The output jack on my guitar is loose and I am struggling to keep the cable in. At one point it falls out halfway during a song. I continue ‘playing,’ because I’ve learned there’s nothing worse than stopping a song midway through for a technical glitch, but the panic has fully set in at this point. I struggle to sing the lyrics I know by heart and not just repeat “I’m a fraud. You know I’m a fraud. I’m a fraud.” That’s what’s running through my brain on ticker tape.
I am not a natural performer, though I play music in front of people all of the time. My musical focus has always been on songwriting, construction, and individual emotional connection. The fear of performance kept me from sharing my music with people for a long time, and it took me nearly fifteen years of performing in front of people to stop vomiting before and after shows.
I don’t perform in front of big crowds – a couple hundred people at most, in dusty basements and small clubs. It’s not the sheer volume of people that overwhelm me – it’s the intimacy. When I play music my whole soul goes into it and I come through shaking and exhausted. I am terrified of what I look like as I howl and terrified that simply standing on stage is an assertion of personal importance that I cannot back.
I don’t like being looked at. I don’t like my reflection. I cannot push myself into inhabiting a fictive character, and I cannot understand why people would find me interesting to observe. The things I create might be interesting, but the person who makes them?
I’m a fraud. You know I’m a fraud. I’m a fraud.
When I play music my whole soul goes into it and I come through shaking and exhausted. I am terrified of what I look like as I howl and terrified that simply standing on stage is an assertion of personal importance that I cannot back.
We are taught that people who perform have cogent stories, narratives that make sense – or, failing that, a spectacle, something dazzling, something worth remarking on. The simple grit of making music with other people is not fascinating in and of itself (or is it? I find it rewarding to watch musicians work together, but does everyone?). I should be prettier (I should be someone people want to look at), I should make more sense (I should carve my truths into an intelligible story), I should be a salable product. I cannot be.
This society places and especial weight on its feminine-spectrum performers. Our weight, our bodies, the angles of our faces, our voices: are we pleasing to the eye? Are we authentic? Do we meet impossible standards of technical prowess and physical appeal? Masculine-spectrum performers feel the pressure, too, but in lesser measure.
Studio projects are few and far between these days – what makes music sustainable now is performance. We barely make any money from record sales, even DIY and direct with very small overhead. We make money from shows, and that money goes back into making records and to instrument and gear upkeep. We run on a budget about the width of dental floss. We will always have day jobs. Somehow we have to keep going.
So I get out on that floor, or on that stage, and I look up at the ceiling, and I take a deep breath, and I think: all I have to offer is this sound. I can give this audience all my energy. I can give this audience all my heart. I squeeze my eyes shut, and I fix my trembling fist around the microphone, and I open my dry mouth, and I start to sing.