For the past week, I’ve been listening almost exclusively to the solo records of Mike Doughty, former singer for Soul Coughing. While looking for some additional insight into the man behind the music, I found this interview:
YOUNG: Do you think fame is an addiction?
DOUGHTY: The people I know who are really famous tend to be very disappointed people. They went into it thinking that when they got famous, they would feel good all the time. But then they became famous and they’re still just themselves. It can be a real bitter discovery for a lot of people. I have the advantage of having such a minor taste of fame, that I kind of know what it’s like, but it doesn’t completely fuck with me. But people are so mean to famous people. I’m not saying I want to hang out with them, but people say the meanest shit about these famous people they don’t know.
YOUNG: What did you feel the celebrity atmosphere was like in the ’90s versus this insane overexposure that people can achieve now?
DOUGHTY: My own experience with that brief moment where I had videos on MTV was that nothing was ever good enough. When you hear people say, “I was unhappy the whole time,” that sounds ridiculous. But literally everything that happened to me was like, “This isn’t good enough, because so-and-so has something better.” I think this is a theme among people who seek fame, not just musicians. There are a lot of bitter, disappointed people.
My life today is better than it was in, say, 2009. I can say that with confidence. I could even name several specific areas in which there has clearly been a marked improvement, from relationships to finances, without there being any corresponding setbacks. Yet, to be honest, I don’t really feel any different. Some of the things that gave me joy in 2009 are no longer so prominent in my life; conversely, some of the things that seemed like menacing crises turned out to be harmless phantoms. I meditate upon the reasons I have to be thankful, but in doing so, I can’t help but be aware of the myriad ways in which those blessings are beyond my control and could still turn to shit. Overall, life seems pretty well balanced between contentment and frustration, hope and fear. The individual elements constantly change, but the ratios always seem to remain the same.
I think this is a theme common to all people, not just fame-seekers. Fears rarely turn out to be as terrible as we imagined, and successes often turn out to be more ephemeral than we anticipated. I suppose you could say these are axiomatic truths for me: people often don’t know what they really want. In fact, their desires largely exist in relation to what other people have and want, rather than existing sui generis. If they’re lucky, they might stumble into satisfaction after a process of elimination, but it’s likely that they’ll spend their lives in vain pursuit of it, never realizing that anything they can actually possess will inevitably become boring and unsatisfactory. However, consciously accepting a life of perpetual novelty-chasing will come to seem equally empty. Neither indulgence nor resignation seem to provide a solution.
Progress can be meaningfully said to exist, at least in the material sense. The problem of how to cope with the stress of modern, sedentary existence in a consumer society seems, to me at least, to be a good problem to have. Not all tradeoffs are created equal. Psychologically, though, there is no correlate to material improvement, no way to estimate that “My life is at least 35% better than it was several years ago” and have it resonate in a satisfactory way. Like Tantalus, the things we want and the things we’ve lost will always seem to be agonizingly close, yet forever out of reach.