A True-Life Adventure in the Ethics of Music Writing
This Is Not a Perfect Sound Forever Article
In Which Our Author, Handed Lemons, Makes Lemonade
By Kurt Wildermuth
"You just plod on and do what you can to make the world a better place." --Jane Goodall, New York Times Magazine, July 18, 2021
Chapter 1: My Very Very Story
Many years ago, in New York City, a very famous person with a very recognizable face entered a two-story restaurant and headed straight for the ground-floor table next to where I was eating dinner with a companion. This person was a recording artist. Let's call the artist Very Very. Dressed in jeans and a sweater, Very Very seemed down to earth, joining a young couple who'd been there a while. However, Very Very quickly grew uncomfortable. To Very Very's right were my companion and me, and next to us was a window looking out on a fairly busy sidewalk. Apparently the young couple Very Very was meeting, whoever they were, hadn't considered the difficulty this location could pose for someone very famous and very recognizable.
Like millions of others, my companion and I had been huge fans of Very Very for decades. In fact, my companion had once played in a band partly inspired by Very Very. After catching a glimpse of the superstar sitting next to her, my companion excitedly asked me, "Is this really happening?" She was not prone to confusing reality with illusion, but this "encounter" was dreamlike. Although we were being reasonably cool under the circumstances, we felt as though we were lifting off our seats, and we eavesdropped as we tried to carry on our own conversation.
Meanwhile, it was still light out, and any passerby could have identified that recognizable face at a glance. Very Very asked the manager if their party could move upstairs.
"No, I'm sorry," the manager replied. "All the tables are taken."
Very Very could have tried the infamous "Do you know who I am?" tactic, handed the manager money, or otherwise exercised muscles of celebrity, wealth, and privilege. Instead, Very Very looked mildly amused and accepted the situation, like a person on a raft without a paddle being carried gently down a river toward points unknown.
The manager lingered. After a pause, he said, "You know, you look very familiar to me."
I nearly fell out of my seat. Very Very smiled and shrugged it off. "Well, I'm just very familiar."
"No, no," the manager continued. "I think we've met. Maybe at the gym?"
"That must be it," Very Very agreed.
The manager left, and Very Very remained at that table. While conversing quietly with the young couple, Very Very held a hand up to shield that very recognizable profile. I hope the shield was from passersby, but it might or might also have been from my companion and me.
We were getting tipsy on wine, and thinking clearly was becoming difficult. When it was time for us to leave, I considered asking Very Very if we should order another bottle and stay at the table. Who knew what the next party seated there might do if they recognized Very Very. A scene could ensue. But I decided to keep being cool, prioritize Very Very's privacy, and leave without saying so much as "Thank you for everything!"
Very Very had no doubt heard it all a gazillion times, had been in the public eye long enough to have anticipated and avoided this sitting-by-the-window predicament, and had certainly navigated many far more perilous situations. It wasn't my responsibility to protect the celebrity.
No one I've told this story to has said I should have offered to stay. Yet I still wonder about my decision, even years after Very Very passed into the great beyond. What do we owe artists who have contributed to our lives? Do our debts work on a sliding scale?
The restaurant incident came back to my mind recently, because I was working on a potential Perfect Sound Forever article about an obscure recording artist with a connection to Very Very. By sheer coincidence, without knowing anything about my chance encounter all those years ago, this obscure artist presented me with an ethical dilemma involving protection. My ethical dilemma touched on issues involving the sometimes messy details of people's lives, issues that will increasingly affect artist appreciation in this complicated time, when #metoo, Black Lives Matter, and the growing gaps between groups of people leave us scrutinizing one another's beliefs and actions.
Chapter 2: My Not Famous Story
Let's call the obscure artist I was writing about Not Famous. I was working on the PSF profile of Not Famous not for money, just for love. All I wanted to do was help spread the word about this artist's work. When I was nine-tenths done with the piece, I did some basic follow-up web research and discovered that Not Famous has subscribed and may still subscribe to a belief system that some readers/listeners would have a big problem with. Let's call this belief system Paroxysm.
Having a pretty negative view of Paroxysm myself, I considered abandoning the piece because of this complication. However, the writing was going too well to give up. I then considered omitting Not Famous's involvement with Paroxysm. After all, this belief system doesn't figure in the artist's work, and I'd never have known about the connection if I hadn't searched the web. But I felt it would be callous, even deceptive, to not connect Not Famous with Paroxysm. After all, I was choosing to introduce readers to an artist they probably wouldn't hear about otherwise. If they liked the piece and dug deeper, they might find the same info I did, since I didn't exactly have to scour an archive to find telltale photos, references to an appearance at a Paroxysm benefit, and connections with other followers of Paroxysm. So the audience that followed my lead might have ended up feeling misled. That's unacceptable, because I always want readers to trust me. They might consider my aesthetic judgments questionable, but they should always consider the expression of those judgments honest.
