Tag Archives: creativity

The Venus Flytrap: To Whom The Song Belongs

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Every time I hear the original “Masakali”, I think of the first time I heard it. A friend had sent me a video in which the melody was overlaid on a black and white clip of slapstick comedians Laurel and Hardy dancing. Something had upset me, and he’d sent it to lighten my mood. I’ve long forgotten what I was miserable about, but I’ve never been able to listen to that song without thinking of him.

Many popular works of art have such a mnemonic effect on us, conjuring everything from teenage summers, indelible loves, special trips and more. “Masakali” must mean a lot of things, to a lot of people. So, how many seconds of “Masakali 2.0” did it take for you to recognise that the remix was a dud?

The song’s composer A.R. Rahman criticised the rendition on social media, in a departure from his congenial public image. Playback singer Mohit Chauhan, who recorded the original, also expressed his dismay. All this is not just drama fodder. It reveals the seedy underside of being an art-maker within capitalism.

Shortly afterwards, playback singer Neha Kakkar spoke up about being insufficiently compensated for her work in cinema; she said that concerts provided better income. It bears remembering that the iconic Leonard Cohen was forced to resume touring in his 70s to evade bankruptcy.

Many of us are guilty of falling for the notion that music, or any art, is free. It’s nice to think that a beautiful song belongs to everyone; and in a sense, it could. It’s just that someone made that song. More than one someone, sometimes. To create a thing of beauty or meaning and to give it away is very different from losing it, or losing one’s claim over it – or never being paid enough for it, literally.

In 1974, Dolly Parton turned down the chance to have Elvis Presley record a song she wrote, “I Will Always Love You”, giving up the potential for it to be even more popular and lucrative. Presley’s manager had demanded half the publishing rights to the song, and Parton made the painful decision to reject the deal. This was a brave choice, but such a choice isn’t always available to every creator. Especially when one needs the money, needs the door to open, or knows they may not get another opportunity.

The Covid-19 lockdowns have made TV shows, films, music and books an integral part of how people (with the privilege of access) are managing the situation, especially from the perspective of emotional well-being. Most people really are grateful for these entertainment and enrichment materials, no longer taking them for granted. However, this gratitude can be made more meaningful by sparing a thought for what will likely happen to the creators of the same artforms in the near future, economically speaking. This will impact what gets produced, promoted or published at all. Whether as artists or as consumers, we must become invested in dismantling capitalism as it exists today and reassembling better systems – systems which ensure that no one goes hungry, regardless of their profession or background, and also recognise the arts as essentials.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 16th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Compulsive Creator

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In the age of the Twitter trending topic, nothing exalts the artist quite like death. When Dennis Hopper, Hollywood maverick and counterculture icon, died a few months ago, this happened in a more interesting way than usual: not only was Hopper remembered for his work in cinema, but a resurgence of curiosity in his photography was sparked. Lauded for half a century as an actor, director and screenwriter, his work with still film – although widely published – came as news to many.

Hopper taught himself photography at 25, and expertly chronicled Americana and the art(ists) of that generation. His subjects included his friends – Paul Newman, Andy Warhol, Tuesday Weld, Ed Rushcha – but mostly, a certain milieu and moment. A self-described “compulsive creator”, Hopper was not unlike many artists, who visibly succeed in one field, but whose body of work runs along several parallel tracks.

What the audience receives is distillation; in the artist’s life, these tracks converge. Back when I first began to develop an Internet presence, I perhaps injudiciously let my bios tip over in their exuberance, listing the various things I did: dance, painting, photography, theatre and (oh yeah) writing. This was meant without conceit, for truly, I was passionate about all of those things, and had yet to understand the benefits of streamlining. Writing was not the first love, only the most extant.

