“Well then what ARE you about, Aaron?” you ask. I’ll tell you at the end of this little story…
I was talking with (several) somebody(s) recently about Top 40 hits and whether you could call them “better” than other songs. It keeps coming up because lately I’ve been talking a lot about how cool it would be to have a Top 10 hit song. I used to hide that desire (even from myself) thinking a variety of thoughts like “it’s wrong to be ambitious” or “that’s just sell out crap” or various other things about how super high brow intelligent music or poetry was a higher calling than trying to be some pop star.
Recently, though, I’ve thought about it differently. To be honest, I’ve thought about it differently for about years, since I had my famous double lung transplant. Surely I’ve told you about that?
Oh… well if you don’t know me…I had a double lung transplant. The end. 😉 Heh. Ok ok. On July 4, 2013 both of my lungs were replaced in what is now a pretty common but still utterly miraculous surgery. At that point I’d already been doing what I do for..what?…18 years or so? But obviously things in the music and performance world had gone dormant for me. I’d been in and out of the hospital for about 6 months, after having never been in the hospital (which is an outlier accomplishment when you have Cystic Fibrosis – btw this could be the last time I mention that diagnosis – I don’t particularly want to be identified with it). I got pneumonia in November 2012 and kept being out of breath – constantly – for months. In February 2013 I finally gave in and let my family take me to the emergency room, where I sat for 10 days in ICU. After that I’d get out for a couple weeks, flare up, go back in. I was suddenly on oxygen 24-7 and it took me 45 grueling minutes to walk half a mile around my neighborhood park. Conversations were had in hallways where it was admitted that Aaron is dying. Let me tell you, for a four sport high school athlete and a (low level terrible 😉 ) college ice hockey player, that was a DISTURBING existence.
Clearly I needed a transplant, but I’d been such a non-compliant, defiant sumbitch my entire life, it took a LOT of work to get the doctors to refer me for transplant. I had to walk the walk, talk the talk, do the work, document the work. I had to let people coach me, groom me, manage my image so that I would be a good candidate. It was like being a politician or – dare I say it? – a rock star. I was totally “handled”.
And I’ll tell you a secret: I loved it. Besides not being able to breathe and being on death’s edge 24-7, I loved having a team around me, and when I realized I was actually the LEADER of this team, and that most of what I was doing, with the fundraising and the talking and the grueling pseudo workouts and the thank you notes, was inspiring people, I really got inspired myself. My story was MOVING people. It was like I’d found my calling. I became a transplant athlete and won a bronze metal in the 100 meters 1 year after transplant (which is kind of ahead of the curve if I do say so myself)…
But wait – that was already my calling. I’ve been a musician arguably all my life, but definitely since I was 14, and in the world of trying to be professional since I was 19. I was also a slam poet, which I did as my full time gig (along with some acting) for about 4 years.
In fact, I was the 10th ranked slam poet in the WORLD. I was actually world class at it! 🙂 And it was the same calling. Moving people. Not even just inspiring, but MOVING people. There is absolutely nothing like being in a dingy old warehouse in the dead of summer, Houston, TX, no air conditioning, industrial sized fan blowing everybody’s hair back, a gritty old PA blasting over the fan noise, and just f**** stepping out of your soul’s own way, opening up your arms, and basically stepping outside of your body to watch as a room packed to the gills with folks simply ERUPT, screaming and cheering and clapping so loud you can’t hear that fan, and all collapsing in for a hug or a handshake or a victory lift – except maybe a heartfelt “thank you” from that one dude or girl in the back of the room after the noise has died down. Or being told “I said your poem to my partner and it fixed our relationship”, or simply having someone walk up to you with tears in their eyes after a show.
Coming back to Top 40 songs – there are a lot of definitions of what “good” is, and it really depends on the context. And Top 40 songs can almost never be defined as “good” by a LOT of standards. I looked at my A-list poetry slam pieces and thought about it, and when I was talking to those aforementioned somebodies, something smacked me in the face. The two poems that had made me the 10th ranked slam poet in the universe (see what I did there? 😉 ), were, from my point of view, MY WORST SLAM POEMS. My most effective slam piece, Blink, the one with which I could decimate any competitive field in the country on any day, was amateurish. Repetition, sparce imagery, and pedantic little devices. It really is nowhere near the level of later pieces I’d written once I’d learned how.
But it was HONEST. And it was raw, and poignant, and vulnerable – and it was about love. Specifically about being afraid to tell somebody how I felt. It doesn’t posture or pose – in fact, I say repeatedly “I’m so afraid of you…”. It MOVED people.
Finally I realized, that whatever you can say about a Top 40 song, the thing that it succeeds at is MOVING people. That’s what it’s good at, and if your definition of “good” is “does it move people?”, then the Top 40 is a great place to look for how to do that.
Now suddenly I have no qualms about dreaming of a number one hit. I imagine the people that would be moved by that and the interactions I would have and I think “holy crap”. It could be done a lot of ways – but I’m really into making tracks and performing, so I’m gonna keep doing that, for my sake, but really that’s just a means to an end.
So – the deal is – I’m not really ABOUT music (or poetry, or being a transplant patient). I’m about YOU!
You – being – people. The people reading this. I’m about moving you. Who knows if I’ll ever reign myself in enough to make a Top 40 hit, but hopefully I can start by moving you.