The Todd Rundgren Effect

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-10-31 12:00:00 No comments


Ask most people these days to name a Todd Rundgren song, and most of them will blink. Maybe if you're lucky, one of them will say "Bang The Drum All Day." If you're not lucky, you'll end up citing that as an example, because even if people don't know Todd Rundgren from Todd Haynes, they'll sure know that song, even if they aren't Green Bay Packers fans.

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What I've always found funny about that track is how it came from a guy who'd drifted away from pop music and into highly conceptual territory that didn't really garner him much attention outside of his devoted fans. Then he tossed "Drum" over his shoulder as part of the contractual-obligation package that was The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect, and blammo. Everyone knows the darn song, typically from having it blasted at them on afternoon drive-time radio as a Friday get-out-of-work anthem.

I've always found this sort of thing funny in a not-haha way: an artist works long and diligent hours on their labor(s) of love, receives not much recognition for it, and then something they dump out in ten minutes becomes emblazoned over doorways around the world. If ever you wanted an argument for how intentions and results barely deserve mention in the same sentence, this is it.

Anything we do creatively, when we have some say in the matter, should be what we want to do, not what we think other people want us to do. The whole point of being a writer is to write the things we care about, and maybe sell them if we're lucky enough to do so. The act of doing it is what's most vital. You can always figure out how to draw attention to it later.

One nice side effect of this approach is you find yourself growing indifferent to worldly results. When someone asked Mike Gira of the Swans what would happen if one of their records sold well, he replied, "I guess I would make some money." This is not the same as having contempt for the audience, though, where what you produce seems explicitly designed to shut others out. This is about doing the thing regardless of how much gold is in the pot at the end of the rainbow, assuming there is gold, a rainbow, or a pot to begin with.

I don't want to say any of this as an excuse for not pushing one's self. When you have the freedom to do what you find important, you also have the freedom to look for what's important -- to not remain satisfied with just copying the last few things you read or echoing in a dialed-down way whatever's going on that sells well. You have the freedom to build what's truly new. Too much independently produced fiction is just bad clones of best-seller material, and I suspect that's because the writers are trying for material success over the refinement of their craft and the exploration of new territory. In the words of a record review I love: "Talent wasted trying to make it, instead of trying to make something."

I also don't say any of this as a way to insinuate that people who make a living writing popular fiction are sellouts. Lucky them! There's so little room in that particular garage that anyone who can find a parking space, let alone keep it, deserves congratulations. But most of us have to set out under the assumption that there is no parking space out there with our name on it. We should do this because we want to do it, because the idea of sitting down and facing the next line, the next scene, the next story, is appealing all by itself.

What happened when "Bang The Drum All Day" sold well? I guess Todd Rundgren made some money. And then went on to make the next record, and the next. Bang that sucker.


Tags: Todd Rundgren creativity