From the age of 12, I wanted to become a music writer. It was my singular career goal. After watching Almost Famous and coming across a few of Chuck Klosterman’s books about pop culture in a record store, I put it together that my passion for music history and natural abilities as a writer could be combined. I loved the idea of one day interviewing my favorite artists, like Green Day, Courtney Love, and Joan Jett, about their lyrics and lives. At my junior high and high school’s newspapers, I honed my burgeoning skills as an interviewer, reporter, and critic, and I got encouraging feedback on my writing from friends, family members, and teachers. I believed that I’d really found my calling, which was to become a big-time music journalist for the magazines I devoured, like Rolling Stone and SPIN, and maybe even to write some nonfiction books on music and culture one day, like Klosterman had. I got into a college journalism program in New York City, where all of my favorite music magazines were headquartered—and where my career crisis began.
As an ambitious teen at a small high school in suburban Chicago, I was so confident in myself and my abilities, but after moving, I suddenly felt a million inadequacies. These were personal (perceived lack of fashion sense and travel history) and professional (little work experience and fear of being behind everyone else, academically speaking). My “shortcomings” as an up-and-coming member of the Adult World loomed even larger as I started the liberal arts coursework outside my journalism major and was surrounded by people who dreamed of becoming doctors, diplomats, and social justice warriors. When a classmate would announce their plans to enter the Peace Corps after college, or to, like, launch a startup to save the environment, it seemed ridiculous for me to say that my greatest ambition was to interview at least one of the Jonas Brothers. For the first time ever, I began to ask myself, Why is my vocational choice so vapid?
I had already felt a sense of urgency about kickstarting my career and paying back my student debts after graduating from college—it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d have to save the world, too. No one told me! My friends and family had always been super supportive of my music-writing ambitions and showed me how proud they were of me for being proactive in fighting for them. So where was this newfound guilt coming from? Looking back on it now, it’s clear that it was mostly self-induced and internalized, and stemmed from my fears surrounding the looming, post-college question, Now what? I came from a family that didn’t have a lot of money, and everything my mom made went toward my care and education. She sent me to private schools, had me learn an instrument, and encouraged me to be an active, busy, and smart kid. What if I failed after I embarked on the dream career that I (and my mom) had worked so hard for? What if I wasn’t good enough? I wasn’t training myself to be anything but a music writer, so if I couldn’t survive as one, how would I be able to contribute to society—or at the very least support myself? Looking at my friends, who were going on to graduate/medical/law schools and were on track to make six figures and A DIFFERENCE, made my career choice not only seem shallow, but unworthy of the time and money my mom invested in raising me.
I resolved that I had to refocus my energies on the Greater Good and shifted my goals accordingly. It was hard to let go of my dream to become a music writer, but I started exploring other areas—like sociology and cultural history—that could maybe make me a more upstanding citizen of the world, who wanted to do more than just live the Almost Famous life. I never gave up writing entirely, but I started to create a course plan that would steer my career toward more “serious” journalism. Because my emerging group of friends was less interested in the arts and more interested in politics and social justice issues like education reform and environmentalism, I made time to volunteer with a program that offered services to LGBT elders and took on my first job as a tutor at a public school. I was anxious to establish myself as someone who impacted society, too, rather than someone who was looking for a career that would advance her own selfish desires—even though my new friends unanimously told me they though my career path was totally valid, and really cool, even. Community service, including volunteering and tutoring, had been important to me during high school, but now there was a part of me that wanted to prove that I cared about the world outside of rock ’n’ roll. Joe Jonas WHO?
During my freshman year, I was also beginning to learn about feminism, gender theory, and race theory—all of which began to heavily inform the way I thought of myself, music, and the world. With two of my roommates, I went to a talk between the musician, artist, and activist Kathleen Hanna and the conceptual artist and activist Lorraine O’Grady. Both women discussed the ways they’ve used their art to further their feminist views and messages. It finally clicked: I could use what I made and what I wrote to better the world! Combining the issues I was passionate about—feminism, gender theory, and race theory—with music writing felt perfect, and not like a sacrifice of who I was or what I’d always wanted to do.
A writing course that focused on the music of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and James Brown gave me the opportunity to flex my growing knowledge of feminism in my writing on Joni. My professor called me a natural journalist. I had joined my school’s newspaper and found ways—by pointing out sexism in music, for instance—to write more critically, and to say something more than, “I really like this band.” I could address the issues that mattered to me, and that had an impact on society, in a way that worked with my talents. I was learning to put language and history behind issues that I had been exploring in my writing since high school, when I wrote about a lack of female-fronted bands in the local music scene, which was a beautiful discovery.
The reason my friends—future doctors, lawyers, and diplomats—thought my career path was so awesome, and even commendable, was because they recognized that it was perfect for me, and becoming that person was an important contribution to society. I didn’t have to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders; there was nothing selfish about being great at something and wanting to pursue it, no matter what it was. Besides, how much could I help other people if I was doing it because I thought I had to? Knowing and understanding the ways you can enact positive change with your talents and interests is another way of learning more about who you are. I should never have felt like less of a person for being on my journey to discovering that.
I have so much respect for people who actively find ways to promote social justice, either through volunteerism or through their professions. They found their calling, and society is so much better because they’re doing what they love. I still plan on interviewing one of the Jonas Brothers someday because that’s my dream, and now that I’m a music journalist, it’s within the realm of possibilities. I’ve worked hard to get here and be great at it, which is a contribution I’m proud of. ♦