In a previous post , I mentioned in passing the importance of developing resilience; as a crucial part of becoming a musician-self and also in relation to gaining valuable experience as a live performer. In a series of posts beginning next week, I’ll explore this in closer detail. Today, though, I’ll focus mostly on its assumed antithesis: vulnerability.
As regular visitors to this blog will know, I complain frequently about my dislike of theoretical and conceptual dualisms! To quote the wisdom of the legendary Ferris Bueller; “ -isms in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself”. Amen to that 😊. There’s little escape from such issues today, though, since I’ll be discussing the problematic dichotomy that is resilience/vulnerability, and the ways in which this is both essential to and an inescapable part of being a musician. Mapped onto it is another persistent and particularly annoying binary opposition – active vs. passive – which, I shall argue, properly interferes with how we come to understand the processes of becoming and then being a musician in terms of self and identity.
Before I get stuck into all that stuff, I wish to rant briefly about the notion of ‘being discovered’, the concept of which seems to me to be highly bothersome for several reasons, despite its prevalence in contemporary media discourse. Without falling irretrievably into a vertiginous poststructuralist hole (f**k you, Foucault!), it’s worth taking a moment to consider what it even means to say that a musician has been ‘discovered’. Short of being excavated during an archaeological dig, the process surely involves having (presumably deliberately) made concerted efforts to make oneself sufficiently visible to others in the first place? Even the notorious fast-tracked bedroom-performers-to-superstars came about largely as a consequence of the artists in question having shared their creative pursuits in a (virtual) public space, be that busking outside WHSmith, or via social media/ the internet? It’s a term that implies passivity, but is only made possible through active, agentic behaviour. And don’t even get me started on questions of institutional power. Annoying, like I said!
I digress. As usual 😊
My argument is that being a musician or, indeed, a creative artist more generally, demands taking up a rather peculiar subject position in relation to the active/passive binary, not oscillating between the two in any organised or consistent way, but perpetually negotiating the ‘essential tensions’ between them. I also observe that dominant discourses around popular music and musicians typically frame the vulnerability/resilience conundrum as an unwelcome struggle that must be mastered and overcome in order to achieve and maintain success. What’s less well documented and, I think, under explored, is the magical process of transformation that takes place within the – ongoing and ever-present – struggle itself. I think that’s worth contemplating in greater detail.
The concepts of resilience and vulnerability are often paired with one another and understood in the context of how we respond to risk. According to Rutter, the qualities of resilience can usefully be described as: “having a sense of purpose, future, aspiration, self-esteem, self-efficacy, mastery of beliefs, sense of autonomy, positive outlook, optimism and a sense that one can accept challenges”. Makes sense to me. I can resonate with much of that, and the next couple of weeks’ blog posts will be dedicated to a closer exploration of resilience, using a few carefully selected lived experience examples from my own gigging history.
Firstly, though, what about vulnerability? Thanks to Brené Brown’s excellent work and the publication of her 2015 book Daring Greatly: how the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead , conventional conceptualisations of vulnerability are beginning to be challenged and opened up to reinterpretation. Eschewing our tendency to equate being vulnerable with being weak, Brown encourages us to embrace it as a form of courage and strength and, more importantly, as a fundamental part of our everyday lives:
“Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”
This has proved to be a helpful book for me. I was brought up (as I suspect were many Generation X-ers) to associate vulnerability not merely with weakness, but with abject failure. Whilst that equipped me with many valuable life skills – determination, psychological and physical endurance and a hardcore work ethic, for instance – it has also meant that I have struggled for most of my life with chronic shame. Only in the last four or five years and after a great deal of reading, learning, and some truly excellent psychotherapy have I come to understand the impact of that on my sense of self and on my intimate relationships. Lessons now gratefully and gracefully learned, I might add. I think that the very concept of vulnerability has unique implications for creative artists. This is perhaps especially so when you’re a singer, not least because our bodies are our instrument, and so we tread an interesting path along the vulnerability/resilience continuum, as it were.
