The work ethic and breeding stillborn artists

The concept of a work ethic has always figured strongly in the output of artists. It can be seen in every important piece of art down through the ages, from St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican to The White Album. It is implausible that such remarkable things could have been created by people who didn’t have this work ethic, and yet, the concept of the work ethic in art (and in all fields) appears to be growing more and more obscure over time.

I am extremely fortunate to have worked with prodigiously talented individuals who taught me through their own (sometimes superhuman) efforts what a work ethic looks like. They could (and would) work through any extremity or trial. Long after someone else would have given up, these people chose to continue working and creating.

Chris Cornell was one of these individuals. When we recorded his vocals for Superunknown, Chris would come into the recording studio and sing, sometimes for nearly 8 hours at a time. The only thing that stopped him was when his head began to hurt because of the sheer velocity at which he was singing. He’d work like this for days and the results were almost always exemplary. On the rare occasion that his vocals weren’t exactly right and he wasn’t completely satisfied, Chris would speak up instantly. He insisted on rerecording those vocal performances with which he wasn’t pleased, as soon as he was physically able to do so.

The attention to detail and the unfettered desire Chris had to make everything he recorded absolutely how he wanted it to be (and how he wanted it to feel) was an inspiration to me. Seeing him show up at the studio and without saying anything, go straight to work, was a gift. He would never complain about how he felt- he was only there to do one thing and nothing else was going to stop him. If he could do something, it would get done. If he couldn’t do something and needed to, he’d learn how to do it.

It felt like he was able go outside himself and observe his work in a completely detached manner as he listened back to what he’d recorded. Watching him assess his own efforts as objectively as any onlooker might have, I was thoroughly impressed.

Seeing Chris in his process made me want to do my job better- for him and for me. Being around someone operating at this level, forced me to step up my game as much as I could (and beyond what I believed I was capable of).

In the end, it was Chris’s work ethic which gave him greatness- in some ways more than his talents (which were then, and still are, formidable). Over the years, all of the most talented people I worked with were borne out less by their talent and more by their work ethic. Simply being good was never good enough for any of these people. They had to be the absolute best. For them, this was never about winning or being better than anyone else, it was about being better than they had been previously. It was about developing and growing. Being the very best they could be for themselves.

People like these know that their talents are not enough. Being talented is a great gift, but it is only part of the picture. Talent is merely a vehicle which pulls one a short part of the way across a vast terrain. The rest of the landscape has to be crossed through endeavor and by will. Anyone who is prepared to take up this journey (by first acknowledging their natural talents and secondly, by utilizing them through will and effort) will always produce something of tremendous value and worth. They will, in some way, be seen and they will matter.

From such a perspective, it is interesting to witness how people nowadays approach the act of creation. There seems to be substantially less emphasis placed on having a work ethic than there was previously. And one doesn’t have to look far to find plenty of support in the diminishing of the work ethic. Since artists are no longer expected to do much performing on their own recordings, many have started coming to their recordings, expecting and prepared to do just that.

In the past 10 years, I have worked on some projects where the musicians were actually quite proficient, however, they would insist on someone else finding the best segments of their performances and looping them (instead of simply playing their parts until the performances sounded as they should). This is the expectation these artists came prepared with- their job had become more about performing half-heartedly (and then, relying on technology to improve their performances) than it was about rising to a personal standard and exceeding that standard. They had become more concerned with how they appeared than what they did.

This mindset is prevalent with artists who are young and have meager recording experience. Many of these younger artists are unskilled (sometimes extremely poor) performers. There is no longer any importance (or necessity) placed on these younger artists improving- often, just the opposite. Previously, a recording studio could be as valuable a resource to develop musical skills as was playing shows. There was emphasis and pressure placed on the performer to actually perform and to perform well. He learned about grace under fire. He learned about how to adapt and to evolve. He had no choice.

Now the main priority in recording has become about getting a job done. It is far easier to achieve this if the people supervising a recording don’t have to waste their valuable time (and money) trying help a musician improve (even if only by a little bit). In protecting their own interests, they inadvertently wind up throwing the artist under the proverbial tracks.

As a result, we now have a few generations of artists who possess meager performing skills and barely any technical ability to play their instruments. Now that mentoring (which was always essential to the process of recording) has ceased, there are no more examples given to performers and only scant means for them to improve at their craft. Apart from listening to whatever music they love and observing what they feel inside themselves, they have very limited means to draw from.

There are other types of mentoring which have been lost. Over the past few decades, there has been a change in how people are being raised. Nowadays, children aren’t given the opportunity to fully experience what life truly is.

In this modern and sophisticated society, many layers, barriers and rules have been created to protect people from getting hurt. We are now protected from words, protected from thoughts, protected from violence, seemingly impervious to any type of injury. These protective barriers, however, have been transformed into barbed wire fences which hermetically seal everyone within their perimeters. These barriers have become less a shield and more a prison.

In spite of this, getting hurt is unavoidable. Pain is as vital a part of life as is any other. Pain, is a great teacher; in some cases, a greater teacher than it’s opposites.

Experiencing the full breadth of one’s existence is also vital to the creative process (as the creative process is expressive). When one is deprived of being able to fully experience their pain, they become unable to express this side of themselves. As the personal experience of pain is shut off, so too, is the expression of this pain into the world- the recognition of itself and the recognition of itself in others. This ability, to recognize in others emotions and emotional states we ourselves experience gives us the capacity to empathize with others.

