by Michael Goldberg
Monday, March 3, 2003
Chan Marshall Wants You To Be Free
Finding the artist that is in all of us
Chan Marshall, the artist who uses the name Cat Power, says she doesn't think there's anything special about the music she makes. "Like, anybody can do it," she told music journalist Anthony Carew. "A 4-year old kid writes songs. They sing about lollipops, and sugar, y'know, sugar-cubes, dancing together, and playing with raindrops; everybody does it, it's part of everybody's life."
That sounded a lot like something Joe Strummer told me in 1979: "They [the audience] could be up there as easy as me," Strummer said. "In a way, we were just there. And that was it. You feel lucky. Why you instead of him? Why you?"
Marshall was affirming the creativity that is in all of us. During an interview last week with the visual artist William Wiley, he spoke to my wife, Leslie Goldberg, and me about how naturally creative children are. They start out feeling totally unselfconscious about drawing with crayons or painting or making art with clay. They make up stories, imaginary friends, songs, poems. Then they get to school and a dozen years later all but a few have had the creativity sucked out of them, victims of a vampirish, constrictive educational system.
Punk, of which Strummer was certainly a major architect, was all about demystifying music. It kicked the pedestal out from under the "artist." Anyone can do this, punk said. Just get a guitar, don't need to learn how to play. Just bash away and sing from your heart.
That idea now seems practically a part of our DNA. Everywhere in the world, it seems, people are making their own music. With turntables, samplers, guitars, autoharps.
This isn't about how "good," the music, or the art, or the poetry is. It's not about becoming a star, or a celebrity artist (though surely a lot of the folks making art of one sort or another would dig it if lightning struck). What I'm talking about here is feeling empowered to make art, and to actually go ahead and make it. Not for an audience. Not to become a star. To just do it because the act of making art, the process, is so liberating.
You Are Free is the title of Marshall's latest Cat Power album. It's an album about many things, but one of them is feeling free. For Marshall, expressing herself through music is as basic to life as breathing. "It's like when you get thirsty, or you get hungry, and you say: 'Aw, man, I really need some water'; it's like 'Aw, man, I really wanna play guitar,' or 'Aw, man, I really wanna read a book,' or 'Aw, man, I really wanna go swimming,' or, 'Aw, I wanna make out.' It's just listening to instinct, and that's not hard."
The cult of the celebrity is 180 degrees off the mark. That punks such as Joey Ramone and Strummer and Thurston Moore became celebrities, idolized by music fans the way the rock stars that punk tried to tear down were (are) idolized, was (is) one of those contradictions that we just have to live with, it seems. "I wanna be your Joey Ramone," Sleater-Kinney sang, back when hardly anyone had heard them. Now that line has come to describe the role Sleater-Kinney, who sell out shows all over the U.S., play in many of their fans' lives.
It's a contradiction we live with, 'cause Joey Ramone and Strummer and Moore and the women of Sleater-Kinney weren't (aren't) "anybody." There's a reason why it was Strummer, and not the bloke down the block. But not because they were (are) "stars." These were artists we connected with. Their music made a mark when it touched us. It enveloped us, changed us. Inspired us. (And for every one artist who can do that, there are thousands who can't.)
Kurt Cobain was one of those artists who believed the DIY philosophy and acted on it. And like Ramone and Strummer and Moore and so many others (Greg Ginn, Frank Black, Stephen Malkmus, and on and on), Cobain was special. His voice, his songs, his guitar playing, the way he moved yeah, he was expressing himself, but what he expressed made millions of us feel a bit more alive.
My favorite song on You Are Free is called "I Don't Blame You." It's about an artist such as Cobain. Or someone else. Probably it's about a lot of artists. Who it's about doesn't matter. "The last time I saw you/ You were on stage/ Your hair was wild/ Your eyes were bright/ And you were in a rage/ Cuz they wanted to hear that sound/ That you didn't want to play."
That's one of the downsides of stardom. You have thousands (or millions) of fans, but they want something that you just might not want to give. The song ends here: "What a sad trick you thought/ That you had to play/ But I don't blame you/ They never owned it/ And you never owed it to them/ Anyway/ I don't blame you."
The key lines, of course, being: "They never owned it/ And you never owed it to them."
The pull of stardom is hard to resist. What artist doesn't, in their heart of hearts, want their work to be appreciated by millions? But no real artist wants what was once inspired to become a noose around their neck. Artists want to go somewhere new, not keep repeating themselves, even if that's what makes the crowd cheer.
Strummer was on to something. "Why you instead of him? Why you?" he said. We think of these stars as different from us, but it most ways they aren't. Of course there is a whole "star-making machinery" whose purpose is to create the illusion that these artists are different. But just because someone has a way with words, or comes up with a melody that makes the world sing, doesn't mean that in most other ways they're any different from you or me.
Chan Marshall knows that. And she wants us to know it too. When Carew asked what her music was about, she told him: "Just sort of living, y'know? Living, remembering, thinking, questioning, learning, feeling stupid." All the stuff that all of us deal with. Her art, she said, was inspired by "just normal man/woman/child/human, human stuff: reflection, regret, anxiety, fear, love... it's just all pretty human. It's not like there's a dark place, it's just coming from a human place. You know what I mean?" Of course we do. We're just like Chan Marshall. And Joe Strummer. We're all human.