PO Box 278
Friendship, ME 04547 USA
A Case Against Fame
by Michael Cooney
(In 1977 the Mariposa Folk Foundation in Toronto asked me to write this essay for their book, For What Time I Am In This World. After all these years, this still says what I feel.)
Because I have, for the last fifteen years or so, managed to walk the thin line between poverty and the stigma of commercial success, I am asked to make a case against fame. Happy to do so.
Why get famous? Adoring fans and money. But we all know that adoring fans are no substitute for real friends, which are harder to discern when one is famous. It's also easy enough to see that the money doesn't bring happiness. Gratification of desires, yes; happiness, no.
There are indeed many drawbacks to becoming famous compared to the dubious advantages. Perhaps most importantly, it can seriously hamper or even destroy artistic vitality. This can be seen to some extent in the songwriting of Bob Dylan. Most of his good songs were created before he got really famous. Maybe one can only write with conviction about one's real concerns, and as fame comes, those concerns turn toward new topics: money, business, etc. Being surrounded by agents and managers, accountants and lawyers, investment advisors and adulators, one’s fountain of inspiration can diminish to a trickle or dry up.
But the damage doesn't stop there. Again Bob Dylan is a good example. When he "went
electric" in the mid-
But fame doesn't cease with loss of artistic ability. Aye, there's the rub. Fame
begets fame. You don't have to be any good to be the idol of millions, you just have
to be famous. An indication of this is seen in the method by which many recording
contracts are negotiated these days. One of the figures most haggled over is the
amount to be committed by the recording company to publicizing the new record, for
as everyone knows, a new performer doesn't get famous by being good, but by being
A person who's famous can be terrible and the fans will still love him, and critics adore him simply because he's famous. Were Joe Blow to come out and defecate on the stage, he'd be lynched. If Bob Dylan were to do the same thing, some people would be offended, but many people, and critics, would say, "Innovative! The ultimate protest!" This is an extreme example, but even in the case of singing a cappella (i.e., with no instrumental accompaniment), if someone famous does it, it's hailed as a bold new step. Wowee.
But I must get back to the artist. Does he know he's terrible? Or does he listen
only to the screams of the mindless throng? Does he believe them? Who's to tell him
he's getting bad? Not his coterie -
The roar of the crowd is difficult to resist for many. Quite a while ago I was fortunate
to be able to tour with a group of folk performers as part of the Southern Folk Festival,
organized by Ann Romaine and Bernice Reagon for the Southern Students Organizing
Committee. One of the performers was Babe Stovall, an old black sharecropper from
Louisiana who played a big steel-
I contend that there are two listening centers in each member of an audience. One
is that part which, when stimulated, causes a person to react physically-
You can make all the money you need without being famous. How much do you need? Not
much. Want is another matter. And the more you have, the more you want, and the less
you are. Yup. There is never a point at which one says, "I have all I want," unless
one has nothing. Hmmm. I like singing for small audiences, in comfortable surroundings.
Fame certainly won't give me that. I want my friends to treat me like a friend, and
help me along life's treacherous path. Fame makes that kind of friend hard to find.
I don't want some one always trying to get in touch with me because it's "Really
Important". Important to whom? If you’re not famous, somehow it isn’t so important
to them anymore. I really don't want to see my face on a T-
There is only one possible reason for being famous: the ability to do benefits that bring lots of money for "good causes". I regret not being able to do that, but I think the drawbacks of fame outweigh this.
I would greatly appreciate your comments.
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