There is an undeniable sadness to knowing that—short of a goddamn miracle—you’re going to end up dying in obscurity like Kafka. Oh sure, you can tell yourself you’ll be that “rare exception” and that you’ve got “true talent” (as if that’s what publishing is about) that outshines all the rest, but you may eventually find that you aren’t rare and talent isn’t enough. And yet, unlike Kafka, there will be no literary executor to push for your work to be “put out there” upon your death. During an epoch when people still read no less. For the writers of the present must already deal with the fact that everybody writes, and nobody reads. Instantly making the battle against “being recognized” that much more difficult.
The latest from Billie Eilish (herself proof that talent only goes so far—you need to have a brother who’s already connected to the industry), Happier Than Ever, offers a somewhat laughably titled opening track called “Getting Older” (but yes, even zygotes fear aging). What isn’t quite as laughable is one of the primary existential crises expressed in the chorus, during which she sings, “Things I once enjoyed just keep me employed now.” As in to say, thanks to money tainting all art (no matter what is said, this is just a simple reality), she seems to enjoy the “craft” of making music infinitely less. Now that it’s a job—and Eilish is very much a jobist—that certain je ne sais quoi, that joie de vivre has gone out of the art. The need to produce, to deliver and to constantly answer to “fans” (who can so easily turn, can’t they?) and corporate drones understandably takes some of the joy out of what was once full-stop pleasurable; granted, she never got to know what it was like to continue doing the art for art’s sake gambit well past her teens when it’s no longer quite so “cute” or “noble.” So who knows if she might not feel differently were she forced to fall in line and take the go to college/find a “proper” career route?
As it stands, of course, Eilish is saddled with a different kind of burden (even if one that others would happily take on if she keeps openly “complaining”). The scrutiny of every piece of work she’ll ever put out being examined and dissected, appraised for not only its “artistic value” but its financial one. How many albums sold? Which records tied or surpassed? Although we’d like to believe we’re getting closer to a world where “the suits” will have less and less say (thanks to little glimmers of hope like Scarlett Johansson suing Disney+, even if, for her, it’s still about money more than artistic integrity), the truth is, they’re getting closer and closer to total monopoly. Just look at the purchase of MGM by Amazon. And as they do, one can rest assured that “gaining entry” into any artistic industry will not only be more challenging, but potentially far less lucrative. Which is, again, why a pure artist can’t really, in good faith, keep pursuing their art for the sake of cash—so often associated with “becoming famous.”
And then, even when you do, the disappointment and ennui seems bound to set in, as evidenced by the second half of the chorus, “Things I’m longing for/Someday, I’ll be bored of/It’s so weird/That we care so much until we don’t.” For the artist who never “makes it,” that caring so much until you don’t can be a result of “giving up on the dream.” And yet, can you ever really give up on it if it’s at the core of who you are? If the essence of your being is, say, writing. But not the kind of writing that can make money in the present age, like technical writing, financial writing (oxymoron), pharmaceutical writing or any other boring and inane industry that needs someone to put mechanical descriptions together. The true writer would rather pull her own Fallopian tubes out (or, on the flip side, stab himself in the urethra) than waste one precious second of using their time and skill on something so utterly meaningless. Unless you’re one of the many who count making money as part of life’s “great meaning.”
For the artist who does reach “the goal” of getting paid for their art in a manner similar to what Eilish has achieved, finally doing so after (for some people) much effort and suffering, it amounts to eventually growing weary of creating art for others, instead of just for yourself. Which is what it tends to end up being when no one really gives a damn about showing up to some esoteric reading in the middle of nowhere to hear you prattle on about your feelings and observations.
Surely, there are many writers who feel that they are just screaming into a void as they “release” work that no one looks at or, at best, cursorily clicks on, reads a paragraph and then moves on to something more pressing like watching a new episode of [insert on-trend show here]. Or more tragic still, tries to sell a book through a non-“major” publisher only to find that sales are abysmal, if not nonexistent. There is so much discouragement to the artist out there who can’t help but measure their worth and success by the coveted Acknowledgement from the Establishment. Yet here Eilish is plainly stating that even this “end game” achievement turns out to be hollow and slightly less fulfilling. Of course, it’s easy to romanticize anonymity and poverty from the vantage point of fame and fortune. Unwitting Eilish mentor Lana Del Rey does the same thing on “White Dress,” during which she rues, “I was a waitress wearing a tight dress/Like, look how I do this, look how I got this/It made me feel, made me feel like a god/It kinda makes me feel, like maybe I was better off.” As in, you know, being an unknown waitress (a term that’s not so politically correct at this juncture, but we all know Del Rey can be tone deaf) barely making ends meet. Because surely that has to be nobler and more dignified than the 24/7 reality show monster that being a celebrity in your “art” makes you. For the most part, it’s film and music that spawns this level of celebrity; few literary writers can know the strangeness of possessing “rock star status” (unless they started out as a rock star already, à la National Book Award winner Patti Smith). Anthony Bourdain sort of managed to do that, but his writing wasn’t exactly Chekhov—though he did seem to strive for that tone. And then, obviously, he was more known as a “culinary personality” than a writer. Oh yeah, and he killed himself despite all the fulfillment that his success as an artist was supposed to bring.
Luckily, that’s one silver lining to being a writer: they rarely have to worry about becoming famous anymore. And if they do, they’re named easy-to-pronounce things like Julia Quinn (Bridgerton) and Kristin Hannah (Firefly Lane) while surrendering their stories to the well-knownness of those who adapt them for the screen. So don’t balk so much at remaining obscure, negligibly read, etc. You could end up becoming just another corporate shill (if you’re not already in order to pay the bills) like the ones that do succumb to the heady, seductive drug of art as commodity, only to find that you might like to unsign the Faustian pact after all. Because at least you were creating without a slew of so many other voices in your head telling you how it should be if you want the work to “profit.” Ah, but perhaps they’re already telling you that anyway as they try their best to get you out of your current plebeian situation.
2 thoughts on ““The Things I Once Enjoyed Just Keep Me Employed Now”: On the Benefits of Artistic Obscurity”
Excellent essay. And it didn’t matter in the least that I’ve never heard anything by Billie Eilish. The essay put me in mind of Graham Greene and the way he distinguished between his serious writing and what he called his “entertainments”. I’ve tried to do both myself, but so far without much success.