Or, why I love the Internet, Vol. MCXXI …
A few months ago, I found myself completely entranced by a video of a young woman on the Internet.
While this sort of thing is not uncommon amongst broadband-connected men of my age or any other, her talents most certainly were, and are. Her name is Julia Nunes, and, you’ll be pleased to know, my interest in her is decidedly non-creepy.
Julia is a twenty-year-old musician who sings and plays the ukulele just like I do. Except she’s way better than me. And I don’t sing unless there’s some kind of a cappella emergency and somebody needs a bass for a “bom buh-buh-bom duh-dang-di-dang-dang” sort of thing. Anyway, I was free-associating my way through YouTube and found her cover of one of my favorite songs of all time, the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows. ” That was followed quickly by a another favorite, the Beatles’ “All My Loving”, done slower, like the first part of the version in the film “Across the Universe.”
After watching these two, I was hooked. Her singing, her playing, her choice of songs, the tricky chord and tempo changes, the multitracked harmonies, her writing (on her originals), and the video editing captured my attention immediately, but there was something else. There’s a charm to her style, something that makes me happy and glad to have ears. Something the French elegantly fail to define by calling it je ne sais quoi. She’s engaging and witty (some of her “answers” videos where she responds to viewer comments are brilliant), but that’s not all of it. It’s that she projects a rare sort of fearlessness, as if it never occurred to her not to record her music and put it online for the world to see.
Something in our culture, something ugly, says that talent should be hidden and that success demands apology. It says that only those people who are A) willing to suffer indefinitely and 2) extraordinarily lucky will be allowed to enrich the lives of the rest of us. And then, only after a staggering army of faceless middlemen has stepped in to tell the talented what to do … and to tell the audience what to like.
Conventional wisdom says that we’d describe her as unselfconscious, which dictionaries define as “…natural or genuine.” This is completely backwards and upside down to me – people who are literally “not conscious of self” are hollow, timid shells, there’s nothing natural or genuine about them. Julia, clearly, has a profound sense of self that’s brightly displayed as one watches her doing what she loves to do.
Julia clearly works hard for her success now, but twenty years ago, even as little as ten, her story would have been dramatically different, if not simply impossible. In the days before the Internet (which, it kills me to realize, she might not even remember), her very ability to make and share music and video would have been entirely dependent on the impenetrable whims of giant corporations. In the heyday of record labels (a record is like a giant CD made of black vinyl) less than 1% of those artists who tried were actually signed. She’s become something of a phenomenon, a meme (a word that itself was invented not long before the Internet), and for the right reasons; she’s talented, and people enjoy hearing her music and watching her perform. She sells CDs published on a label she co-owns with her parents, does shows on her own, and has even toured with Ben Folds.
The tools, technology, and reach of the Internet have made it possible for artists like her to interact and trade directly with their audience. By creating and publishing her work online as she does, Julia is asking to be judged not by the cleverness of her marketing or the salaciousness of her scandals. She’s simply willing and able to succeed or fail on her own merits. And she’s succeeding, as she should.
By way of a postscript, I recently ordered a CD by another singer-songwriter called Wade Johnston. I found Wade’s music because he’d done a duet with Julia that I’d spotted on her YouTube page, and from there I made with the clicking and the linking and the listening and the buying. Wade’s CD showed up promptly, and with it, in the envelope, was a receipt. I would suggest, with characteristic lack of hyperbole, that this was probably the best receipt in the entire history of people receiving things. It was, literally, a scrap of paper, torn edges and all, entirely handwritten. At the top, in block caps, it reads “OFFICIAL RECEIPT.” Below that, it says “Dear Hal, you gave me $6 for my CD. THANKS! enjoy,” then it’s signed.
Yes, I gave him six dollars and he gave me a CD. Other than the costs of duplication and printing of the CD and the sleeve, and the postage to mail it to me, Wade got most of the six dollars, orders of magnitude more than he’d have gotten in the “old days.” While I’d suggest that I got the better end of the deal (it’s good music), it really was a win-win, the best kind of business. And in these ridiculously turbulent times, it’s only the very best kinds of businesses that will survive (unless they’re so dreadfully bad at it that they qualify for a government bailout.)
Just knowing that there’s talented, smart, and enterprising young people out there like Wade and Julia actually makes me optimistic; it’s more than just the music that puts this smile on my face. It’s amazing that, thanks to the Internet, it’s not amazing that a couple of kids armed with ukuleles and computers (and, of course, talent) manage to reach out three thousand miles to their left and brighten my days.
Plus I get to watch videos of a college girl in her dorm without going to jail!