Alexander Hellene

Choose Your Audience

By Alexander Hellene

I don’t care much for jazz.

This isn’t to say that I hate jazz (I don’t), that I don’t understand jazz (I do), or don’t respect jazz (I respect it very much). It is merely to note that, when I get a chance to listen to some music, jazz is not my go-to genre. If it comes on the radio while I’m driving, I’ll leave it on. If I have an opportunity to see a live jazz band, I’ll do that. But jazz as an artform, a coherent whole, doesn’t grab me.

It’s strange, because there are elements of jazz that I like, chord progressions and harmonies—oh, the harmonies!—extended chord voicings, and things of that nature. Walking bass. The way jazz drummers approach their instrument. Horns. The tricky syncopated rhythms. When the whole band plays the head in unison. Modal improvisation. The spirit of fearlessness, the mixture of structure plus freedom that reminds me a lot of well-played basketball. I love these elements of jazz used in other genres. Cream was, after all, two jazzers and one blues guy playing rock n’ roll. Frank Zappa, one of my musical idols, has many songs and albums that are straight-up jazz or jazz fusion. I even played jazz in high school and college for a good six years.  

I even kind of like the jazz aesthetic. But it’s not my favorite style of music.

Interestingly enough, the bulk of my aversion to jazz is because jazz musicians are, in my experience, huge assholes.

Whether they were amateurs and students like me, or actual professional jazzers you’ve heard of and you probably won’t believe I actually met, my experience is that jazz musicians are gigantic pricks. I’m sorry if you are a jazz musician and this offends you. Maybe you’re one of the good ones. If so, I’ve never met you. So sorry, I guess.

What is it about jazz musicians that rubs me the wrong way? For starters, they approached jazz as a style of music you play to impress people: non-musicians who aren’t as hip as you, and other musicians who aren’t as hip as you. You can’t quote this obscure Eric Dolphy tune? You haven’t memorized the entire Real Book? You play a straight up I-iv-II-V turnaround like a chump and don’t do tritone substitutions every single time? What are you, white?

That’s actually what jazz musicians say! They say something is “white” if it’s not hip. I have had a bass teacher tell me, and I quote, I’ll never be a great jazz musician because “the color of your skin, my friend.”  

Now, typically, the best way to get me to do something and do it well is to tell me that I can’t do it. Throw down the gauntlet and the challenge is on. I love proving people wrong out of spite, which is one of the most powerful motivators in the world. But this turned me off of jazz so much that it didn’t even see worth trying to prove a bunch of, quite frankly, racist nerds wrong.

And so, even though I used to derive quite a lot of enjoyment listening to Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, I turned my back on jazz and never looked back. I’m white, right? So I guess Steely Dan is about the right speed of “jazz” for me, thank you very much.

It’s funny how a scene, or a fandom if you want to call it that, can ruin the experience for a potential audience member to the point that they shy away from a thing not because of the thing itself, but because of the people that it attracts. I’m sure lots of people get turned off by Rush, one of my favorite bands, because of Rush fans. I get it. And I may be one of the few middle-aged white guys who cannot stand the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dave Matthews Band—talented groups, for sure, that I just can’t stand, mainly because of who listens to them.

There’s a lesson here.

The lesson is not that taste is subjective. The lesson is that audiences matter—scenes matter—and that as a creator, you can, do a degree, choose your own audience.

*     *     *

It used to be, in the mythical past in my head, that various forms of entertainment were created to appeal to as many people as possible. A mass audience. Shared culture to transmit shared cultural values. At some point I’m unartfully calling “The 1990s,” this changed.

“Bad” Billy Pratt wrote a bit about this in Welcome to Hell when he described the liner notes to rock band Nirvana’s 1992 odds-n’-ends collection, the disgustingly named Incesticide. Penned by Kurt Cobain, this lengthy missive ends thusly:

At this point I have a request for our fans. If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us — leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.

Last year, a girl was raped by two wastes of sperm and eggs while they sang the lyrics to our song “Polly”. I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience. Sorry to be so anally P.C. but that’s the way I feel.

A laudable sentiment, sure: nobody likes bigots, right? Who wants bigots coming to their shows? And to learn that people raped a girl while singing your song is horrifying. It does not reflect on Kurt Cobain as an artist and a human being in any way, shape, or form, but perhaps he was aware of how bad it would look to the easily whipped-up American public, whipped up by the garbage American media, and so he wanted to signal his virtue in a bid to getting ahead of this controversy before it could gain any traction. Who knows?

The point is, I noticed around this time that musicians started to police their audiences. I’m sure this happened in the punk world back in the 1980s, but this audience-selection appeared to have hit the mainstream in the time of Clinton. Lots of bands who woke up suddenly popular and found themselves with this once-coveted mass audience hated it. It either freaked them out like it did Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, or it made them question their authenticity (by whose standard) like the jerk-offs in Pearl Jam and other bands of that era.

