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Music On the commodification of an artist’s heartbreak

Aug. 26, 2020
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When Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour was released in 2018, the story of the country songstress’s heart—its splinters, fragments, and return to togetherness—became of the world. With clarity and sweetness, her voice shared stories powdered with pain, but rapturous contentment, too; and anyone who has loved and lost could easily find themselves heart-warmed and goose-bumped by her smart yet depressive double entendres (re: “You can have your space, cowboy” on “Space Cowboy”) and balmy, illustrative metaphors: “Baby, don't you know? / That you're my golden hour / The color of my sky / You've set my world on fire / And I know, I know everything's gonna be alright.”

Indeed, everything seemed very alright—until it didn’t. Just a few weeks ago, the lovers announced their split after less than three years of marriage, and in what felt like a moment, some of my favorite songwriting—intimate, vivid, and abstract without ostentation—felt gray and cloudy, nothing like the cerulean and rogue belonging to Golden Hour’s cover artwork. How could a marriage fizzle out so quickly, particularly as the passion underlying it—or at least, half of it—was so strongly evidenced on a masterpiece that won a Grammy for Album of the Year?

 I was befuddled, to say the least. But beyond confusion was bubbling concern for Musgraves’ well-being—even more so when I remembered that Golden Hour was an extended metaphor for the happiness her marriage kindled. “I’ve never been one to write a love song and really feel it,” Musgraves admitted to Entertainment Weekly in late 2017. “[But] I’m coming off getting married and being in this golden hour of my personal life… I’ve found myself inspired to write about this person and all these things he brought out in me that weren’t there before.” 

Thus, when I learned about said “golden hour” dimming into an outright sunset, I prayed the universe would bless Musgraves with good vibes and ample moments to mourn, even if her relationship had died well before the de-tanglement was made public. And perhaps naively, my inner optimist expected the rest of her fans to share those self-care sentiments. But they didn’t—at least not the stans who were most reactive about the divorce on social media. I gawked at my iPhone that day, scrolling endlessly through enthusiastic expectations of a “divorce album,” nomenclature which, unbeknownst to me, defined the highly anticipated, consumable result of matrimonial failure. Numerous fans chided that they were now dedicating their love lives to catastrophe, rather than success, as a means of identifying with the theoretical album’s lyricism. And one dude had already dreamt up all that could be of the project’s liner notes: “I NEED Kacey Musgraves to make a divorce album with Jack Antonoff,” he tweeted audaciously (which prompted me to log off the app altogether—a real-life rendering of the SpongeBob “aight, imma head out” meme).

Sadly, this is not the first time an artist’s fans have celebrated their purported savior’s tragedies. In fact, it feels like just yesterday a petrifying number of music fans treated Adele’s divorce from her long-time partner-turned-husband, Simon Konecki, as an unprecedented jubilee worthy of memorializing just like Musgraves’, and for the same exact reason: hopefulness of a genius, new creative work. Fervor surrounding the British singer’s short-lived marriage was, of course, gargantuan—a gross and proportionate reflection of Adele’s global superstardom. However, in the form of arguably necessary criticism, some good did come from the hullabaloo’s sheer magnitude.

“If you find out that Adele is getting a divorce and your first thought is ‘wow her next album is going to be so good!’ you’re perpetuating the false notion that artists have to be miserable to make good art,” tweeted comedian Samantha Ruddy. Bestselling-novelist Connie Schultz also empathized on social media. “Perhaps it’s the former single mom in me, but all these celebratory tweets about Adele’s divorce make me bone weary,” she tweeted. “All I want for her and her child right now is a quiet patch of the world where no one is excited for her sadness.” While Ruddy’s comment is grounded by humor that tonally juxtaposes Schultz’s gentle, maternal concern, both critiques neatly magnify the problem with commodifying an artist’s heartbreak: the wellness of the creator becomes subordinate in significance to the imagined creative work they’re expected to produce.

Notable is the fact that Ruddy and Schultz are both creatives; but this is unsurprising, too, as it seems that artists themselves are the only ones worried about the ways in which an artist’s suffering is reduced to nothing more than the catalyst for creation. This reduction is especially common when artistry is knotted with celebrity, a connection evidenced by not only reactions to Adele and Musgraves’ marriages, but the idealization of purportedly dysfunctional, star-studded relationships à la Cardi B and Offset, or Jhené Aiko and Big Sean, couples continuously gracing headlines for engaging in what mainstream media and fans fondly label as “toxic” shenanigans. But it should be said that Aiko has stated her partnership with Sean is perfectly healthy, while Cardi and Offset are still going strong despite infidelity issues; thus, it’s almost as if the public makes theatre out of the relatively regular romantic drama between celebrity artists.

