Category Archives: CAKE

How the Rugged Individual Myth Distorts the Power of Collaboration in Art

If you want to understand the Taylor Swift v. Damon Albarn public dispute, I suggest exploring the history of super hero comics in the U.S.

I know that may seem odd, but from the wonderful novel by Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, to the infamous fights over who created what at Marvel (Stan Lee v. Jack Kirby and many, many others), to the rising awareness the the Marvel Cinematic Universe is generating huge amounts of wealth on the backs of ignored and marginalized creators, we have ample evidence that identifying single creators of complex art is much more difficult than people tend to imagine.

While there is no question that Albarn was factually wrong in his claim that Swift doesn’t write her songs, and glaringly inept in his sweeping discounting of the value of co-writing, I think the debate offers an excellent opportunity to interrogate how people often use the word “write” to mean “create,” and how the rugged individual myth (or better framed as a lie or delusion) distorts the power and reality of collaboration in almost all creative acts.

While rewatching some of the Netflix series based on Marvel characters, I noticed, for example, four creators identified for Luke Cage—Archie Goodwin, George Tuska, Roy Thomas, and John Romita Sr. This list identifies both writers and artists as creators, highlighting the essential problem that has existed in the super hero comic book business since the beginning.

Essentially, the comic book industry over the past century is an embarrassing story of denying creative contributions and resisting the essential nature of collaboration. Ironically, Marvel infamously experienced a crisis in the 1990s because a new wave of celebrity artists/creators began to assert their roles in creating comic books.

Throughout pop culture, what is created and consumed by audiences and who actually creates the product are overwhelmingly about collaboration—not only comic books (typically created by scripters/writers; pencil, ink, and color artists; and letterers) but TV series and films, and of course, pop music.

In a ham-fisted way, Albarn is speaking from and into an idealized view of the rugged individual as Artist.

The silly part of all this, of course, is that everyone knows the pop music industry is necessarily collaborative. In my own music fandom, for example, I learned to appreciate groups and solo acts that viewed pop music as both popular and art—notably my fandom of R.E.M., CAKE, Ben Folds (and Ben Folds Five), and The National.

And while there is a sort of wonderment to believing that performers such as Prince and Ben Folds created and performed entire albums “on their own,” and to watching Folds perform solo in live concerts, the truth is that nothing is really created in a complete vacuum of rugged individualism.

During the 1980s and 1990s when the disaster was brewing at Marvel, Athens, GA-based R.E.M. was rising to prominence and made the only right decision a musical group could make—assigned equal credit for all song to all four founding members of the band—Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe. For many years, R.E.M. also did not include lyrics with their album releases to maintain (some claimed) a focus on the whole product.

I don’t see much value in teasing out the Swift/Albarn back-and-forth itself because, frankly, Albarn’s comments were daft and even his apology is lacking. Swift is the creator of her catalogue; she, like all artists, did not do that alone, but the work is still unequivocally hers even if and when it isn’t only hers.

But Albarn’s original comments are worth unpacking in terms his use of “writes.”

Since I am a pop music fan, I have always noticed a jumbled overlap of fans who use “writes” to mean lyrics and fans who use “writes” to mean music (and then subgroups of different instruments, song parts, etc.).

Whether it is super hero comics, pop music, or film/TV shows, people are apt to look for ways to identify who deserves the real credit for “writing” a product.

That urge, I think, is driven by the rugged individual myth that pervades U.S. culture, and that ultimately distorts the power and importance of collaboration.

Michael Stipe, formerly of R.E.M., has recently begun working more seriously on solo music and has openly acknowledged his role as mostly the lyricist for R.E.M. and thus needing others to help him (re)learn how to write music as well.

Folds rose to fame with his group, Ben Folds Five, but his transition to a solo career was quite different since Folds worked as a writer of lyrics and music in the band [1].

And if we circle back to Swift, she is a powerful example of creative ownership since she has begun to reclaim her catalogue, including famously working with Aaron Dessner (of The National) to critical success (Dessner also defended Swift against Albarn).

Were the original songs under a different producer Swift’s? Are the new versions Swift’s? And is her “ownership” or “writing” diminished by collaboration?

It seems beyond silly (and mostly sexist) to challenge Swift as a writer/creator of her work, and it also seems careless not to acknowledge that her collaborators do matter; the collaboration is an important element of creativity that is undervalued in American culture (as a subset of the larger sexism driving who is allowed to be individually great).

I think we should take much more time to acknowledge and celebrate collaboration, assuming it is nested there in virtually all creative acts and products; “no [hu]man is an island,” and all that.

But we should also take better care of how we talk about creativity; in many cases, we should prefer “creates” instead of “writes” because art/products often include initial ideas, more detailed fleshing out into products, and the performances of many people with gifts and talents.

Especially with pop music, we should also acknowledge that part of creativity is performance; Swift is an artists and a performer (and as many people have pointed out, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, etc., can be described as entertainers more so than artists in terms of their lack of creating/writing songs by comparison).

The Swift/Albarn clash is a great deal of mansplaining rubbish; Albarn simply shouldn’t have made those comments. But it is also a powerful message about the distorted view of creativity and art in the U.S. because of our rugged individual myth-delusion grounded in a pervasive sexism.

[1] Folds’s “One Down” has great lines about the role of the pop music song writer:

Ben, just make up junk
And turn it in
But i could never could quite bring myself
To write a bunch of shit
I don’t like wasting time
On music that won’t make me proud
But now I’ve found a reason
To sit right down and shit some out

“One Down,” Ben Folds

The Whitest Thing I Could Do

Let me tell y’all what it’s like
Being male, middle-class, and white
It’s a bitch, if you don’t believe
Listen up to my new CD

“Rockin’ the Suburbs,” Ben Folds

Sunday, I drove to Athens, GA, with friends to do the whitest thing I could do—attend a CAKE concert.