In the same way, it took years for me to think of myself as a poet (instead of as a fiction writer who sometimes wrote poems). When I stumbled into journalism at 16, I did so thinking it a lesser form, with not a shred of the admiration I have for non-fiction now! But now I’m a manquée novelist, a dabbler in many things, but mostly a writer of poetry and non-fiction. Art must necessarily be incidental in a life fully lived (the ash of a life that burns well, as Cohen – who himself was a bard turned balladeer – put it). Recognition is even more secondary, and what one becomes recognized for is almost arbitrary.

Then there’s the question of money. The starving artist is increasingly something of an anachronism: art requires money, be it to buy time, materials, or enough to eat so that the spiritual hunger supersedes the visceral one. So, knowing that both terms of recognition and market value are vagaries, at what point does one become a sellout? At the point of commercial success, or at the point of intention?

Still, the life of a piece of art cannot be charted at the outset. Even sincere intentions can be diverted. Tamra Davis, director of a new film about the legendary Jean-Michel Basquiat, says that toward the end of his life Basquiat was saddened when friends would sell his gifts, if they contained his artwork. They valued it less than their buyers, or their giver.

In some ways nearly everything I do, creatively, is a vanity project. But some things are more likely to succeed than others (and what does success mean? Ah, perhaps another time…). I find the best way to balance ambition with humility is to go back to the naïveté with which I proclaimed all my many passions: to do all of it, love all of it, and then let it go, allowing it to become what it will.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: The Immortal Fallout

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When Eric Maschwitz wrote “These Foolish Things” in 1935, he did so after parting with the actress Anna May Wong – she whose ghost it is that clings in the song’s most affecting lyric. In the dozens of times it has been covered by various artists since, and the millions of lingering memories it’s been on the soundtrack to, the phantoms it invokes have surely multiplied. Still, each time I listen to it (my preference is for Nat King Cole’s crisp cadence), I also remember Maschwitz and Wong, though mostly Maschwitz, possessed by a yearning so consuming it had to be written down. Oh how the ghost of you clings.

Love and heartbreak are the Siamese twin muses for much artistic work, inextricably linked, but even at their most shattering, the works are only byproducts to the fact. The immortal fallout, if you will. If the power of their own work could save them, artists might not have, or obey, such self-destructive impulses (ah, but would they create what they do if they didn’t follow those impulses? A question for another time).

Something about the stories behind songs beguiles me. Pop music doesn’t do anything for me because its lyrics are impersonal, written for mass consumption and therefore with the lowest common denominator in mind. I like music steeped in narcissistic soul-searching and that actually completely universal belief that one’s pain is of a magnitude previously unknown to humankind (I also, if it isn’t obvious, like pain). When the rare pop song does attract my attention, I look up its writer. It was little surprise, for instance, to discover that the aching “Beautiful Disaster”, sung by American Idol Kelly Clarkson, was penned by the singer-songwriter Rebekah, who was briefly notable in the mid-90s.

It has to ring true. When Lhasa de Sela belts out he venido al desierto pa’reirme de tu amor – that she’s gone to the desert to laugh at your love – I believe her. It’s important to me that she can be believed. Experience counts. You can fatten up your work to sound like you know what you’re talking about, but experience is the spine.

Reading Leonard Cohen’s 1966 novel, Beautiful Losers, I kept thinking about that most haunting of his songs, “Famous Blue Raincoat”. Like the song’s sleepless letter-writer, its protagonist is tortured by a triangle involving himself, his woman, and a man beloved enough to call brother. The book draped a new layer over my history with the song, and this was both illuminating and unsettling, because it fragmented and realigned some understanding I must have had in my head of what it was about. It changed its pathos, neither for better nor worse. I myself read Cohen because it is his songs that punctuate the landscape of my life; Leonard Cohen is my downfall, or at least, I hold him personally responsible for several of mine.

It’s these downfalls, of course, that inspire my own work. And like the vast majority of artists I fill my life with, the confessional is my instrument. Still, my writing is incidental, not fundamental. Life is more important than its recording. But caught in the act of creating, neither what happens to me nor to the work afterwards are of any consequence. Though sometimes, I’ll grant you this, there are.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.