On Nate Ruess and Being a Cynical Romantic

Yesterday, I listened to a radio interview featuring former fun. frontman Nate Ruess. He’s in the Philippines to perform some of his past hits, along with some songs from his current solo effort, “Grand Romantic.” In line with that, the DJ mentioned that he’s characterized himself as a “cynical romantic,” then asked what that is. Nate responded by basically saying it’s someone who knows he will get hurt, but has a good time anyway.

That’s something I totally get.

The Tension is Clear

I’ve always been kind of pessimistic in my thinking. I never expect the best because I only expect disappointment; I believe in managing expectations more than dreaming big. But at the same time, I enjoy the idea of romance, of having a good time, of being a good person in spite of every crappy thing that can happen.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still maintain the ability to function.” Well, that may be true in the case of cynical romantics. Or maybe to them, that duality is essential: love isn’t true unless it’s tested, and you can’t say someone is good unless that person can be good even at the worst times.

#NoFilter: There’s Beauty in Rawness

Curious about his new album “Grand Romantic,” I listened to a few songs online. The ones that made an impression on me were “Nothing without Love” and “Great Big Storm,” both of which depict a great, beautiful vulnerability. Did a little more research and checked out the Wikipedia entry for the album; apparently critics said that it was overly theatrical in terms of production, lyricism, and vocal delivery.

I could see where they were coming from, but I have to say I don’t totally agree. Sure, a lot of it tends to be really sappy and cheesy. Maybe the lyrics lacked subtlety, and maybe the music was just too inelegant in its presentation of emotions and themes. Still, I find it refreshing. On the radio and online, we hear a lot of music about people owning the club, twerking the night away, grinding, getting wasted, and so on. That’s inelegant, that’s devoid of subtlety, and that’s what a lot of people listen to. So for me, the album is still a worthy contribution to the world of music. It’s a naked, take-me-as-I-am peek into the mind of a true romantic, who I’m sure is not alone in the world. And it fills a niche for an emotion that many people feel but few people have the courage or opportunity to express.

My girlfriend and I will have the chance to see him perform live tonight. I’m really excited to sing along to his familiar hits, and listen to his new ones that will surely uncover a new side for many fans. His new music might alienate some of them. It might be a hit with others.

But when you’re an artist putting your whole self out there, for all the world to see and hear, that’s beside the point.

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The Price of Excellence

I’m currently reading a book written by Ryan Holiday called The Obstacle is the Way. It’s basically a treatise on stoicism, and how meeting obstacles with the right perspective, energy, and will can let you convert them into opportunities. If you’re a subscriber to the stoic philosophy, or if you want to read stories about people from history who exemplified this way of living, then I recommend that you read this book.

Saying that, this is one of those self-help books that lends itself to occasional oversimplification; hard not to do that when you’re making strong, prescriptive statements.

One part of the book I take issue with is its call for people to pursue excellence, regardless of the circumstances. Basically, the author’s thesis for that chapter is that if someone has to motivate you to do something well, then something’s wrong with your attitude. What you have to cultivate is to attack any task in front of you to the best of your ability. You need to bring to bear an excellence ethic, a perspective that says “this is something I made with my hands, a product of my mind, a service from my effort; it must be great no matter what.”

Excellence is a Premium Product…

The thing is, if you’re going to bring heroic effort to everything you produce, then you’re going to run yourself into the ground eventually. Even machines wear out or burn out; human beings need to eat, sleep, play, and fulfill themselves in far more aspects beyond their work in order to be satisfied and productive. So while I do appreciate the romance behind single-focused, eye-on-the-object workmanship, I also appreciate that the worker is a person.

Also, one has to recognize the value of the workmanship in terms of the time value of mastery. No one is born a master, or even becomes a master overnight. It takes a lot of failures to get to mastery, and those failures have a cost that the master happily paid.