The most recent concert I attended was The National in Asheville, NC—very white—and before that, R.E.M. in Atlanta, GA—extremely white.

As a writer and a teacher, a significant amount of my time and energy is devoted to race, racism, white privilege, and inequity—particularly as those intersect education.

And while I have often outed myself as a redneck and confronted my own tremendous privilege that has contributed to my professional success, I have not ventured into my whiteness in any way other than to interrogate its mostly harmful contributions to a people’s claimed commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all regardless of race or any status.

Sitting in The Classic Center in Athens as the lights were still up and the crowd gathered, I confirmed what I suspected: a crowd as far as I saw entirely white, many couples, and a wide array of ages clustering in their 30s and 40s.

The crowd and the concert were incredibly amiable; people were having fun, and the band in its typical way was casual, sardonic, and on form.

I don’t know by experience, but I suspect the mostly all-white crowds at, say, concerts for country music singers/bands are quite distinct from the chill, nerd-heavy fans of CAKE, a California band who records in a solar-powered studio, abandoned a lucrative major label, and flaunts their leftist politics through their eclectic musical style and smart-to-sarcastic lyrics from frontman John McCrea.

The concert was oddly low key and energetic with McCrea initiating a faux-battle between two halves of the crowd to highlight, as he invoked, that we all really have more in common than not.

CAKE began playing about 10-15 minutes after the scheduled start, with no opening act, but with a planned intermission and a tree give-away.

I am going to hazard a guess that the auditorium that night was filled with mostly good people—despite the goofy white-folk swaying and occasional unimpressive aisle dancing.

I will also hazard that most people attending and many who could have simply witnessed the crowd would be compelled to identify those attending as just a normal gathering of average folk.

And here where I cannot set aside my discomfort at my own inescapable whiteness.

“Privilege,” Roxane Gay examines, “is a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor,” continuing:

There is racial privilege, gender (and identity) privilege, heterosexual privilege, economic privilege, able-bodied privilege, educational privilege, religious privilege and the list goes on and on. At some point, you have to surrender to the kinds of privilege you hold because everyone has something someone else doesn’t….

One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do is accept and acknowledge my privilege. This is something I am still working on. I’m a woman, a person of color, and the child of immigrants but I also grew up middle class and then upper middle class. My parents raised my siblings and I in a strict but loving environment. They were and are happily married so I didn’t have to deal with divorce or crappy intramarital dynamics. I attended elite schools. My master’s and doctoral degrees were funded. I got a tenure track position my first time out. My bills are paid. I have the time and resources for frivolity. I am reasonably well published. I have an agent so I have every reason to believe my novel will find a home. My life has been far from perfect but I have a whole lot of privilege. It’s somewhat embarrassing for me to accept just how much privilege I have.

Black and female, Gay speaks directly to the necessity of admitting privilege and then what I cannot avoid now, what I could not avoid while sitting at the concert: embarrassment.

It is a disturbing and distinct—but mostly ignored—fact that to pay for, drive to, and then attend a music concert is the consequence of a tremendous amount of time and financial privilege.

To utter “normal” or “average,” too, is a concession to the centeredness of “white” and to perpetuate the marginalizing of the Other (read as “not white”).

Despite my belief in the value and importance of art and pop culture, they are luxuries, they may be frivolous.

The people that could be fed, the suffering that could be comforted—while privileged white folk sing along to “Sheep Go to Heaven” and “Satan Is My Motor.”

The world, I know, is not a zero-sum game; it is possible for some to have without others going without.

But that is not the case in the U.S. White privilege has and continues to deny for some while catapulting others—and it is exponentially increased by gender, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation.

This sense of embarrassment has risen recently as well when I was being interviewed about my struggles with anxiety. While I am now eager to share, I paused during the interview and added that I hoped I didn’t sound as if I was whining—fearing I was echoing the persona in Ben Fold’s “Rockin’ the Suburbs” who groans, “All alone in my white-boy pain.”

My first concert was in Greenville, SC, during the late 1970s, and the acts were Mother’s Finest, Heat Wave, and Earth, Wind, and Fire. I drove a handful of my black teammates from the varsity basketball team to the event, and saw no other white people that night.

Yellow pot smoke filled the auditorium, and while I was a non-smoker, I occasionally and dutifully passed along a joint casually working its way down the row of seats.

In most ways, it is incredibly hard to fathom that night and that me as well as the journey from my conflicted racist and redneck past to sitting in the audience a couple nights ago truly happy and very much enjoying being at the CAKE concert.

That teenaged me has been replaced and is always here inside me.

And maybe it is because of that I remain quite uncertain about what to do with this embarrassment.

All of us walk around in the statuses given us—along with the privileges and disadvantages that they bring.

I am at peace with my own confrontations of my privilege, with my own commitments to dismantle those privileges and to guard against using them as weapons or to pretend they are what I have earned.

Yet, the embarrassment remains:

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

Dickinson, I think, offers a hint that this embarrassment from privilege is the unexplainable human quality too few experience—a conscience, a moral response to the “This World.”

And so I am left with my whiteness and an embarrassment of riches that afforded me the oasis of sitting in the audience and driven to happiness from the the trumpet of Vince DiFiore, a happiness about being alive and the possibilities of the human condition.

This, I think, is our greatest justification about art.

“Jesus wrote a blank check,” I sing in my mind:

One I haven’t cashed quite yet
I hope I got a little more time
I hope it’s not the end of the line.