Empathy is also essential to living, to coexisting and to the creative process. Without the ability to empathize, people cease to perceive the value in one another. They pull away from healthy human relationships, choosing instead to withdraw into co-dependency and neurosis. In one sense, a person’s healthy experience of emotional pain also helps develop a healthy appreciation for the lives of others (as well as one’s own).

Children lose the ability to feel their pain by acquiring a false sense of security and comfort about the world they inhabit. Parents inform children that they will always be safe without also informing them that one day, the children will have to keep themselves safe (without their parents). Children are told that they are protected without also being provided with adequate tools to protect themselves. In this sense, they are neither safe, nor protected.

A parent’s wish is to spare their child pain, at any cost. However, when the concept of sparing children pain overextends it’s reach, it backfires and becomes something entirely different. This protection becomes coddling.

As children are coddled, they are also discouraged from doing and aspiring. They are not given the impetus to try harder. Instead, they are taught that it is ok to stop whatever they are doing, whenever they feel like it. This mindset is ironclad reinforcement for people who have an investment in not developing themselves. Or, for people who have an investment in not permitting others to develop.

Inspiration is apparently designed to start affecting people when they are younger. When inspiration strikes, it literally drags one into it’s orbit. The person who is inspired can’t and won’t stop creating- not unless he gets the message from a figure of authority that it’s alright, even healthy to stop. This message confounds the power that inspiration has over a budding artist. When a child is developing and receives this message, he potentially loses the opportunity to encounter inspiration. This occurs because he can’t recognize what inspiration is. His potential becomes lost to the world. He has been cheated of something precious.

Without this crucial reference point, it becomes relatively easy for a person to underachieve. Absent inspiration and the urge to try as hard as possible, to push and strain beyond what one believes are their limits, one grows lax, weak. There is no need to try hard at anything because there was never a context provided for what trying hard might look like.

Working from well within the acceptable, most painless range of one’s present ability is good enough, and they will refuse to go any further. After all, they’ve been well trained to avoid getting hurt or to feel pain.

What would Chris Cornell have done if his life experience had been mitigated in such a way? Would he have made the same contribution to music if he had been coddled, if he had been instructed that it was fine to not try too hard and to avoid pain at all costs? Would he have learned to play bass, guitar, drums (all extremely well) and to be one of the best rock singers of his generation, if he always had the awareness that he didn’t really have to make all that effort? What would he have done if he knew that he could do all these things to whatever level of proficiency he wished, but that there would always be a very friendly digital editor at his recording sessions who would edit and tune every note he played (or sang) to robotic perfection? What if he decided that he was fine with where he was as a songwriter (or even simply remaining a very good drummer) when Soundgarden were still a fledgling band in Seattle? What if he just didn’t feel the need to try any harder and instead, gave up?

What if everyone who ever made great art decided that they too, could simply stop trying because they felt like it?

I remember Chris telling me that he developed the high range of his voice by literally screaming until the screaming became musical pitches. I imagined that this took a lot of time and dedication. He didn’t have any guarantee that he would ever be able to do more than scream. He had no safety net. However, without a safety net- without anyone to catch him, he went ahead and made the effort anyway. That was his road to greatness- through tremendous dedication and effort. Without any guarantee of success.

This degree of dedication and effort is something contemporary artists will rarely consider aspiring to. They are perfectly content to rest on their laurels and to not push themselves. They know that when they have trouble doing something, it’s alright if they don’t try to hard to achieve it. At some point in their lives, they were told that they could stop doing anything whenever they wanted to. They also know that if they have trouble doing something, there will be someone somewhere with with a digital audio workstation who will make them sound as if they had actually done it. There will always be a safety net for them. They were raised to believe this as an absolute truth.

Perhaps, to an artist so entitled, the present day digital editor (with the digital audio workstation) is some kind of replacement for his coddling parents. Editing, looping and autotuning inform a person whose parents never let him fall down at the park, never let him stand up to a bully and get his ass kicked or allowed him fail at something so he could develop inner resilience, that he’s ok- just as he is. He doesn’t have to try, he doesn’t need to develop, he doesn’t have to get hurt, feel pain or put himself out into the world and face possible rejection.

There is now a digital crutch to smother him in comfort- just as his parents smothered him when he was a child. Just as he didn’t have to experience putting himself out into the world then, he can now hide behind technology and become invisible. He has found his safety net. Yet again, he is able to avoid his pain.

Look at him. His growth is stunted and the circulation to his creative muscles is cut off. He is an emotional and creative cripple but he is so thoroughly comfortable that he is completely unaware of this reality. He uses everything he can find as a crutch to keep from standing upright on his own. He is as gifted as anyone who ever lived, but he will never get to experience (or share) even a fraction of his talent.

Everything he was ever taught or shown as a child has borne itself out. When he was younger, he was told that he would always be taken care of and in disgust, he has willingly resigned himself to this. His life is numb and perfect. He grows weaker as the days go by, but has no idea what is happening. He will never have to make an effort at anything though, because he knows that someone else will always be there to do it for him.

Another stillborn artist is bred.