Everybody hates being pegged as something they’re not. It’s no fun to be judged from afar by people who don’t know you, or to be labeled with a bunch of assumed traits based on the way you dress or what you do for a living. Musicians labor under more of these stereotypes than most, and these misconceptions have been around practically forever.
We students of music are as diverse and unique as people in other walks of life, but you’d never guess it, to hear some people talk. How many of these silly assumptions have been made about you?
1. We're overly emotional
Any songwriter goes through a cycle of emotions in his or her material. You write bitter songs, satisfied songs, lonely songs, and manic songs. This doesn’t mean you feel more or have less control over your emotions than other people. It just means that you’re in a profession that gives you an outlet for them, encouraging you to lay your feelings bare.
Meanwhile, almost everyone else labors in careers that encourage them to play it close to the vest – or worse, classifies emotion as weakness. We’re lucky we get to shout it out, but we’re no less stable than other folks. In fact, an Australian personality study found musicians to be more open and agreeable than most others, far from being a bunch of dramatic divas.
2. We're naive
Hey, we may be idealistic. We may write lyrics that strive to find meaning and truth and all that stuff. But naive? Ignorant of the ways of the world? Performing onstage inoculates us against naivete fast. Instead of sitting at home, harboring dumb ideas about other people or how things work, we’re on the road. We’re visiting weird truck stops and eating Belly Buster Burgers and going to dodgy neighborhoods in strange cities.
It’s hard to be naive when you’re driving a 1987 Chevy Van Dura with only five good cylinders to play a joint called Jumbo’s Clown Room. Traveling makes us worldly, more accepting of others, and better acquainted with the universe outside our hometowns – and our heads. It also shows us that almost everybody out there is actually pretty cool – a critical insight.
3. We drink heavily and use illegal drugs
How often have you declared yourself to be a musician and then immediately been offered drugs (or been asked for them)? Lots of people assume, or at least wish, that your driving goal as a musician is to get people drunk or high. We had most of an entire decade (from the mid-'60s to the early '70s) when a huge amount of our pop music was about being stoned, helping to create this stereotype.
The long-held belief that there’s a connection between drugs, drinking, and playing may be only half-true, as this study shows a small correlation between musicianship and illegal drugs. But it also showed that musicians didn’t drink any more than tone-deaf participants in the study.
Music venues are also alcohol venues a great deal of the time, so anyone in the band who wants booze or something harder can easily get it. But let’s not forget that tons of us are either social drinkers or are stone-cold sober.
4. We're all good at math
A good example of a suspect idea bouncing around the media echo chamber, this notion partially came about as a result of parents' desires to maximize their kids’ brain power by playing classical music. According to this mathematician, there’s no solid evidence to back up this idea, and there’s also no firm connection between musical talent and strong math chops.
On the other hand, author Malcolm Gladwell has suggested that success in math is correlated more with persistence and a tolerance for frustration than any genetic factor. Those traits would surely help master an arpeggio or grasp an arcane graphing function. But those unborn babies listening to belly-mounted speakers won’t do generally better in math class than the rest of us. But at least they’ll know their Brahms from their Beethoven.
5. We're unfaithful and promiscuous partners
Our lyrics have probably helped to establish this one, as artists from Whitesnake to Jay-Z have written songs about one-night stands and vanishing from some hotel room before dawn. Yes, the road offers lots of opportunities to ruin longstanding relationships. And yes, rehearsals, gigs, and studio sessions can take us away from home and end at unpredictable times. (Many of us dread when a partner asks, “When will you be home?”)
But road trips and odd hours are far from unique to musicians. Americans are certified as the world’s biggest workaholics, and American workers are working even more now than they have in the past. Lawyers, doctors, and insurance salespeople are gone a lot, too. Besides, the musician can come home from the road having written a song for her beloved, which is a lot more romantic than the attorney’s Motion to Amend Judgment or the doctor’s prescription for Adalimumab.
As for the promiscuity, dating can get easier when you regularly spend two hours doing something awesome in front of a room full of people. Everybody has potential fans out there; yours will just have an easier time finding you because you’re up there in front of the crowd. Do some musicians take advantage of that? Certainly, but most of us follow our own values and ethics when it comes to sex. The rest of us are just being judged, perhaps, because of the sensuality inherent in being a performer.
6. We're vain and self-absorbed
Hey, there's a big difference between stage gear and what we wear to the grocery store. We may look like vampires or Mad Max characters onstage, but under that outfit and behind those funky dance moves, there's a regular person who cares for our bandmates and wants to avoid drama.
Stories of megalomaniacs who have to have everything their own way become legend, because in music, as in most professions, those people are rare. The vast majority of musicians are hardworking, diverse, honest folks, showing up to rehearse and perform and having a good time in the process. This may not make a good story, but it does make a good life.
Jesse Sterling Harrison is an author, recording artist, and part-time farmer. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, three daughters, and a herd of ducks.