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Forgotten But Not Gone: An Open Letter to Caleb Followill

On a whim, because it had a very cool cover, I bought the latest issue of “Spin,” which promised to reveal to me the “Best of 2009.” It had a nice looking guy on the front, who the check-out person (Janet) believed to be Ashton Kutcher, but who was, in fact,  Kings of Leon’s lead singer Caleb Followill. After doing all of the dreary old Responsible Person things that I am obligated to do under the Geneva Convention (putting groceries away, making lunch, changing over the loads of laundry) I relaxed with my new magazine, hoping to find suggestions about bands that would make my pulse race, and my world expand. Instead, on page 4, I found a second picture of the handsome Followill behind a quote attributed to him: “[t]hat woman in mom jeans who’d never let me date her daughter likes my music? That’s f–king not cool.”

To say that I was stung would be an understatement. I had a brand new iPod Touch, I had just downloaded Sufjan Stevens’ “Illinois” on the recommendation of the considerably friendlier editorial staff at “Paste” magazine, and I was just hoping to find some more ideas about music to love. While I saw myself as an evolving, interested connoisseur of cutting edge pop culture, I had apparently been relegated Beyond the Pale, a mom-aged person doomed to listen to Billy Joel and Supertramp for all eternity, on 8-track tapes.

Here’s what I would like to say to the smug Mr. Followill (who, I will tell you without editorial comment, was photographed wearing a cross):

Dear Caleb,

If you are really an artist, I find it hard to believe that it matters whether or not your audience is “cool,” or what they’re wearing, or how old they are. Your self-conscious categorization of “cool us” and “not-cool them” makes it clear to me that while you may be talented (and I believe that you are) you are not really an artist, you are a complete and total sell-out and media whore. (No offense; us mom jean wearers just get really hot and pissed off sometimes, if you know what I mean). If I had a daughter, I would discourage her from dating you not because you are a pompous and self-proclaimed badass who gives interviews cherishing every bender, hangover and droppable name, but because I believe you to be narcissistic and immature.

If you are really an artist, Mr. Followill, you have something to say, you have a way of seeing the world, and you have a heart filled to bursting with the need to be heard. You write and sing not because it’s easy, or lucrative, or attracts groupies. (Those are all fun things, and I don’t begrudge you your perks, but that’s what they are. They are the collateral stuff that comes with recognition and popularity).  It is intellectually and artistically lazy to fall back on the cliché that Old People are shocked by everything new, from Elvis to the Beatles, and that the measure of success is the extent to which said Old People faint in shock and clap their withering hands over their hairy ears. You do not achieve success as an artist by excluding any potential listener, reader or viewer, although it may be part of achieving success as a commercially successful pop star to make your desired market segment feel like unique and special flowers. Do you want to be Britney Spears, or do you want to be an artist? It’s your business, really, but you should probably be honest about it.

It is a shock to me, a real shock, to learn that there is a caste system among listeners of alternative rock, or indeed any other kind of music. I am a person of the precise age and demographic you identify as “not cool” as a listener. Although I do not personally own a pair of mom jeans, I am old enough to be your mother, my hair is graying and my right knee hurts when it’s damp out. Inside, however, I am still very much alive. I have a full range of emotions, much as you do, and I also respond to music in the same way that a younger member of the species might respond. Lyrics move me, beats make my feet tap, and certain melodic lines and harmonies make me close my eyes or hit “replay” until I have gotten all the juice out of the experience. My point is that while you probably don’t want to date me, I am viable audience from the viewpoint of sharing an experience, a feeling or a message. If you cut me, do I not bleed? Does it really, seriously diminish your work if I like it? If so, that’s incredibly cold. Cold, short-sighted, reductivist and arrogant.

In closing, Caleb, I will acknowledge that artists have always had a person or group in mind when they created. There is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with checking your work against the imagined response of a patron, an unattainable lover, or even a competitive colleague. I don’t know who you think about when you write songs, although I’m pretty sure we can rule out women in their 40s. There has to be more than that consciousness of a possible audience, though, there has to be a loss of yourself in the work. That loss of self-consciousness is the point at which you cease to be a skilled craftsman making a product, and become an artist who no longer has the power to shape the work to please anybody else. If you cross that threshold, it won’t matter if your message is received by a woman in mom jeans, her hot and debauched daughter, or the night janitor at Madison Square Garden. It won’t matter if your listeners are “cool,” it will only matter that you have the relief and delight of connecting with a kindred spirit, a human in the vast sea of humans who responds to your words, your voice, your message. It’s all up to you, though; frankly, now that I’ve said my piece, I really don’t care what you do.

One more thing, though, Mr. Followill. My mother was right: pretty is as pretty does.

Best regards,