In finishing my draft, I mentioned Paroxysm nonjudgmentally, not as a big deal but as one part of Not Famous's puzzle. Aspects of the person's life and career might draw people in--in fact, the association with Very Very was one of the article's salient points--but this one controversial aspect might turn people off. Better that those people should be turned off upfront.
The piece began playfully: I suggested the reader had never heard of Not Famous, which of course the reader probably hadn't. Then I asked the reader to imagine discovering that Not Famous was a singer/songwriter who released a self-titled debut CD years ago. Chances were good, I noted, that unless the reader had a special interest in singer/songwriters of the period, the reader would shrug. The added detail that Not Famous was the opener on tours with less obscure artists probably wouldn't move the reader much beyond that shrug.
Then I asked the reader to imagine discovering that Not Famous had been involved with Paroxysm. This information didn't necessarily bear on Not Famous's music, I explained, but it might affect the reader's relationship with that music. A little information can go a long way, and sometimes, especially in aesthetic matters, the direction is the audience's to choose.
Then I proposed that the reader, choosing to continue reading, learned that Not Famous had been employed as a prominent accompaniest by Very Very (whose real name I used, since in that case there were no identities to protect). Suddenly, I argued, in the reader's mind, Not Famous would have the stamp of approval from a major figure. The reader couldn't help hearing Not Famous's name in relation to Very Very. The piece then delivered more specifics about Not Famous, culminating in an argument for why Not Famous's work is worth exploring.
I'd have been within my rights to publish the article in that form. To the best of my knowledge, everything in it was true, my guesses appropriately hedged. Still, before submitting the piece for publication, I shared it with Not Famous by email. I welcomed comments, but I didn't promise to change anything.
Chapter 3: A Different Artist Interlude
In addition to confirming the piece's accuracy, I was checking to see if Not Famous felt comfortable with everything I'd said. Not long before, something that happened with a different artist had spooked me. Or rather, something that didn't happen had left me wondering about the wisdom of paying tribute to someone who perhaps didn't want the attention.
After publishing a Perfect Sound Forever tribute to a singer/songwriter who hadn't released music for a while, I emailed that artist to announce the piece was up. Normally I hear back a little something in response to such messages, but in this case no replies arrived to the two brief notes I sent to seemingly viable addresses. There could have been many explanations for the silence, but I was left wondering if the singer/songwriter, having abandoned a public music career, wished the article hadn't appeared. If so, I'd be sorry for my honest mistake. Pleasing artists, making them feel appreciated, is one of my goals in celebrating the relatively unsung, and I certainly don't want to cause anyone distress.
Chapter 4: Back to the Not Famous Story
Far from being distressed, Not Famous loved everything I'd written except for one thing: Not Famous objected to the brief paragraph about Paroxysm. Rather than correcting any factual inaccuracies, however, Not Famous asked that I remove any mention of Paroxysm. Not Famous argued that this information might slow the reader-engaging momentum I'd been building up.
My choices were to (a) respect the artist's wishes and cut the paragraph or (b) respect the artist's wishes in a different way, by not publishing the piece. There was no (c).
I gave a great deal of thought to the situation, wanting to be fair to everyone concerned. In fact, before sharing my draft with Not Famous I'd gone so far as to slightly restructure the piece so as to deemphasize the paragraph about Paroxysm. Originally, that was the last paragraph of the piece, where it was meant to complicate the picture but where it might have been seen as an exposé pulling the rug from under the artist and the reader.
In the end, because the article hadn't been commissioned and was mine to deal with as I wished, I explained to Not Famous that under the circumstances, being fair to everyone meant that I couldn't publish the piece. That my paragraph about Paroxysm might have slowed the momentum was part of the point, because that information was meant as a speed bump. I don't feel comfortable spreading the word about music by someone whose belief system is so controversial, without at least giving readers a heads-up about that belief system, nor do I feel comfortable bringing it up at the risk of causing the artist grief. It's not my job to protect the artist, and I'm not duty bound to tell the absolute truth about something I've chosen to discuss, but in the end, I have to live with myself.
This issue isn't strictly about one obscure artist's particular belief system. I'd feel the same way if I discovered an artist held some other belief that people might want advance knowledge about. In some cases, such as if an artist turned out to be racist or inexcusably exploitative, I wouldn't write about the person at all. Right here. I could name some political stances that would prevent me from ever promoting the artists, but I'd rather not even give the stances or artists that much attention. Call it creative self-censorship. Some things should be brought into the open. Other things are best left unsaid.
See Kurt Wildermuth's website
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