I'm 33 and in finance, but I still want to be a rock star!

I'm torn between two callings, and not giving enough attention to either one.

By Cary Tennis
Published October 14, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm a 33-year-old man with a pretty good job at a large financial institution. I am happily married with children only in our future. So what's the problem? I still want to be a "rock star." I use the term reluctantly however. I have always been obsessed with music in all forms and would prefer to state simply that my ambition is to be a "musician." But I just can't help writing songs with big pop riffs and choruses. That's fine at 19, but I can't help thinking at my age it's a little pathetic. It's not like I have a couple of gold records on my wall already.

I have worked hard over the years to accept the fact that I should always do what I love and not feel guilty about it. I'm sure that writing songs no matter the content or volume is good for my mental health. But that understanding has most certainly stalled my 9-to-5 career.

I have always struggled with my place in corporate America. I'm sure I don't have one actually. I nevertheless have etched out an existence here that has provided my wife and me a comfortable life. But as I have grown more comfortable with my melodic ambitions, the career that supports us has suffered. My employer once labeled me a "hi-po" for "high potential." I am certain they no longer have any such expectations for me. I obviously don't. I stay because the job affords me time enough during the day and at the end of the day to work on my songs.

My concern is that while it's all well and good to have a healthy creative outlet, the idea that I'm going to turn it into a career may well be utterly delusional. Sure I think my songs are good and interesting and original, but doesn't any "artist" think what they do is good and interesting and original? It doesn't make it so. And I am terrified of the possibility that I am nothing more than one of those gushing open-mike amateurs strumming on and on about love won or lost. If that were so, I have systematically sabotaged a career that would have easily helped provide for my family for years to come.

So is this potential delusion healthy so long as I balance my other obligations and responsibilities? I know I have to get out of this job, but getting one that might satisfy me more may require more hours or, gasp, less reliance on music to get me through the day. Incredibly, my wife supports and encourages me -- bless her soul. But that doesn't mean either of us is ready for me to completely commit to this dream. Certainly with children in our future, I can't start waiting tables. As is, I am inadequately engaged in two callings. What do I do?

Rock or Role?

P.S. Please don't tell me to read "High Fidelity."

Dear Rock or Role,

What is a "rock star"? Recent graduates of elite universities in cultural studies, help me out on this "rock star" thing. What is it? Is it a musician? I know what a musician is. A musician is somebody who partakes of the universal spirit of rhythm and harmony to bring joy and contentment to his life. And I know what a "working musician" is. But what is a "rock star"?

"Rock star" is a creation of the crowd; "rock star" is the locus of collective desire. "Rock star" is something that we're hot for, not something that one becomes. Wanting to be a rock star is like wanting to be the object of one's own passionate desire.

So there is the cultural idea of "rock star," and then there are the blank screens on which those lethal desires are projected. "Rock star" as a person requires death-in-life, the coolness that's a razor blade away from turning blue in its own blood. "Rock star" is a form of public sacrifice.

So forget "rock star." Do songwriting. Perfect your craft. Do your work with pride and dignity. Avoid cliché. How?

Do not write "I love you, baby." Write "My employer says I'm 'hi-po.'"

You can do music in your spare time. Or, before you and your wife have kids, you can take the risk of trying to do it professionally. Either option is workable. Each option has risks. If you work in finance, you know about risks. But now is the time. If you think you're going to regret not giving it a shot, give it a shot. Don't try to be a rock star. Rock stars are created by crowds, in their hungry, prolific devouring. Instead, try to be a musician. That, you can do. If you're a musician and a songwriter you can write and play whatever you want to play and whatever pays the bills -- anthems, dirges, polkas, mazurkas, whatever you can get away with. It's all music. Just remember that "rock star" and "musician" are two different things.

P.S. "High Fidelity" was great, of course, but it seems to me it was not about music but about fandom. Musicians can be fans as well, but there is a crucial difference: The musician as musician is a creator; the musician as fan is a curator, languishing in the embrace of collective desire.

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