Easy Plateau


Success is fleeting.

The arbitrary nature of the achievement, however, only begins to explain the reasons why.

There are countless examples of the genius who doesn’t change the world, but the reasons for it are also many. Malcolm Gladwell has popularized the genius theory that attributes greatness to hours served, but true success is only what we make of it on our own. His stamp of approval is shown everywhere, from The Beatles to Bill Gates and even Bobby Fisher.

There is a price for that devotion, and perhaps Fisher is one of the greatest examples of that debt. His story is incredibly depressing, a cautionary tale of sorts not about the perils of chess, but the dangers of genius itself.

Musical mastery is something less celebrated by Thinking Culture but arguably more important to a larger portion of society. Music alters moods and can change society in ways difficult to comprehend at times, but true success in music is far less sonic and more tangible in most regards.

The higher thinking, of course, is that music is about more than record sales and popularity. Success is more about the songs themselves and value that’s difficult to properly relate to commercial success.

Lil Wayne, for example, is going through an interesting period in his career as an artist. He just got out of prison and has released a highly-anticipated album that has done well in sales. Reading about that album, however, shows us a much different argument than your nearest Target would present about Wayne’s Carter IV.

The article essentially argues that Wayne’s greatness came in the past and, despite the commercial success his newest album has, his true success, his pinnacle, has already been reached.

It’s a model for success only believable to those that pine for something similar. True achievement is not found in album sales or television appearances but rather in personal satisfaction or pride and the impact it has on others. But reaching that point, however, always has a sacrifice. For example, what made Wayne famous is something difficult for him to replicate in his current state.

Vintage Lil Wayne was the equivalent of speaking in tongues, words flying in unexpected directions, in unlikely combinations. But those were the syrup-sipping years. Sobriety is a condition of Lil Wayne’s probation, and it appears that the lucid Lil Wayne has less interest in bending words into strange shapes.

When I think of this problem, I think of Ryan Adams.

The similarities between Adams and Wayne in this regard are actually quite striking. Ryan Adams was most prolific and, some might say, most brilliant when he was on heavy drugs. Up until 2006, Adams was making music and touring with the help of speedballs and a whole bunch of booze.

He probably should have died. Instead, he toured the country while releasing three albums — one a double album, mind you — along with dozens and dozens of songs on his website under pseudonyms to match a variety of musical styles. He was out of his damn mind, but in the depths of his depression and demons came an amazing depth in songwriting despite his spastic creative process.

The impact of those albums commercially is negligible in this case: the artistic success of that period is something Adams has failed to match since. Even with Whiskeytown or in his solo days, the speed and depth of his work under the influence is quite remarkable and still felt to this day.

Just last year, Adams released an album he wrote in 2006. I wouldn’t be shocked if he is using unpublished speedball-fueled demos as coasters for the next two decades. He was a crazy person back then, but he was damn good at what he did.

Now he is Mandy Moore’s husband and a recovering addict trying to make peace with his life. He is decidedly different, and though it seems impossible to claim that’s a bad thing it does make you wonder what happens to his music moving forward. If this sounds familiar, you finished reading that “Carter IV” review before you got this far.

The fatal flaw in this concept of rapper/alt country rocker as soul mates is in terms of each artist’s commercial success. Where Lil Wayne is one of the most popular and celebrated hip-hop artists on the planet, Adams is often confused with a Canadian who sings “The Only Thing That Looks Good On Me Is You.” I’m not linking a video for that, because no one needs to see it.

Lil Wayne is a big deal, and every move he makes is well-documented by a fawning media. Ryan Adams is mostly known as the dude who married Mandy Moore. That’s fine, but it does make an outside observer question what form of success really matters. I’m heavily in favor of celebrating the period in which each artist was at their best, regardless of how many albums they sold or who wanted to dress like them.

The real impact music can have on people is not tabulated by concert revenues or Billboard charts, but in the emotions the opening bars of a song can bring. Great music and, in the more general sense genius, can give the world something much more important than everyone knowing your name. For Wayne that means digging deeper than his commercial hits. For Adams, forgetting the nagging feeling that crazy was a good look for him.

Cases like Adams or Wayne make me wonder if certain people need to get outside of their heads to achieve true success. Not every artist requires drugs or a stretch of madness to be truly great, but those that fit the profile seem to fill shockingly similar roles with what they do.

It will be interesting to see what happens next for both artists. There is always the next album or mixtape for Wayne, and maybe Ryan Adams will come to his senses, rejoin the Cardinals and find something altogether new once again. Still, the duo will always have that period of time where they reached something special.

The musical equivalent of being on fire in NBA Jam doesn’t always bring appropriate praise, and reaching that level is not without sacrifice. The value of that milestone, however, is still great to those who wonder just how much it costs to get there.

One Comment

  1. Very insightful article, Ryan – it really is bizarre how we put artists on a pedestal when they’re in their most desperate moments. In a way you could relate their acclaim to the way a knife thrower or a fire breather gains acclaim – anyone can throw a knife at a wooden block, but to put an assistant between you and that block creates a moment of suspended faith in your audience, much like the way Ryan has shook my (and many of his fans) faith earlier in his career when he was an absolute mess – people are attracted to that, it’s alluring to see these artists plunge themselves into the indulgence we all secretly yearn to live our in our own boring lives. To many not so familiar with him, Ryan is living out the rock and roll dream of excess, coasting off the success of his first handful of AMAZING albums, when, in actuality, the creation of those albums and his subsequent near-breakdown, caught throughout the later albums he produced with The Cardinals, paints a far darker picture.
    It’s not just Wayne or Adams though, nor is it a new phenomenon; look at Hendrix or Clapton, hell look at H. S. Thompson! These individuals created such a stigma through their art and behavior that they created a working atmosphere that almost REQUIRES them to be messed up, to keep up that image that keeps them off the street. If you had to pick a prime example of this, just take a look at The Band, all EXTREMELY talented and gifted artists and, sadly, most of them plagued by demons they couldn’t control that allowed them to keep that momentum going. You have to wonder just how ridiculously difficult it must be to kick drugs when you’re carrying around this enormous reputation and expected to carry a certain behavior about you. That same notion is essentially what killed Hunter Thompson, he simply couldn’t live with BEING Hunter S. Thompson anymore. It’s a most interesting subject.