On a warm spring night in Paris, May 29, 1913, a riot broke out in the Champs Elysee Theatre during the premier of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” As NPR explains, the aristocracy was not ready for the symphony’s “jagged rhythms, crunching discord, and the strange jerking of the dancers on stage.” The young, obscure Russian composer set off a firestorm, but his work soon gained an audience. And today, Stravinsky is credited, according to music commentator Miles Hoffman, for “one of the greatest creative leaps in not only the history of music, but in the history of the arts.”
Stravinksy had the safety of obscurity to be experimental. But what may have fundamentally served him was that he was a lonely child and didn’t care for social acceptance. "I never came across anyone who had any real attraction for me,” he wrote in his autobiography. And so his passion for music came first.
In this wonderful short video by Vice, two very modern and interesting musical artists—Annie Clark of St. Vincent and Merrill Garbus of Tune Yards—discuss the importance of being, essentially, hated in order to further music. (It opens with a reference to Stravinsky.):
“Just that moment of making music that maybe the first audience of people is like […] ‘I hate that!’ And not being afraid to do that, because it still means it's furthering music in general,” said Garbus. “There’s a lot of ugliness I put intentionally in my voice, [in] my vocal takes in the studio, that I want to just keep there, and I think about that a lot.”
“Ugliness is confrontational in a way that's really kind of satisfying,” said Clark. “Once you get past that 'This is sour. I don't like the taste of it.’ to ‘Oh, I want more, there's something about it.' Just to invite a little bit of that chaos in is powerful.”
How does an individual get to the point where it’s comfortable to “invite a little bit of that chaos in”? As human beings, we’re programed to need to be liked; it’s in the best interest of our survival. Children at a young age in school feel the pressures to conform, to have friends. As they get older, they feel the pressure to have “the right friends.” How do they find the liberation to create work that may cause a riot?
It’s becoming critical that we teach children that what is popular isn’t always right. UCLA psychologists reported last year in a study that fame is now the number one value emphasized by television shows popular with 9 to 11-year-olds. A generation ago, community values and benevolence topped the list. In a 2009 survey in England of children ages 5 to 11-years-old, the most popular career "choices" are sports star, pop star, and actor, a dramatic departure from the top three responses 25 years ago: teacher, banker, and doctor.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting recognition for making a contribution. But children today are bombarded with media that encourages narcissism (social media provides a global stage) and "Hannah Montana" messages that being adored and paid lavishly for it is a career that is realistic and admirable to achieve.
The Stravinskys of the world are not narcissists; they are developed creative minds with a passion for what they do. Growing up, Stravinsky was pressured by his parents to go to law school, but he eventually dropped out. He was self-directed, and instead he pursued music.
As for fame, the great ambition of today, it’s fleeting, it’s cheap, costing about the price of a leaked sex tape. Real value is created when one is self-directed, independent, and passionate. Clive Crook, who joins me as a member in the unfortunate last name club, writes in his 2006 article for The Atlantic on Edmund S. Phelps winning the Nobel Prize for economics:
“Phelps's ascension to Nobel immortality is especially welcome for another reason. He has never commanded the attention outside the economics profession that his brilliance, interests, and practical turn of mind ought to have brought him. Why was that? The likely answer, I think, is worth pondering because it reflects badly on America's political culture. It is that Phelps is an independent thinker. He has followed no particular school, has run with no duly constituted political tribe.”
Crook goes on to further praise independent thinking over popularity:
“In America's politics and in its public intellectual life, people like Phelps don't fit. Gang loyalty trumps curiosity, open-mindedness, and intellectual honesty every time. It's depressing. But Phelps has finally got his Nobel, and that is something.”
While Phelps isn’t hated like Stravinksy was on that warm spring night, he serves as a reminder that what’s not popular shouldn't be overlooked. It is better to advance the world by advancing oneself, one’s knowledge, than to chase external validation. That’s why biographies of great artists like Stravinsky are teaching material for how to help children understand that it’s okay to be hated, or rather, misunderstood. Let the others catch up.