Society has a confidence problem. We are so used to cue cards, press releases, half-truths and fabrication that we’ve lost our trust in our emotions. We’ve lost our faith in the words that were preached to many of us as young children: ‘We have the power to change the world’. Is it because we never should have been told to aim so high or did we just lose our confidence in our own abilities? Our fear of not being perfect seems to clash with our fear of being isolated from our peers for being too pleased with our ability. This certainly is a trait ingrained in an Australian upbringing, but I think it is also something that has become increasingly common in those within or striving to be involved in creative fields. The fear of failure within a hugely competitive market, the back up plans and the burgeoning fear of a life in ruin has left many writers, creative designers, actors, directors and artists in general, with low or non-existent self-confidence. Have we stopped believing in our own stories or is it just fate telling us to move onto something else?
The titanic battle between self-doubt and persistence is portrayed in the new film Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Miles Teller as Andrew, an antisocial, obsessive jazz drummer at a New York music conservatory (‘the best in the country’, in Andrew’s own words) and JK Simmons as Terrence Fletcher, the teacher who will stop at nothing to realise a student’s potential no matter what the cost (as you will find out when you see this film). When I first saw the preview of the film I was skeptical that this was just another kid who shows potential, faces adversity before finding inevitable fame. But I was still caught on the idea of a film surrounding the craft of jazz. The unenviable, intriguing art that is jazz. I’m a bare-bones kind of guy when it comes to jazz. I know Buddy Rich, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie as pure jazz musicians, and Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Ray Charles as jazz-soul singers, but not too much else about the genre. I know that jazz clubs seem to come across as intimate, respectful arenas for musicians of a high caliber and great discipline to come together and croon a room, but I’ve only ventured into a handful myself. What I do know about jazz is how disciplined and obsessive you have to be to create a band sound that is worth listening to. This aspect is what ‘Whiplash’ really gets right. Jazz is not just a genre, it is a lifestyle, a dedication to a sound that has been pioneered by musical geniuses whom Andrew spends most of his life trying to emulate and perhaps, hopefully advance on. And Fletcher sees this in Andrew and attempts to bring it out in him in the most controversial way possible. By pushing him and pushing him until he either is made or broken.
This whole idea of making or breaking someone is daunting, and Fletcher’s character for much of the movie comes across as cruel and sadistic. But I came to empathise with why this man pushed so hard with the musicians he thought were special. He looked for the ones who had that glint in their eye. That conspicuous self-confidence, that desire and that obsession that Fletcher obviously carries himself. Fletcher is painted as a man who never quite became the star he wanted to be and thus as a teacher he seeks to find the protégé who will embody the standards he has set himself. One of the funny quirks in Fletcher’s character is that in his senior band, there are no women. His misogyny is reflected in his comment to a young trombonist who he flatly accuses of being in the band simply to ‘look cute’. As a character piece, Whiplash is visionary. Without two compelling leads, the film would have fallen into the basket filled by so many other attempts to portray a hero pushing himself to become something special. This film is not a stereotypical hero piece in any shape or form. Rather, it is a movie not just about jazz, but also self-belief and being pushed beyond our limits. When Andrew Neyman’s father tells him that there are always other things he can look into, we are witnessing the flirt with mediocrity, the back up plan that only those who lack self-confidence seem to look toward as an option to fall back on. Whilst society condemns overt disciplinarians like Terrence Fletcher, we also thrive on stories of the obsessive who reach the pinnacle through complete dedication to something in order to achieve something special. However, in saying this, there seems to be a complete lack of understanding toward a person with an obsessive personality’s ability to ‘lead a normal existence’. Why does Fletcher push so hard to the point of a person’s own personal despair? Why does Neyman follow Fletcher blindly despite his clear resentment for the man? Because this type of person would have to face their own mediocrity if they chose to accept second best. That is why ‘Whiplash’ is such a fascinating character piece and why it is my film of the year for 2014. I know it is an early call but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I saw it last Thursday.
