Just a Drummer: A Battle Against Burnout

In my last episode of this column I was a bit harsh on the Vancouver music scene, and now it seems that I’ve suffered some bad karma. After five years of writing for this publication, I’ve burnt out. No original ideas, no motivation, and I finally wrote the worst article I’ve ever written. Luckily, you will be spared from ever reading it. In search of inspiration I took to my record collection.

Looking at the dust covered jackets I realize that I have a lot of crap albums hanging around. Quite a few artists tend to release stinkers as the years pass. How does this happen? Do they just get burnt out? Even David Bowie was due to make a shitty record. And I bought it at Value Village the other day - Tonight, from 1984.

What causes an artist or band to burn out? A leading psychologist once defined burnout as: “A phenomenon where individuals spend considerable time in close encounters with others under conditions of chronic tension and stress.” That pretty much describes the confines of a tour bus. Imagine being scheduled on long and arduous tours with the same four faces. When the tour ends and the bus pulls into the garage, it's time to create again, and tensions tend to escalate.

Take Fleetwood Mac as a perfect example of this stress. While writing and recording Rumours, both couples that made up the bandChristine and John McVie with Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckinghamwere in the process of breaking up. The album is amazing but what the band went through tore them apart. During an interview for the Classic Albums documentary, Stevie Nicks talks about writing with her ex-husband: “Lindsey had an amazing way of taking my songs and making them wonderful… when he was happy with me.” Despite their tired reunion last year, they haven’t done anything meaningful since Rumours.

Neil Young once said, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” But is that really true? Take Weezer for instance, whose first two albums were so amazing that I will probably listen to them until the day I die. When it came time to record their third album, they really dropped the deuce. Dave Grohl once said that Weezer cursed itself by making the blue album and Pinkerton so good that they would never again be able to measure up to such standards. Such are the pressures of mainstream success.

Emerging around the same time as Weezer in the mid-nineties were Oakland based punks Green Day. Their song “Burnout” describes what would inevitably happen to the band: “I’m not growing up, I’m just burning out and I’ve stepped in line to walk amongst the dead.” Now, five albums since the 1994 release of Dookie, Green Day have become exactly what they wrote about in their song. Okay, Insomniac wasn’t that bad, but it has been a slippery slope into eyeliner since then. Don’t get me wrong, I still love them to bits but tend to do what I do with most groups I loved in the nineties pretend they died in a terrible plane crash.

In response to criticism of their new material, singer Billie Joe Armstrong said, “We just write the music and whoever wants to come out, come on out.” It’s true that music is subjective, so no one will ever agree if the band has burnt out or not. What is certain is that the burnout is a phenomenon that tends to happen to artists in their late twenties, around the time of many second and third album releases. The website performanceandmedia.com has an entire page dedicated to the burnout where they list the causes of this term, coined in the 1970’s. Those commonly affected are “Late teens and twenties [experiencing] publicity pressure and overload” and the “‘Seven year Itch’: 7 years after college, e.g. 28 [years old] when solo aspirations remain unfulfilled.”

This seems to cement the fact that a lot of late twenty year-olds are burning out due to societal pressure to perform, whether they are a rock star or a Capilano jazz student. What I’ve concluded through my own burning out is that maybe it’s just a figment of our imaginations, a product of our manipulated beliefs about our own talent and worth. The corporate music industry wants us to burn out – by exploiting the artist and creating this quarter life crisis that is plaguing not only the musician, but also the everyman. But what do I know? I’m just a drummer.

Karen J. Lum


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