…That Clients Don’t Often Appreciate

The tragedy of it is that in a lot of industries, there’s no consideration made for this. Editors, proofreaders, and copy editors (yes, those are different things) are often not compensated well because their expertise isn’t appreciated: experts, the ones who know what they’re doing, should charge more because of their attention to detail, meticulousness, appreciation of nuances in style, syntax, punctuation, and what-have-you. But because clients don’t appreciate the difference between someone claiming to be an expert editor/proofreader/copy editor and someone who actually is one, the truly skilled are forced to compete in a lopsided wage war against those who provide a defective product.

Similar arguments can be made for many creative industries. Musicians have to scrape by for their gigs. There are video editors who are forced to churn out hundreds of videos a month. Many graphic artists, writers, and designers are approached by clients and publishers who have no idea what they want, and want to pay them little to produce it (Internet personality Wil Wheaton has actually spoken out, slamming the use of “exposure on a unique platform” as a substitute for monetary incentives).

In a Perfect World, There’s No Settling for Dirt

There’s a popular story about Pablo Picasso: supposedly, he was once approached by a woman who asked him to draw her portrait, which he did with a single stroke. The woman was delighted at the result, but dismayed when Picasso asked her for five thousand dollars for it. She asked “Why so expensive? It took you only a moment to do it!”

Picasso replied, “Madam, it took me my entire life.”

While not all of us are Picassos, many of us are engaged in some sort of creative work, which clients often take for granted. In the mad dash towards “gaining the edge in customer service,” many companies and freelancers are pressured to sell themselves short. A video recently released on YouTube also calls out the unfairness in the common advertising industry practice of asking for RFS. Check out the video below to learn more about it (in a tongue-in-cheek) way:

In the Philippines, many Filipino workers are concerned about the impending competition that would be introduced by the APEC integration next year. They’re afraid that skilled workers from other countries could easily take jobs away from us because they are more qualified. That may be true, but consider this: how many of them would want to? With our country’s high income tax rate, slow Internet connection, and poor transportation infrastructure, there are many things that would turn off foreign businessmen and workers from entering our job market. I’m sure at least some of them would walk away from invitations from our employers. That’s the kind of leverage being skilled should get you.

Basically, there’s just one point that I think should be made about excellence: No one is asking anybody to be all about the money. No one is saying that your excellence should only be pursued when there’s an incentive to pursue it. However, you also have to respect yourself enough to know when someone isn’t recognizing the worth of your work.

Thoughts on Happiness and Cheerdance

Full disclosure: I graduated from UP. You may believe I’m a little biased. That’s possible. But just watch the videos of the routines for yourself, and make up your own mind.

Also, I watched only the top three winners on YouTube. If you think there was a performance that didn’t place but should’ve, feel free to let me know.

****

“Ang puso… ialay… sa laban… kapalit ay tagumpay!” (“The heart… should be sacrificed… to the fight… you’ll get victory in return!”)

So goes the SpongeCola song that was part of the UP Pep Squad’s music tracklist.

I watched their routine after seeing the reactions on my Facebook feed: a barrage of posts, seemingly unanimous in their disappointment and outrage. One says in jest, Guys, kain na tayo, tutal nagluto na rin lang.” (“Guys, let’s just eat, after all there’s cooking going on already.”)

I had slept through the cheerdance competition. Well, not really; around 2 PM, we were watching the AlDub kalyeserye with our mother. With the badly cross-dressed men, shoddy lip-syncing, some missed cues and forced ad-libs… not saying I could put a better show on myself, but if we’re being honest, it’s not the best production by any means. However, there are some bits that work for me through sheer irreverent absurdity. And I see how the segment manages to promote values such as “waiting for the right time”, even if it does so through the crackling megaphone of satire. Plus it makes a lot of people happy: who am I to decide how shallow or deep people’s happiness should be?

