Mixing punk rock with grace

Against Me! @ Dour 2012
Last summer, I read this fascinating Rolling Stone article about a long-time male punk singer who had what’s called gender dysphoria—something which people who are born as one gender but identity with another suffer from. This week, I happened across the news from NPR that a comeback for the singer was in progress:

“The bracingly political Florida punk band Against Me! has been a going concern since 1997, but Transgender Dysphoria Blues can’t help but feel like a debut: It’s the group’s first album since singer Tom Gabel [now Laura Jane Grace] came out as a woman.”

Before this week, I’d never even heard an Against Me! song. But now, I consider myself a huge fan and supporter of Laura and her transition into the next stage of life. You can add her to my girl crush list. Why? Because it no doubt took an insane amount of courage on her part to become who she was meant to be. She didn’t give a shit about what other people thought of her. (Except for her wife and young daughter, who have supported her transition with love.)

And that, I think, is so very punk.

Though I know next to nothing about the genre of punk itself, I found myself hooked from the start of the title track of Against Me!’s newest album. As NPR notes, Laura “still barks her lyrics with fiercely assertive intelligence” with the same voice she had when she was still Tom. (She told Rolling Stone, “I like my singing voice.”) The new album takes the subject of Laura’s transition head-on, which I think will—and should—earn her a lot of respect.

It can be so damn hard to feel comfortable in your own skin—and I can imagine it’s even harder when there are so many critical eyes on you. Which is why I think it’s important to applaud those who take their happiness and future into their own hands and deal with the inevitable challenges of doing so as bravely as Laura has.

It’s fitting that Laura chose “Grace” as her new last name. She seems to have handled this major life change with exactly that.

The art of asking for help with Amanda Palmer

Last month, I shared the wise words of musician/writer Patti Smith, whose advice to young artists was to keep a good name and do your work because you love it (but also not to denounce success when your or others’ work reaches beyond the “cool” crowd).

Musician Amanda Palmer (with success both solo and with the band The Dresden Dolls) offers similarly thoughtful yet simple advice in her TED Talk below, which is to ask for help when you need it. Why? “You don’t get what you deserve. You get what you ask for.”

This is controversial advice coming from someone who’s been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism for this very thing. Last year, Amanda’s Kickstarter campaign requesting $100,000 to fund her album/tour became Kickstarter’s most successful ever after receiving $1.2 million. (So yeah, if you’ve never heard of her, the lady with the eyebrows has a lot of loyal fans.) So when Amanda later put out a request for local musicians to play onstage in exchange for beer and hugs, not cash, some people got pissed.

This is no longer news (and it’s not the focus of this post), but it provides a little back story for the above video. Is Amanda in the wrong here? Is she hurting or exploiting her fellow musicians and fans? And why does everybody hate Amanda Palmer so much?

Well, actually, not everybody does. The Kickstarter campaign funders, for example, are obviously touched by what Amanda offers them in return for their money. And as Amanda points out, their contributions are voluntary, sparked simply by their desire to give support to a musician whom they love when she asks for it. Another takeaway from her TED Talk: “Don’t make people pay for music… let them.”

A personal note: When John and I move to California in July, we’ll be asking for a lot of help. Luckily, we have supportive families here and friends there that we can go to when we need it. Like Ms. Palmer, I will not apologize for asking, but I will thank my helpers profusely and hopefully pay them back (or pay it forward) in some meaningful way. I also won’t hold a grudge against anyone who can’t or doesn’t want to help us. This is our move, and no one is obligated to support us. But it sure will be nice (and appreciated) if and when they do.

Controversy aside, Amanda admits it is a difficult and vulnerable thing to ask for help. It puts you in a position where others may laugh, say no, or worse, ignore you. But it also puts others in a position to do good and feel good, in which case you both benefit from the interaction. It’s not weak to ask for help. It’s brave. And I applaud Amanda Palmer for making it seem just a little less daunting. Between that and her badass music, I’ve got a total girl crush.

Taking art to heart: words of wisdom from a rock goddess

Patti Smith

via NPR.org

A few months ago, John and I went to see Patti Smith perform live downtown. I was a new fan having just read her National Book Award winning memoir Just Kids, and John, though not incredibly familiar with her music, was curious about my new girl crush. That night, we both left the venue energized, inspired, and starstruck. That Patti Smith? She is a badass, and one hell of a performer. And if you’ve read her book, you undoubtedly know she is full of wisdom.

So when I saw this video the other day of even more inspiring words from Patti, I took them to heart:

Patti Smith: Advice to the young from Louisiana Channel on Vimeo.

A writer or any artist can’t expect to be embraced by the people… you just keep doing your work because you have to, because it’s your calling. But it’s beautiful to be embraced… Some people have said to me, well, don’t you think that kind of success spoils one as an artist… and I say, you know, fuck you! One does their work for the people, and the more people you can touch, the more wonderful it is. You don’t do your work and say, “I want only the cool people to read it.’

And you know? That was really refreshing to hear.

Of course I’m writing primarily for myself—that’s numero uno. Of course not everyone will like it—that’s a given. Of course most people will never even read it. Is this reason enough to quit writing and feign passion for investment banking? Hell fucking no. (No offense to all you investment bankers out there, but I just shivered, and it wasn’t the good kind.)

In fact, rather than serving as cause to give up and wimper in the corner, being a relative unknown is just the opposite: I am liberated by the fact that anyone and no one at all could be reading my work at any given moment. This, for me, is the ultimate freedom.

As a blogger…

I can write a post to make you laugh.

I can write a post to make you cry.

I can write a post that attempts and fails to do either of these things.

I can write a post to make you think. (I can also write a post to make you think, WTF?)

I can write in a boat or with a goat, and the world, overall, would not notice, nor give many shits one way or the other.

But it’s worth it to know that even the tiniest fraction of a percent of the world’s population does. And because writing nothing serves no purpose for personal growth—mine or anyone else’s—I will continue to write. Never in an attempt to alienate anyone. Never in an attempt to please everyone. (Certainly not just the cool people.) If anything, I’ll be writing just to please Patti Smith, who understands that even if the majority of the world is never savvy to your creation, it’s worth every ounce of sweat and worry if it comes from a place of sincerity and touches even just one person. If you’re consistent, persistent, passionate, and genuine, chances are you’ll reach way more than just one person. Which, when you think about it, is incredible.