Wracked with indecision, I scribbled furiously into my butterfly-adorned songwriting notebook. I drew three columns underneath a haphazardly written title: “3 Versions of Me.” Separated by lines were three options. One: acoustic singer-songwriter. Two: punk chick. Three: indie rocker. I had hoped getting it down on paper would make my path clear, but it only left me feeling more confused. How could I decide between three genres of music I adored equally? How could I leave behind the piano in favor of the electric guitar, or vice versa?
Every musician talks about finding their “sound.” By this, they mean the musical terms that define you, whatever those may be – anything from vegan disco-punk to post-hardcore throat singing. As a fresh-faced 15-year-old hopping eagerly into the music world, I wasn’t sure what to call the kind of music I played. I was just some teenage girl who sang and played the piano. How was I supposed to brand myself? Adolescent electric piano shimmer pop? Or self-conscious bedroom indie folk rock?
So I experimented with genres. First, I was a singer-songwriter. I played “Samson” by Regina Spektor on the piano and took my mom to an Ingrid Michaelson concert. I wore thrift store floral print dresses and toted around a ukulele. I started writing quirky lyrics about unrequited crushes, and did my best to emulate Zooey Deschanel’s goofy-cute persona in my daily life. I spent summers at open mics, lusting over cute musician boys and fantasizing about the adorable and musically-gifted babies we would have.
Then, I was a punk. I went to Warped Tour. Not for the headliners, though – only for the one tiny all-girl rock band my friend and I idolized. They were called Cherri Bomb, and they were teenagers, some of them even younger than us. They all sported colorful hair and heavy eyeliner. On stage, the spunky drummer dipped her hand in a bucket of fake blood, playfully flicking drops of it at the audience.
I decided to dye the ends of my hair pink and bought a skull-covered tank top from the pajama section at Target. I wore black Doc Martens and green cargo jackets, and I stayed in the car while my mom ran into the grocery store so I could practice my growl-singing in total isolation. I yelled the post-apocalyptic words to “Hold On” by Cherri Bomb, straining my voice to achieve the perfect punk rock snarl. My friends and I threw up “rock on” signs in all our photos — even our prom photos.
Then I went indie. I bought Fleet Foxes albums and listened to them on my mom’s old record player, telling everyone who would listen that “White Winter Hymnal” just sounds so much better on vinyl. On weekends, my friends and I carefully crafted our own flower crowns, shrieking in pain as we burned our fingers with hot glue guns. One August day, I wore shiny purple Docs and a freshly-made flower crown to an Arcade Fire concert. In the blistering heat, the faux berries on my flower crown melted, leaving gruesome red streaks running down my sweaty forehead.
I’ve tried it all. But regardless of my dedication to each and every aesthetic, I could never narrow it down to just one. I’m never going to listen to only one genre of music, so why should I limit myself to just playing one?
My favorite book for creative inspiration, “Steal Like an Artist” by Austin Kleon, advises, “Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.” Thank God. If I had to know who I was to start creating, I might not be making art until I’m pushing up daisies.
As it turns out, I never had to choose between diverging paths, a decision I thought was so essential to beginning my musical career. At age nineteen, I still haven’t discovered my sound soulmate. I’m still caught somewhere between poppy singer-songwriter and wannabe rockstar, diving into Taylor Swift one moment and Nirvana the next. But that’s okay.
Being a carbon copy of one specific genre is boring, anyway. No one wants to listen to a replica. It’s the new concoction that froths out of a mixture of diverse influences that makes a musician worth listening to. As T.S. Eliot is quoted as saying at the opening of Kleon’s book, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Nothing is new anymore, but by combining elements that already exist, artists can still be innovative. So punk, pop star, indie rocker – why not be them all?
Madeline Wells writes the Thursday arts column on trying to make it in the music industry. Contact her at [email protected].