“All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend. Art isn’t your pet — it’s your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.”
Every one of us craves success in some form.
And for a lot of us, our daydreams of “making it” are our motivation to keep going — certainly that’s what the many motivational videos on the Internet are built around.
But no one really likes to talk about the challenges that come after you make it. No one likes to talk about having to deal with massive lifestyle shifts, old friends who desert you because “you’ve changed”, the pressure of making another achievement, and the bottomless void of disenchantment — of feeling, “is there all there is?”.
This was certainly the case for Billy Corgan of the band The Smashing Pumpkins when they returned home from their first ever major tour in support of their debut album Gish.
Corgan, in particular, fell into an 8-month-long depression.
As he reflected, “We did the tour for about 14 months, the longest we had been on tour before that was about 20 days. After the tour, I entered into the worst writing slump I’d ever had. Being in public brought out a lot of feelings that I had repressed from childhood…I found myself confronted with all these demons I thought I had locked away.”
“I was completely obsessed with killing myself, it became my primary preoccupation. Out of the depths of this despair, I bottomed out and it literally came down to a simple decision: Either kill yourself or get used to it, work, live, and be happy.”
Just as he was at the lowest point of his life, Corgan wrote a deceptively happy song called Today. With its main line “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known”, the song was intended as a sarcastic tune. What Corgan actually meant is that “today” is greatest day for him because it simply couldn’t get any worse.
Yet, many listeners have interpreted Today as a joyful, positive song. And for those who do get its suicidal message, it is still interpreted as a song of hope and perseverance — giving them to strength to carry through their worst days.
Unexpectedly, Today became a smash hit for the band, uplifting them into higher stardom.
Initially, Corgan scoffed at how the song was misinterpreted. Understandably, he didn’t think a song about the worst day of his life would end up becoming so successful.
Over time, though, the song’s success taught him that once his music was out of his hands, it was truly up to the listeners to decide their meaning for themselves. Corgan himself now views Today as a hopeful tune.
He said, “(Today) is pretty much a song about how I wanted to kill myself but of course nobody ever gets that because they get very fixated on the positive lines. But if you actually listen, there’s way more negativity. But of course, at this point in my life, it is a positive song because it’s about survival and certainly our survival as well.”
At the end of the day, you don’t exactly get to decide how other people view your work. But that can be a beautiful thing about creating art in the first place, in that it’s not all about you.
Your work is really just half of the picture, and your audience is free to fill the other half with their own meaningful palette of colors.
The story you write doesn’t end up being your story, but our story.