And though it may be a stretch to imply that fans dramatize these glittering romances for the sake of a juicier album listen, it’s not the wildest notion to contend. After all, folks have gone as far as thirstily misquoting artists—namely the ever-forthright and relatable R&B songstress Kehlani, who’s had her fair share of public entanglements—with disconcerting, 2013-Tumblr-esque “confessions” of tolerating crappy relationships, all in the name of love. Amidst this idealization is where tumult and pain are commodified, shaped into enjoyment and identifiability. On the contrary, when the non-artist is suffering, they’re only emotionally humanized further sans the expectation of making a consumable product from their turmoil.

The revelries centered on Musgraves and Adele’s heartbreak most obviously prove that well-known creatives are encouraged to work, not mourn, in the face of tragedy. But this expectation is not exclusive to the wealthy and commercially successful. As Rubby noted in her tweet, there is certainly a misconception that one must be miserable to make good art, regardless of who you are, as if perpetual sadness is the spine of the “Respectable Artist” starter pack. And this is a belief that Nina Maria Schaarschmidt, a 22-year-old writer, collage artist, and fashion creative based in Manchester, knows all too well.

“This commodification is telling artists and creative people that the only time that they will produce good work is when they experience periods of pain and sadness,” Schaarschmidt said in an email. “This leads to the anxiety and the timeless question of ‘What will happen when I am not sad anymore? What will I write/create about? Will anyone still be interested in me?’ Because of this, artists feel pressured to be sad for their whole lives; the commodification tells them that nobody wants to see comforting emotions in their work, only disturbing ones.”

We know it’s untrue that “good art” must be “sad art.” Golden Hour, a blissful artistic project that’s both commercially and critically successful, rejects this hunch quite well. But there’s something to be said about the surge of interest that besieges an artwork when its narrative is painted blue and gray rather than orange and yellow; and most artists can agree that their audience’s curiosity for melancholy or anger can feel just as burdensome and heavy as those “disturbing emotions” themselves. Schaarschmidt believes this pressure distinctively detracts from her own artistic autonomy.

“I mean, I notice it in my own mind, sometimes, when everything seems great and fine in my own life, I try and literally search for that one tiny detail that happens to misfit into my version of ‘ideal,’” she confessed. “Upon this tiny ‘wrong’ detail I try to base work, and so on. I feel like this commodification puts an intense pressure on creating and taking the initial creative freedom away, as artists start to believe that the only way to create amazing work is through sadness.”

None of this is to say artists lack a desire to turn sorrow into magnificence—more than most, creative people understand that grief is necessarily part of the human experience, and at its center, art is a vehicle wholly conveying the spectrum of emotion and exploits that comes with existing. Hence, some artists, such as Adrian Andres, a 21-year-old visual artist in Texas, regards tragedy to be his greatest artistic propeller.

“When I’m going through my hardest days, distress motivates me to create more,” Andres said. “I think that when an artist creates a depressive piece, it’s the rawest expression of emotion someone can make to voice what they feel, and I think that many people appreciate this type of emotion and relate to it.”

Indeed, creative work—not only its theme, but its fruition—should exist at the discretion of not an artist’s product-hungry audience, but the artist. And to assume that a commodifiable work will quickly result (or result at all) from emotion is yet another misconstruction of the creative process in the eyes of the non-artist. The timeline of creating varies from individual to individual, and those like Schaarschmidt understandably find it difficult to make anything at all in the face of tragedy. 

“Out of my own experience, when I live through a phase of emotional distress, I feel like every other person, very unmotivated and sad—my body needs to rest and shed one or two tears, not create the next milestone of my artistic career,” Schaarschmidt said. “Toxic, dysfunctional relationships or mental abuse/trauma are no fuel for creative work—in my case it is the opposite. It leaves me numb, uninspired, and unable to create. This doesn’t mean those experiences will never appear in my work—they might after some time, when I feel over that phase and reflect on it enough, and most importantly, when I am ready to talk about it.”

There’s no denying that all artists (as eminent as Musgraves or Adele, or as irrelevant as myself, a loser essayist-but-artist-nonetheless) could take a bit of advice from Schaarschmidt; despite living in a covetous world that demands something great and something soon, it’s perfectly fine to take one’s time in grieving, speaking, creating, and finally, releasing. But even more paramount is the need for non-artists to reconsider their own demands—because behind art that expressively contains tragedy is simply another human.

Cover image by Vicky Leta for Mashable.