The song that is currently fixated on my mind holds similar themes to Whiplash. ‘i’ by Kendrick Lamar is a song that alike Whiplash did not capture my attention immediately but the concept fascinated me. ‘Everybody lack confidence’ Lamar preaches repeatedly throughout the song, questioning how we have become so awash with self-doubt despite the opportunities that can come our way at every single moment of our lives. Lamar is the current prince of rap. One more album following on from his genius sophomore album, good kid, m.A.A.d city will see him nearing the illustrious spot as king. He’s already proclaimed himself the King of New York, with Kanye-like audacity. You only have to listen to his first album, Section.80 to understand that this is the stylings of an articulate, introverted genius. A.D.H.D speaks of destructive youth with no foresight into their own futures that will be hindered by their obsession with the drugs they currently revere. Highlighting ‘crack babies born in the 80s’ and having a ‘high tolerance when your age don’t exist’ shows Lamar’s conscious acknowledgement of the lack of self-confidence that many of his peers, lovers and friends hold in the society that surrounds them and their own clouded futures. Within the frame of a hallucinatory beat, Lamar laments while others celebrate society’s drug-induced high.
Following on from Section.80 is the critically acclaimed good kid… which follows Lamar through his youth and young adulthood focusing on alcohol and drug abuse, gang affiliation and the art of peer pressure that tries both successfully and unsuccessfully to stymie Lamar’s own personal development. There are two moments on the album that I will continually return to;
1) Swimming Pools (Drank)
Okay, now open your mind up and listen to me, Kendrick
I’m in your conscience, if you do not hear me
Then you will be history, Kendrick
I know that you’re nauseous right now
And I’m hopin’ to lead you to victory, Kendrick…
If I take another one down
I’m a drown in some poison abusin’ my limit
I think that I’m feelin’ the vibe
I see the love in her eyes, I see the feelin’
The freedom is granted as soon as the damage of vodka arrive.
How do you defeat your conscience pleading with you to stop abusing your body? Drink a swimming pool of liquor and dive in it. No matter the consequences, drinking will always lead you to the light… until you actually awake from the drunken haze to see the reality of the vicious cycle that so many will never escape. It is interesting to note that there are stark similarities between the beat A.D.H.D fosters and Swimming Pools but with a darker edge magnifying the severity of the situation. Whilst the hook made frat boys and sorority girls froth into their half vodka/half cointreau cocktail whilst screaming out ‘pool fulla liquor and we dive innnn it’, the verses frankly speak of a young Lamar’s fears of killing himself slowly through his consumption of bottles and bottles of hard liquor. The dire summation of destructive youth follows at the end of the extended version of the Swimming Pools is an extremely relatable circumstance that we all start to go through as we consume one too many shots.
All I have in life is my new appetite for failure
And I got Hunger pain that grow insane
Tell me do that sound familiar?
If it do then you’re like me
Making excuse that your relief
Is in the bottom of the bottle
2) Sing about me, I’m Dying of Thirst.
‘Too many sins
I’m running out
Me a wealth of the draught
See, all I know, is taking notes
On taking this life for granted
Granted, if he provoke
My best days, I stress days (Lord forgive me for all my sins for I not know…)
My best days, I stress days
Say “Fuck the world,” my sex slave
Money, pussy and greed was my next crave
Whatever it is, know its next grave
Tired of running, tired of running
Tired of tumbling, tired of running
Tired of tumbling
Back once my momma say
“See a pastor, give me a promise
What if today was the rapture, and you completely tarnished
The truth will set you free, so to me be completely honest
You dying of thirst
You dying of thirst
So hop in that water, and pray that it works’
This is honestly one of the most heart-wrenching songs. Those who have fallen or are falling before Kendrick’s very eyes without the desire or the means to turn it around and Kendrick Lamar himself who questions if he is just going down the same trail, ending up on trial before a judge or even the ultimate judge up above, below, within. Of course, as it is a 12 minute song, there are so many admissions, rebuttals, retorts, resignations and realisations that he comes to, but in short what is covered is a host of experiences that have left Kendrick in despair, searching for meaning beyond running from his troubles into more of the same old crippling mistakes… And how touching is it knowing that the late Maya Angelou voiced the point of redemption for Lamar?
