by Ryan Wasoba
Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship.
No phrase encapsulates the worst elements of music quite like the phrase "rock star." My disdain is so strong that, in the rare event that I consume an energy drink, I skip over Rockstar for a less delicious can of Monster simply out of principle. By the time I developed enough tastes to form a personal aesthetic, the superstar musician was a parody of a former era. Legitimate rock stars do exist today, we just call them comedians.
I have noticed a shift among those near me. Conversations previously reserved for nerding out about the new Yo La Tengo record (spoiler alert: it's excellent) are spent discussing Tig Notaro. When Radiohead came to St. Louis last year, I forgot about the show until the day after. But when Louis CK played the Fox, every human friend in town seemed to either have tickets or want tickets. People I know who complain about DIY shows costing more than five dollars had no issue shelling out forty bucks for his performance. This is because Louis CK is more of a rock star today than Thom Yorke.
The parallels between comedy and music are many. They share media outlets. Performers in both scenes increasingly tour in the same venues. In the simplest of terms, people listen to music and comedy to be entertained. The comedy experience may have fewer dimensions, as there is a direct and obvious intention to entertain by humor. Nobody can listen to a random MP3 and know their musical needs will be catered to, but I know what I am generally in for if I tune in to Comedy Central Presents Some Comedian I've Never Heard Of.
My instinct is to associate comedians with the rock star model of olden days, when the singer in the band was to be worshiped because his singular job was to entertain. I want to think that as musicians make artistic decisions that alienate fans, they humanize themselves and leave a void in fans for comedians to fill. Supply and demand. The opposite probably bears more truth. The real rock stars of comedy, the Chris Rocks and Patton Oswalts, have deeper meanings in their jokes. George Carlin's bits were no less socially relevant than Bob Dylan's songs.
No performing musician is as exposed on stage as a standup comedian. There is always an instrument or a melody to hide behind, even if the musician is using these tools to indirectly show his or her soul. We reward musicians for their abilities. Slash gets paid because he can (kind of) shred. Lady Gaga gets paid because she can (kind of) sing. We reward comedians for their unique outlooks on life. There are definite techniques to comedy, but it is an artform based on personality more than a specific skill set.
When I used to play in bands, there were rare instances where somebody would use the phrase "rock star" as a well intended compliment. I hated it. At the time, I cringed at the thought of being that guy who goes on stage just to soak up the spotlight. But also, I knew that I didn't deserve the title. The standup comedians, the ones who get in front of a microphone just to do the thing that nobody in a band ever knows how to do between songs, those are the real heroes.