Not With The Band: Why Real Life Does Not Necessarily Imitate Art
We are always told to separate the art from the artist, this should be the norm even though it is often difficult. But when it comes to making movies and writing books about artists, I wonder why directors and writers cheerfully transgress this rule and get away with it? Watching ‘Montage of Heck’, Brett Morgen’s documentary about Kurt Cobain, reminded me one more time about this golden rule. Morgen constantly uses journal entries and lyrics to prove his point. Yes Kurt Cobain wrote ‘I hate myself and I want to die’, but have you read the lyrics of the song? It is a crazy funny song as Cobain explained in a 1993 interview with Rolling Stone:
‘[The title was] as literal as a joke can be. Nothing more than a joke. And that had a bit to do with why we decided to take it off. We knew people wouldn’t get it; they’d take it too seriously. It was totally satirical, making fun of ourselves. I’m thought of as this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time. “He isn’t satisfied with anything.” And I thought it was a funny title. I wanted it to be the title of the album for a long time. But I knew the majority of the people wouldn’t understand it.’
As a matter of fact, people still don’t understand it and take it as evidence he was suicidal. In the same interview, he even said this:
‘I still see stuff, descriptions of rock stars in some magazine — ‘Sting, the environmental guy’ and Kurt Cobain, the whiny, complaining, neurotic, bitchy guy who hates everything, hates rock stardom, hates his life.’ And I’ve never been happier in my life. Especially within the last week, because the shows have been going so well — except for tonight. I’m a much happier guy than a lot of people think I am.’
Actually his biggest fear was to become too happy and so too boring ‘I just hope, I don’t become so blissful I become boring. I think I’ll always be neurotic enough to do something weird.’ He had solved his stomach problem which had poisoned his life for so long and was looking up at the future, he wasn’t suicidal at all.
It didn’t stop Morgen to abundantly use song lyrics to lead us to Cobain’s tragic death, as if lyrics were a prediction of what was about to come? I have always fought against this idea, which is a very recurrent one. In his Elliott Smith biography, W. T. Schultz is constantly using lyrics and songs in his narration:
page 162, ‘Then in ‘Bottle Up and Explode!’ with its tell-tale exclamation mark, the habit of keeping ‘troublemakers’ below – a reference to the repression of feeling – fails. It’s a short term, non viable solution. The prescribed explosion always comes, leaving Elliott seeing stars of red, white and blue’ [lyrics of the song]. ‘In these months Chris Cooper spent hours – as everyone close to Elliott did – trying desperately to ‘talk him out of thinking he wanted to kill himself.’’
page 309, ‘Elliott always understood the enemy was within’ (a line from the song ‘Stupidity Tries’)
page 327, ‘The breakup with Deerin had been traumatizing. He could not endure any similar ordeal. It was too much to complete. Suicide therefore equaled pain cessation. It was a kind of preemptive strike, a world killer, leaving preferable to being left. And as Elliott always liked to imagine, it was, paradoxically, in the fractured logic of hopelessness, a gift. ‘I can’t prepare for death any more that I already have,’ he sang in ‘King’s Crossing.’ It’s true. He’d practiced. He’d come close. He possessed the requisite courage…’
I could have come up with many more examples, and the way the author constantly mixes song lyrics (sometimes even without the quotation marks to make them like part of his text) with his narration has always bothered me greatly. What does he want to prove, that Elliott was living in his songs? If art is inspired by many events happening in real life it can’t and should never be equaled to real life.
‘My lyrics are a big pile of contradictions,’ did say Kurt Cobain. ‘They’re split down the middle between very sincere opinions and feelings that I have and sarcastic and hopeful, humorous rebuttles towards cliché, bohemian ideals that have been exhausted for years. I mean I like to be passionate and sincere, but I also like to have fun and act like a dork.’ Elliott spoke about similar feelings: ‘I think the suggestion that all my songs are personal is insulting because that assumes that I have a bunch of issues that I feel the need to unload on strangers. That is not the case. It also assumes that I just talk about myself the whole time which, again, is not true.’… ‘just because somebody doesn’t go around singing jubilant songs doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily more happy or unhappy than anybody else. it’s like if you have a bad dream, does that mean you’re not a happy person? dreams are the same place that songs come from.’ He often compared his songs to dreams and has always laughed at people saying his songs were purely confessional pieces…
Again art can’t be considered as equal to real life, but we repeatedly do this amalgam over and over with this type of artists. However, rappers are truly today’s victims of this terrible game, how many times you have seen this headline on Fox TV,… not that I watch Fox TV! Commentators are repeatedly blaming rap lyrics for violence and are constantly blurring the lines between art and real life. According to this blog, ‘back in 2006, a FBI analyst recommended that prosecutors and law enforcement look for rap lyrics when investigating crimes because of the potential for leads and confessions.’
When it comes to movies, it may be a bit different because Tarantino can get away with murder at each minute of his movies and almost nobody thinks he is a psycho serial killer, may be it’s different for a director because he can hide behind actors? However this assimilation between the art and the artist also pollutes the literary world. In this 1991 article for the NY Times, Bret Easton Elis mentioned ‘13 anonymous death threats, including several with photographs of him in which his eyes have been poked out or an axe drawn through his face,’ following the publication of ‘American Psycho’. ‘Bateman is a misogynist,’ he said. ‘In fact, he’s beyond that, he is just barbarous. But I would think most Americans learn in junior high to differentiate between the writer and the character he is writing about. People seem to insist I’m a monster. But Bateman is the monster. I am not on the side of that creep.’
Still more than 2 decades later, we repeat the same error, and it is particularly true for songwriters because songs always look so personal, so intimate. I know that real life sometimes seems to imitates art, a singer sings about killing himself, and dies of an apparent suicide…or did he? But we are always drawing hasty conclusion simply because it looks good in our mythology, but unfortunately, life is often way messier than art.