Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Coping with Salieri Syndrome

Last night I was thinking about Brian Wilson. Sometimes, in order to keep the lid on a persistent earworm, I assemble weird mixes from my iTunes on the fly. The more I confuse my music center, the less likely it is that the Jem theme is going to kick around in there all night. Why not listen to the Bellamy Brothers next to Dr. Dre? Last night, along with some Dylan and some Feist and some Daft Punk & etc, "Wouldn't It Be Nice" got in there. Every time I'm listening to the later Beach Boys (i.e. not the "Surfin' USA" era), I think about poor Brian Wilson and the misfortune of being born a Salieri.

The legend goes that Wilson worked himself to the bone making Pet Sounds in response to the Beatles' Rubber Soul. Today neither album sounds crazily different from what preceded it, but at the time they were both big leaps. Fun, fluffy pop marked both bands' careers in the early 60s, but Rubber Soul was richer, folkier, more varied, more album-like, even a little experimental at times. Pet Sounds tried to mimic these qualities in its own way.

Rubber Soul happened at the end of 1965. The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds in 1966. Yay! Totally worth it!

And then, in 1967, the Beatles made Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

And Brian Wilson had a total nervous breakdown.

I'm not kidding. Wilson's mental health was pretty fragile throughout the mid-sixties, but evidently Sgt. Pepper was the breaking point. McCartney has said that the band was inspired by Pet Sounds to make Sgt. Pepper, which is nice and all, but, um...Sgt. Pepper. Your argument is invalid. The Beach Boys were never the same; Wilson went somewhat AWOL until the early 70s, and they kind of bounced back later, but it wasn't like before.

I think it broke Wilson that the Beatles were revolutionizing pop music pretty much right under his nose. He probably had, in greater abundance, the same feeling I have about Randall Munroe (the creator of xkcd), which is like "I totally hate you for your brilliance, but please don't stop making art, but you're making all of us look bad, but I love you, but I also hate you." (Don't misunderstand - I am a little ant trying to make little ant art, and Munroe's had enormous, widespread success, and anyway he and I aren't even in the same field. So it's definitely not the same thing. But that IhateyouIloveyouIhateyouIloveyou feeling's gotta be the same.)

Like this. Remember this? In Ratatouille? When Skinner eats the ratatouille at the end, and is immediately astonished/in love/furious?

The problem is, when you're confronted with once-in-a-century genius and you're just a once-in-a-decade artist, you can't see it as history will. You can only take it personally. That was the best part of Amadeus (aside from three hours of superlative music) - that interesting problem of well, I can't really blame you, Salieri, for hating Mozart, because if you're a composer other than Mozart in the eighteenth century, it sucks to be you. It probably sucks about as much as it does if you're a band other than the Beatles in the 60s.

So, there we are. Poor Brian Wilson.

But this is another reason why spite and envy about the creative works and/or success of other writers is such a waste of time. If they're better than you, even if they're on another plane of better than you, there isn't much you can do about it but be the best Salieri you can be. History will roll on with or without you; you can't control it. And, after all, Pet Sounds is a really good record. Well worth a listen.

1 comment:

Mia Hopkins said...

Hi Katharine,

Thank you for this post. I've been feeling a touch of Salieri Syndrome this week, along with concomitant feelings of guilt and self disgust. Nice to know I'm in the company of Brian Wilson (whose music I love).

Look forward to reading more from you! Cheers.