Thomas Wictor

Which is alienating to you, virtuosity or mediocrity?

Which is alienating to you, virtuosity or mediocrity?

At a Website run by a conservative Christian guy I know, one of the ads was titled “Celebrities Who Go Topless for the Sake of Art.” Of course I had to click the link, being a fan of both toplessness and art. The Web page was interesting for lots of reasons, the main one being that I had no idea who any of these “celebrities” were except for Nicki Minaj. And I’d never listened to her music. It brought up the question of which is alienating, virtuosity or mediocrity? I’ll tell you my answer in a minute.

Here is the first Nicki Minaj song I’ve ever heard. I listened to it four minutes ago.

You may not know this, but that Yo, dey can nevva make me haychoo stuff hasn’t changed in almost thirty years. Hip hop is utterly static, except it’s gotten stupider. I remember reading sometime in the early thousands—the oughts—that young people hated melodies because they considered them saccharine. Rhythms were preferred. The rhythm in Nicki’s tune is somehow brain damaged. I picture zombies bonking their heads against walls.

I didn’t bother finishing my first Nicki Minaj song. It wasn’t written for me. I found it too boring to endure.

As for the other “celebrities” who went topless for art…

Let’s see: First one is No Idea. Someone with black hair.

Second one is Rihanna! I know her. She did a song that people thought was brilliant. It’s called “What Now.”

Well, she’s unintelligible for most of the song, her voice is thin and electronically attenuated, the lyrics are banal, and the Barry Manilow piano isn’t a good mix with the power chords. I didn’t finish that one either.

Back to the topless celebrities.

Kristen Something, the vampire chick; No Idea, No Idea; No Idea; and… Awa?

Alison Pill. Farrah Abraham. Joanna Krupa. Miranda Kerr.

Who? More importantly, who cares? Not me.

Tim said that beginning in the sixties, people began to be alienated by talent. They wanted their entertainers to be mediocre, so that way they could fantasize that they themselves could be up there onstage.

I went in the other direction. If you read Ghosts and Ballyhoo, you know that I wanted more than anything to play Gentle Giant’s live version of “Free Hand,” one of the most awesome bass lines I’ve ever heard.

Ray Shulman was my bass idol. His was an utterly unique voice on the electric bass.


I discovered something that took me a long, long time to accept: Virtuosity is never appreciated by the virtuoso. Even worse, more often than not they’ll hold you in contempt for admiring their talent. That’s one of the reasons I quit music journalism. I met virtuosos—no names mentioned—who were total assholes, the cruelest people on earth. They deliberately debauched themselves and their gifts for the sheer pleasure it gave them to hurt their fans.

For a decade I couldn’t listen to any music at all, because emotionally I couldn’t handle the fact that people had pissed away that which I would’ve given almost anything to possess. At my peak as a bassist, I played every day, by myself, because it made me happy. When my hands became crippled with osteoarthritis, I became very bitter toward those who voluntarily squandered their gifts.

That was so long ago. What I thought was the bottom was actually just the beginning of my descent. The anger I felt at musicians for throwing away their gifts? Well, I wish I could go back to those days. I had no idea what real anger was.

Still, I’ve always preferred virtuosity to mediocrity. Now more than ever. It sustains me. Did you ever see this? In the movie they had to use a sequencer. This woman sings it live. No Rihanna attenuation.

I would’ve thought that performance impossible, but she did it. Flawlessly.

Then there’s Kimbra’s “Plain Gold Ring.” Very few people can sing like that. Does that upset you, or do you marvel at her skill?

I tried for ten years to “double slap,” meaning using your thumb as a pick to go up and down on the string. Watch this guy absolutely shred.

That cheers me up. How could it not? Why do so many people think that aspiring to improvement and—I’ll say it—superiority is somehow wrong? Do you really want to live in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron”?

I’d rather not live.

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