In her 2011 paper, Jackie Wiggins argues that, for musicians, vulnerability has both positive and negative connotations. We music people need to be open and sensitive to the music that we create and perform, of course, but we must also be open and sensitive to the ideas and perspectives of the other musicians and professionals with whom we write and create. On top of this, the sonic nature of music as an art form means sharing it with others (co-writers/producers) even when you don’t feel ready, because if no one hears it, then it ain’t going anywhere, quite frankly! Wiggins observes that there is “no private doodling” in music, which is a rather lovely way of putting it. Part of music-making therefore involves: “baring one’s musicianship, one’s musical identity to others, often in the context of seeking validation from those one respects”. The process of ‘seeking validation’ for professional purposes is a necessary part of being a musician when it comes to writing and recording activities and, obviously, subsequent engagements with audiences, be this via live performances or virtually mediated interactions. This sits in continual and sometimes uneasy tension with the innate human tendency to seek validation on a more personal level and, if you’re not careful, that can be an emotional minefield. Like Brown, I have learned the hard way to look after myself in that respect. These days, I too:
“…only share when I have no unmet needs that I’m trying to fill. I firmly believe that being vulnerable with a larger audience is only a good idea if the healing is tied to the sharing, not to the expectations I might have for the response I get.”
Sound advice indeed.
Nevertheless, my personal and private stuff is deeply intertwined with the professional and ‘public’ aspects of the musician-self that I share with others. That’s entirely a matter of choice, of course. As a lyricist, I often draw on autobiographical material, and it’s fair to say that many of our songs (sometimes our entire albums) have served as important cathartic vehicles for me that way, notably Karnataka’s Delicate Flame of Desire and my new album with Three Colours Dark, The Science of Goodbye. As a consequence, vulnerability and resilience always dance closely with one another when new material crosses the threshold and makes its way out into the world. My heart and soul are deeply invested in the music that I co-create, and a great deal of love is embedded in it, which is why I always hope that it will be embraced with love and kindness in return. I continue to be overwhelmed with the warm welcome that The Science of Goodbye is receiving this year so far, but I am of course well aware that it’s a tough old sea out there, and there’s little point setting sail at all unless you’re prepared to weather the potential storms, such as they are.
This is where the resilience part comes in, I guess! Holding all of the above complexities in mind, it’s interesting to reflect on some of the many, many moments that have contributed to the development of my tough-yet-tender musician self. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts (and in keeping with Brené Brown’s philosophy), I think that greater transparency around these formative experiences would be beneficial for anyone contemplating the journey themselves. The realm of live performance is probably where the richest material is to be found in terms of illustrating resilience-in-practice, and in the next few weeks’ posts I will select and explore a few key experiences that (I think) serve as interesting and useful anecdotal examples.
“Altered oceans, the sun sets on the other side / sure as I am, as I’ve ever been, and more alive…”
 Kelly Clarkson. Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You) RCA, 2011
 Getting yer gig on. And off [23.05.2020]
 Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. John Hughes, 1986
 I note that this process may well (and probably does) operate and apply differently in non-music related contexts
 See my blog post dated 16/05/2020: Wake up time: on becoming ‘good enough’.
 Rutter, M. (1990). ‘Psychosocial resilience and protective mechanisms’. In Rolf, J., Masten, A, Cicchetti, D,and Weintraub, S. Risk and Protective Factors in the Development of Psychopathology pp181 -214. New York: Cambridge University Press.
 Brown, B. (2015) Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Penguin.
 Brown, p44.
 See, for example, DeYoung, P.A. (2015) Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame: A Relational/Neurobiological Approach. Routledge.
 Wiggins, J. (2011) Vulnerability and agency in being and becoming a musician. Music Education Research 13(4): 355-367
 Wiggins, p358
 Wiggins, p358
 Brown, p185.
 Karnataka. Delicate Flame of Desire Immrama Records, 2003
 Three Colours Dark. The Science of Goodbye Firefly Records, 2020