Nirvana would later release the dark, heavy, impenetrable, and downright ugly In Utero shortly before Kurt Cobain blew his brains out. Lots of bands, upon hitting mega-bestseller status, put out challenging and deliberately off-putting albums. For example, Radiohead crawled so far up its own ass that they’re not even a rock band anymore. The Red Hot Chili Peppers squatted out a chunk of digital feces called One Hot Minute.

Faith No More in 1992, hot on the heels of 1989’s smash The Real Thing, released their masterpiece Angel Dust, but that album was less a middle-finger to fans than a reflection of where the band was at at the time: when The Real Thing was being recorded, original singer Chuck Mosley left and/or was kicked out of the band, leaving them with a small cult following, a major label album due in two weeks, and no singer or lyrics. Enter vocal wunderkind Mike Patton, a member of the highly experimental Mr. Bungle, who joined an already weird band and made them weirder. On Angel Dust, Patton actually contributed more than the lyrics, and the combination of his bizarre musical sensibilities with bassist Billy Gould’s strong rhythmic compositions, drummer Mike Bordin’s powerful kick, keyboardist Roddy Bottom’s atmospheric synthesizers and pianos, and guitarist Jim Martin’s muscular metal riffing, created something truly special, unique, and sincere.

But there I go again, bringing personal taste into this.

The point is, I’m not convinced that policing one’s audience is wrong, or at least selecting an audience.

There is no mass culture in America. What passes for it, what you see on TV and the Internet, is pretty awful, calibrated to actually remove brain cells from your gray matter. I am aware that the medium is the message and that culture actually drives tastes just as much as it reflects them (this level of vanguardism is a topic I will get more into in the near future), but who the heck would want to be a part of it?

Not this author.

It used to rankle me: “Why on Earth would you tell certain people not to enjoy your product? That’s commercial suicide!” But is it?

Entire sports leagues make it known that they don’t want about half the country to watch (yet the half that the sports leagues hate continue to consume product; no wonder nobody respects them). Actors and musicians alienate lots of people who would otherwise fork over their hard-earned money to them. “Get woke, go broke” is a massive cope. It turns out, as with many things, that side of the divide is correct.

I am generally a fan of expanding the choir while preaching to it. At some point, any sort of venture needs to expand. But art, while containing a commercial element, is more than commerce. Culture cannot be broken down into dollars and cents. This is where Mammon-worshipping conservatives get it woefully wrong. It has very few millionaire and billionaire benefactors because instead of asking “Will this move the needle?” it asks “What’s the ROI?” Sure, something might make money on the short term, but the art produced tends to be less than a blip on the radar. It has no lasting impact. A footprint in the rain at high tide ready to be washed away without a trace that it ever happened, remembered by few and mourned by none.

By all means, cast a wide net. But be selective about the seas in which you fish.

It’s okay to signal to your audience, potential and actual, where you stand on things and if what you’re making is for them or not. Frank Zappa was a master of this, deliberately targeting those who sought entertainment that deviated from the norm. He never said “I hate jocks.” He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “If you’re the kind of guy who wasn’t a jock in high school, who may have even gotten picked on from time-to-time, or who at least the jocks didn’t understand, my music might be up your alley.” Back in the 1960s, he advertised in comic books of all places, because he knew where his audience was likely to be.

Smart.

I like jocks, by the way. I think jocks will like my books as well as those who didn’t play sports and don’t even care about them. I don’t think people who hate me and want me dead based on my political beliefs would like them. I wish them no ill will beyond hoping that their policies never get enacted, but I’m certainly not going to market to them.

Being an artist means you are on. Everything is a part of the performance. You are as much a part of your “brand” (God, I hate that word) as your actual work. And so is your audience.

So fish on.

– Alexander


You can check out my books here. If you’re reading this post and enjoy it, you’ll probably enjoy them too. You’ll also probably like my friend J.D. Cowan’s new book, The Last Fanatics, all about how sci-fi fandom killed wonder. You’ll also probably like my friend Brian Niemier’s indispensable cri de couer Don’t Give Money to People Who Hate You.

2 thoughts on “Choose Your Audience”

  1. Alexander,

    I agree. Content creators also need to choose their audience too. After all, it’s pointless to create content to people who don’t care or are actively hostile.

    So content creators create their stuff: music, art, statues, etc they need to decide who’ll they cater to and if it’s worth the effort. Most of the time it is, even if success isn’t overnight.

    Further, they need to steel themselves against those who’ll cancel them and run them out of content creation because of wrongthink. In my modest view, just ignore the haters and plough through. The haters despise you and no amount of appeasing will ever satisfy them, so ignore them and create on.

    xavier

    1. Xavier,

      You definitely have to ignore the haters. Catering to people who are already predisposed to hate your stuff is a recipe for disaster. You see that with rock bands, for instance–they change their sound to win the approval of hostile critics instead of doing what their actual fans enjoy, which 99 percent of the time leads to bad music.

      Whethering the cancel mob is a simple matter of not only not apologizing, but telling them to go screw themselves.

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