I think that is a fair contextualization of Lamar’s previous work. His new single ‘i’ appears to be the next step in Lamar’s story of redemption and shaking the remnants of gang affiliation and turning away from the poisonous road he was heading down. Essentially a self-love song, the question that I used in my previous blog comes to mind; ‘How can one love another when you don’t even love yourself?’ The criticism of the new single is that it lacks the dimensions of perspective that Lamar has previously explored, but Lamar’s single is just that, a single. An anthem for those lacking in self belief. Lamar is an album crafter and a gifted storyteller so this single should be taken as one song, not a clear indication of future direction. He’ll keep writing until ‘the well runs dry’.
Despite these criticisms, this song has struck a chord with me. So often self-love spouted by artists is superficial and hedonistic. Here, Lamar preaches self-love as a requirement to avoid being sucked into systematic self-hate, cynicism and negativity. And he has a point. Without a grounding in oxymoronic selfless self-love, we are lost. Without love and belief in our own self, how are we possibly going to be anything more than a mere pedestrian to a world that is run by big egos and loud, obnoxious voices? Everywhere you look, there are the ones who have not had enough self-confidence falling through the cracks and accepting a life below that of their potential. I understand that the system is responsible for certain circumstances but many of us remain the controllers of our own destiny. So yes, ‘everybody lack confidence’.
Although there are clear differences in Neyman and Lamar’s stories, the parallel is that both their requirements for self-love are driven by circumstance. Neyman has to retain his love and belief in himself for the sake of defeating his own self-doubt and the domineering nature of Terrence Fletcher. Lamar has to love himself because if he doesn’t, then who will? That feeling that without a belief in himself, he would seep into irrelevancy and oblivion like so many of his peers. ‘He said I gotta get up, life is more than suicide’. I’m not an alarmist, but I sometimes feel that we are a society in crisis. Depression and anxiety, substance abuse, domestic violence, street violence, greed, inequality, marginalization, xenophobia, political indecision, fear of the other, the homogenisation of our market places and cultures and a grand lack of vision. We could very easily be crushed by the weight of the world. Or we can be driven by these circumstances and not become or remain another cynical, self-loathing #hater. (#fuckdahaterzzz). It is hard to guarantee that everything could be wonderful if we just believe in ourselves, but Arthur did it and look at the cheeky little aardvark now! It’s the first step…
It isn’t so easy to start yelling ‘I love myself’ as K. Lamar does in ‘i’. Real talk. I lack confidence in myself a fair portion of the time despite appearances. I take the easy road, want the quick result, shy away from those choices that make me see into an uncertain future. I’ve killed relationships by avoiding the conflict that might ensue by approaching the truth. I’ve watched people walk away from me and my voice has escaped me as I yell out after them. Dreams have slipped, cries ignored, opportunities missed. We all have. And they hurt when you look back on them. Even recently I succumbed to my desire to have it easy by not chasing the kisses of a girl who took my breath away. And as it broke away from me, I wrote a blog noting my extreme frustration in a childish tantrum-like character piece dwarfed by a Kendrick Lamar song. And now, as I come to realise that the damage is done, I just want her to know that all those words were just a reflection of my fear that this woman who I couldn’t help falling hard for was not feeling the same way about me. I keep telling myself, she needs to know that I couldn’t have wanted her whole self any more than I did at that moment and every word I wrote in that blog was just a stupid lamentation about the complete lack of belief in myself when it comes to the things that are important to me. But she doesn’t need to know that.
A lack of self-confidence is something you can take out on others in frustration, but in the end the only way to solve something like a lack of confidence is to work harder, live harder, ignore the blithering yells from those around you, above or below you that are telling you are not good enough or special enough to be anything more than mediocre… And love yourself. I know how hard it is. So does Kendrick Lamar, so does Andrew Neyman. But these guys kept believing in their own story, even when Lamar’s friends fell into the trappings of substance abuse and gang violence, and Neyman battled with the voices in his head that told him it was too damn hard to become great. ‘And what if you don’t?’ Well, at least you fucking tried. If we don’t love ourselves, no one is accountable for our aspirations. We are simply fodder for the world to chew up and spit out. Because the first person you have to love before you can love somebody else is yourself. And how can we survive without love?