Like the cheerdance competition. If you really think about it, it’s pure spectacle too: loud music, tight outfits on tight bodies, dance routines, drums and shouting. It would be too easy to quote the Bard here (“full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”), though I think he wrote that about life in general, so that would be unfair.

And in total fairness, a lot of the stunts people witness there are quite spectacular, obviously the product of hours upon hours of practice and personal risk. I remember reading once that in the US, cheerleading is actually the most dangerous high school sport, even more so than football with its reliance on padding, mouthguards, and helmets to dull the impact from any collisions that occur. Seeing how high off the ground the UP cheerleaders went during their routine, I have zero trouble believing that.

“Ang puso… ialay… sa laban… kapalit ay tagumpay!”

UP did it again. Invoking national pride through their typical use of OPM, they pull off stunts and lifts that push the limits, swinging and flying and catching one another, grace and courage in full display. The floor dances were high-energy but not messy, engineered to get any audience member fired up. The mashup of Awit ng Kabataan (Anthem of the Youth) and Liwanag sa Dilim (Light in the Darkness) hit me right in the puso (heart); endorphins triggered an eruption of gooseflesh all over my body. A second eruption during the rock anthem version of UP Naming Mahal (Our Beloved UP). There were some mistakes, I admit, that made me wince for them, but overall, the performance was excellent.

****

I then watched the routine of the NU squad, the winner of first place for this competition three years running.

The theme: caveman times. The performance was plagued with gaffes and miscues. It was obvious when the movements didn’t sync. A lot of lifts didn’t work; pyramids didn’t hold. To be fair, there was a gutsy partner stunt around three minutes and twenty seconds in that impressed me, the one where female cheerleaders stood and then flipped into a handstand supported by people underneath (though UP did a better handstand-to-standing-position partner stunt around four minutes and fifty seconds into their own routine). But overall, there were just too many mistakes to make it a stellar performance; some would even call it crude. Again, not saying I could do better, but that’s just how I see it.

After the competition, it was said that the difficulty of the stunts was taken into consideration in scoring. I’m no cheerleading expert, but it just felt like NU’s performance was a whole bunch of what-could-have-beens, and it didn’t deserve first place. It was a “pwede na” (“good enough”) effort, with obvious blunders that can be explained away by saying they “aimed too high”–a common self-handicapping tactic.

Why did they win? One can only speculate.

*****

Looking further into the results, I learned that UST’s Salinggawi dance troupe clinched second place. My older sister graduated from there (here’s her blog, btw), so I guess she’d be happy that they placed. On the other hand, she’s never been big on the whole school spirit thing, even as a student. Neither was I. I guess we’re just that kind of people.

I then watched their performance online.

While UP went up with their routine full of tosses and lifts, I saw UST’s performance to be a little more down-to-earth. They mostly stayed closer to the floor, carrying their routine through dance with quick steps and nimble rolls, rapid bursts of movement punctuated by deliberate shows of grace and strength. Not to say they stayed low; they also did their fair share of carrying and tossing and lifting, which they executed to great effect. It was a very polished and very well-choreographed performance, one you’d expect from a troupe that, even in my college days, were known for their predilection for and proficiency in modern dance.

Plus they showed a picture of a tiger, which was awesome.

I can see how they got second place. In truth, perhaps they should even have gotten first place. But being an alumnus of UP, my thoughts kept gravitating towards my alma mater’s effort, and my brain kept putting it and NU’s winning routine side by side.

*****

I saw two visions of the Philippines.

In one, we’re all united, working in sync, each person moving fast, faithful that his or her perspiration will contribute to something that will induce inspiration. Banners wave and music blares as Filipinos rise and fall, taking risks and ultimately landing safe in the hands of their brothers and sisters, a bold and death-defying work of art that culminates in the formation of one heart.

In the other, we’re in the Stone Age.

In my mind, the real one won.

But we shouldn’t lose heart. Wag mawalan ng puso. Just because reality won today, it doesn’t mean ideals can’t win tomorrow.