Australian musicians are poorly paid, have little job security, work long hours and drink too much. No surprises there. Oh, and also, they’re happy. The University of Queensland’s School of Psychology has released results of a musician wellbeing survey undertaken in 2010/11 by Dr Stacey Parker whose report says “a thriving creative industry is key to stimulating healthy economic, social and cultural outcomes.” Go UQ Psych! I want to shout right there. Go Dr Parker! A thriving creative industry matters? You bet it does.
Ken Robinson, whose TED talks have been watched by millions, keeps saying that creativity matters to our very survival in the 21st century. Yet creativity’s not on the radar of school education with its worn-out shoe teaching methods, its high-stakes NAPLAN testing regime and its chokehold national curricula. What we learn in school is about as nurturing of creativity, especially in the arts, as fast food is of a body. So what keeps us playing music, dancing, painting, making up stories? And how do we keep creativity alive in our children, not so that they can learn to take drink but so they can continue lifelong to experience the happiness that making brings?
Foo Fighters lead singer Dave Grohl’s made-for-TV series Sonic Highways explores the creative process in songwriting. The former Nirvana drummer’s now 20-year-old band records a song in each of eight US cities with a musical heritage. Grohl wanted to follow the songlines of the cities as a way of mixing up his band’s creative process, finding the spark in each place. The series has been criticised for its failure to include particular musicians or enough women, for focusing on Grohl’s own musical past rather than music history, and for recording a Foo Fighters song in each place rather than a song that pays homage to the place. I didn’t want Sonic Highways to be a definitive history of music or a way to encourage girls to play guitar, and frankly it would have been cheesy to do Foo Fighter jazz in New Orleans, worse Foo Fighter country in Nashville. I wanted to know if it would tell me something about creativity and how it’s nurtured.
Sonic Highways is a different viewing experience from the normal rockband disaster show, which reached its pinnacle in Metallica’s 2004 Some Kind of Monster that tracks that band’s journey into relationship and recording hell. You know they’re in trouble when the band’s therapist (yes, therapist) gets out a whiteboard to define the band’s mission (yes, mission). Grohl shows us where he came from and where the many musicians he interviews came from. They all had teachers or mentors, other musicians who played a role in their development one way or another. They had traditions they could borrow from and places to gather. They had fun doing what they were doing, and change helped. None of what they learned was learned in school.
Sonic Highways has the sadness of the ageing rock star and what got lost on that dark desert highway, the record stores, scenes, clubs, studios that have gone into the west. There’s a lot less excitement about the garage bands of the future. How can tomorrow be as creative? Grohl seems to be saying, and the evidence, as far as it goes, shows he’s onto something. Children are less creative than they were three generations back. Torrance test results in the US— not a perfect measure of creativity but predictive in terms of creativity in later occupation—have gone down since 1990, while IQ scores have continued to go up.
What I took away from Sonic Highways was that creativity can endure much before it is snuffed out. Whether it was the weird go-go scene of Washington or grunge in Seattle that created the biggest band since the Beatles, or New York, where a door in Soho could represent everything, creativity is alive in all its bloodied sunny glory.
I have had cause to think about what I’ve done with my life as a writer lately, and to look at my son and wonder what he’ll do with his. I hope whatever journey his life takes him on, he’ll find the kind of happiness I’ve found in creative practice. Because it’s been everything.