There are some experiences that cut you straight to the core and make you question the very purpose of life. These are the moments that you try to forget, but know that you will never be able to no matter how many counselors you see or how many PBR’s you drink.
I have experienced two of these moments. The first was watching my grandfather die of a heart attack right in front of me when I was ten. The second occurred yesterday afternoon, when I had the sad displeasure of attending my seven-year-old daughter Stella’s piano recital at Mount Calvary Lutheran Church on East 8th Avenue.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve been a Stella fan from the beginning, long before she started playing to poser-filled recital crowds numbering in the dozens. I discovered her not by recital flier or church bulletin as most have, but by the simple act keeping my ear to the ground. Literally. My home office is on the second-floor of our house, and her piano is on the first.
When Stella first burst onto the music scene last year, her work could only be described as raw and angry. There was real honesty and pain in her songs. Anyone who has had the pleasure of hearing her rare “Thanksgiving Sessions” tape recorded live from my parents’ living room can attest to the pure emotional tenacity she would attack her songs with. Her playing resembled a cross between early Yeah Yeah Yeahs and a young Frederic Chopin before he sold out. My wife and I still get goosebumps whenever we listen to her haunting performance of “What Did Mr. Turkey Say?”
Unfortunately, yesterday’s recital, the 19th Stella show I’ve attended, was a testament to just how far this once inspiring musical trailblazer has fallen. Stella has clearly forgotten all that made her early work so profound. She has succumbed, like so many greats before her, to the integrity-killing trappings of recital trophies and courtesy applause.
The show began with a note-for-note rendition of Stella’s latest hit, “The Little Fox,” a paint-by-the-numbers ditty that contains mere trace elements of her early-day prowess. Thenceforth until the show’s merciful end, the experience was akin to watching puppies slowly die before your very eyes. Avoiding all her earlier songs like misbegotten children, Stella soullessly floundered through three more forgettable new tunes that were all clearly crafted for the mainstream. Finally, after the last notes of “Old Joe” were struck, the sobering experience was over. I immediately walked out of the church, tossed my “Stella 2011 Tour” hat in the trash, and swore on my MacBook Pro to never again attend a Stella show. My soul just can’t take it.
It’s a sad fact of life, but these things do happen. Artists strike artistic gold, earn respect from us smug-elite, catch the ear of some wannabes, and soon thereafter walk away from integrity never to return. Stella’s older brother, Asher, still holds out hope that she will get the fire back and return to her “Mr. Turkey” glory. I, on the other hand, have seen this sort of thing happen too many times before and have already rightfully reclassified Stella in the same category as other sellouts like Weezer and Levi, my viola-playing nephew.