepared for the emotional exorcism that took place as I watched the film. Years of emotion poured out of me. I was shaking like a leaf, sobbing uncontrollably. When the movie finished, I waited until the theatre emptied out so I could make a dash for the exit without being seen in such a state. 

It was probably the first time I had heard music spoken about in a way that I could truly understand. The music conversation is almost always expressed intellectually, with little room for those seeking less analytical ways to explore and enjoy music. It’s hard not be disheartened when you witness first-hand just how far removed the music industry–record labels, music journalism, record collecting–is from the actual music. And perhaps that’s why the ladies of 20 Feet From Stardom, speaking with such feeling and passion, affected me so severely. Whether they spoke or sang, they communicated with their hearts, describing so eloquently how music really feels. Listening to Lisa Fischer describe the magic of melody, I couldn’t help but mourn the lack of heart, spirit, love, emotion, whatever you wanna call it, in music today. Even the rock writers, once the domain of ultra-enthusiasts like Lester Bangs, tackle a music review as if it’s a college thesis, writing dispassionate, cerebral prose constructed for the purpose of showing off. We honor the intellects, and forget that it’s those with heart–the Darlene Loves and Brian Wilsons and Lester Bangs–who really move us. 

It’s so unfortunate that a creative endeavour that once demanded your heart and soul has been co-opted by the brain and the business. It’s no wonder music feels so inadequate. I remember having a conversation with a man in his ’80s who was surprised to hear about my love of music from decades before I was born. “That was a time when music really got you here,” he said, putting his fist to his heart. “Music today just doesn’t speak to the soul.” I’m 50 years his junior, and couldn’t agree more.

Hearing Darlene Love and Lisa Fischer sing, I was reminded exactly of why I am so dismissive of music these days. It’s fat-free! So much brain, so little heart. Conceptually brilliant, spiritually empty. We’ve got a huge population of artists, writers, and musicians driven by fame and money, churning out shallow schlock as tasty as styrofoam. I watch the PR machine spin for gazillions of bands, who value social media strategies and photo shoots over songwriting. I’m not saying that all songwriters and artists must solely make music for spiritual fulfillment, but I think we’re at a 20% heart / 80% brain split in the 2010s, whereas a few decades earlier I can assure you the split was much more even. Even though the Brill Building-era label bosses or producers or writers may have been money-minded, somebody in that camp–whether the artist, arranger, songwriter–was putting in the heart. You just can’t make records that beautiful without heart. No siree Bob!

The downside for those that put their hearts into music is that setbacks REALLY hurt. David Lasley, a background singer for Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, and Luther Vandross, nailed it when he said, “If you get hooked on music, you’re fucked.” Can you say Amen? I’ve been fucked HARD. And it took me two years to recover. It was so bad I couldn’t bear to listen to music for over a year. During my few stints in the music biz, I was regularly criticized for being too emotionally invested in the artists and for not being tough enough. I worked my damnedest to develop thicker skin and detach myself from the artists and songs I was working with. But I just couldn’t do it. And now I look back, completely baffled that I even attempted emotional detachment. Perhaps it’s beneficial to those who profit from questionable businesses, but music? Really? Is it good that the music business is filled with un-emotional, money-hungry ball-breakers? This “use your head, not your heart,” mentality is rampant in the music world, and frankly, I think it sucks. It’s just as unhelpful as that godawful quote “it’s just business.” To think that we can ever separate from the personal is to deny humanity. The “it’s just business” bunch tend to be heartless assholes, who often succeed in a traditional sense, because somehow we’ve allowed society to reward those who have completely disconnected from their hearts and behave like sociopathic tyrants.

You just need to look at the state of the music business to see the effects of the pursuit of money and fame, and what happens when business and intellect rule. It’s hard to believe the Billboard charts was once dominated by really good music and singers that didn’t require hours of auto-tuning to make their voices listenable. Every once in awhile, I question my age or my taste or my enthusiasm, wondering if maybe it’s me that’s changed, and that music is the same as it ever was. And then I saw 20 Feet from Stardom, and felt my hair stand up and my stomach flip-flop listening to Merry Clayton sing Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” That’s what happens when you witness a true artist sing from the heart. It is immense, wholly under-estimated, and almost impossible to intellectualize. It would do us all a world of good if we honor the heart as much as we honor the head. 

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