Part of being an artist is the struggle. The struggle to create, the struggle to find inspiration, the struggle to be. Perhaps that’s why not many of us make it and especially why, when we do, so little of us is left intact. Art doesn’t rid us of our trauma; our pain and desperation is amplified in the spotlight, laying us bare. We risk everything out on that stage. We choose to do this. To create is its own life or death matter— a leap or a plunge. Where, then, is the glory in baring your soul? And where do you draw the line between ambition and self-harm?
Jackson’s lines have blurred long before we first meet him. He chases a handful of pills with alcohol then takes the stage. Watching him perform “Black Eye” is intoxicating: lights blaring down, the crowd roaring, Jackson swerving coolly in and out of verse and break-necking for a solo. He’s either oblivious to his own allure or stone-drunk on it. We don’t know it yet, but he’s fast approaching a black hole.
Ally is stuck in the limbo between performances on stage, working a thankless job as a backend waitress. She’s used to being back-staged. She’s had executives literally tell her no to her face, and her restaurant boss treats her like garbage. She puts up with the degradation so she can perform at a bar she herself served as a waitress prior. Even her father, though well-intentioned, gives her a raw, backhanded compliment: “It’s not the best that make it.” Whether outright or passive, the rejection is bruising, and the experience has led to a deflated sense of what Ally sees in the mirror.
I got out of college determined to be a writer. The first job I got was an article writing gig. That I landed the job was reassuring. The pay, unfortunately, was not. I spent a summer as a stock boy to justify my being a freelancer. F. Scott Fitzgerald, I rationalized, worked odd jobs to sustain himself, though in hindsight he was a bad example. Nonetheless, I told myself that this was the life I wanted. But the life I wanted couldn’t even cover the rent.
The travesty lies in the compromise we often make, the surrender to working behind registers and waiting tables to pay the bills. Our starry-eyed dreams are relegated to punishing side hustles. Only then are we “free” to pursue our passion for one night a week, for those fleeting few minutes on stage. Then it’s over and it’s back to work.
As Ally takes out the trash and sings to herself down the alleyway, her voice reverbs beyond the dark and muck. The raised roadways on opposite ends seem to trap her, but there’s just enough of an opening as she twirls down the street in her lonesome. The conflict of art and struggle is eternal. It’s a miracle Ally doesn’t drink as hard as Jackson. I think of Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned: “Here’s to alcohol, the rose-colored glasses of life.”
Jackson bears a unique privilege: he made it. His brother Bobby was once a musician whose star eventually withered, allowing Jackson’s to rise. He even looks like Bobby’s younger doppelganger and this appears to eat at him. He can barely stand to hear one of his songs on the jukebox. Jackson’s resentment at never having attained a unique voice manifests by way of torrential self-loathing, managed, like his tinnitus, by a destructive drinking habit and everything else he does backstage.
He’s living the life, but he’s neither stimulated nor bored with the lifestyle. Gone is the romance of creation, of writing songs, recording albums, rehearsing, going on tour, and repeat. He has the setlist and he knows how the show will go; how fans will cheer during the opening notes, how the crowd will clamor for an encore. The extraordinary has become routine, the spotlight blinding, the applause just another ringing in his head. He performs out of obligation, drowning himself in booze to liven the routine— or perhaps to feel alive.
Ernest Hemingway would recognize a kindred spirit: “When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky?” Jackson drinks to stay present, to feel good on and offstage. Because once the show’s over, he has to confront his problems and who the hell wants to do that?
When he and Ally lock eyes during her performance of “La Vie en Rose” – the place awash in a nebulous red – it’s a recognition of wounded souls. Past the makeup, he sees her and how vulnerable and alive she is on stage. Ally’s command of the room and show-stopping vibrato dwarfs Jackson’s swerving and mumbling.
Ally might have rose-colored glasses, but she also has fortitude. She would kill herself working soul-crushing jobs night and day if it meant she could perform. Some might say the pursuit isn’t worth it, but it’s just the opposite for her because it’s not about fame or recognition. It’s about self-expression. Singing and writing make sense to her like being a doctor or a lawyer makes sense to others. When she’s up on that stage, it’s not a persona or a projection; it’s her truest self.
When the two take center stage in “Shallow,” it’s a neutron star collision. The duet – the literal romance of their creation – gives Jackson a pulse the same way it gives Ally the audience, and the confidence, she thought she’d never have. By the time they share the stage again for “Always Remember Us This Way,” it’s all Ally and she kills it. Her shine, fortunately, doesn’t burn as bright as Jackson’s, which is why she’s destined to outgrow and outlast him.
Ally struggles with her career. Jackson struggles with himself. She doesn’t need alcohol the same way he does. For her, it’s a bit of liquid courage. For Jackson, it’s an identity. Drinking, like so many of us believe, enables us to perform and function. Everything, by that logic, becomes an occasion to drink. The bottle is its own muse. Writers drink. It’s such a cliché. At what point do we go from liquid courage to veering off the deep end? Is it the life? Or is it just your self?
When people found out I was only working part-time to support my freelancing instead of the other way around, they asked, “So when are you gonna get a job?” “I have a job,” I’d say. No. A real one.
The thing about feverish self-loathing is that it makes you impulsive. You start to think maybe everyone else is right, that maybe this isn’t realistic after all. You become willing to compromise on your dream, which is its own kind of death. I chased the bitter pill with vodka and applied for real jobs on Craigslist. I couldn’t bear to look at myself because I knew how it looked— like I gave up.
I got a job at a department store, then as a barista and an office assistant. Three different lives. It kept me afloat financially, but it felt like surrender. I wanted to put food on the table through writing, but it seemed like the whole world was telling me no. I couldn’t cope with not writing, which for me was like not existing. I drank in the parking lot before my shifts. I took painkillers during bathroom breaks. I got creative in all the wrong ways.
When I could finally settle for part-time hours, thus giving me the time to freelance, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Two years had flown by. My mind and the pages were blank. Drinking, more than my own support system, was there for me, so the bottle became my inspiration. I thought I was pulling myself out of the rut, but the meager money I made freelancing went funneling back into the habit. I wrote to drink, or I drank to write. After a while, I wasn’t sure why I got out of bed.
Charles Bukowski had said, “Drinking is an emotional thing. It joggles you out of the standardism of everyday life, out of everything being the same… I have the feeling that drinking is a form of suicide where you’re allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day. It’s like killing yourself, and then you’re reborn.” We either endure abuse or put ourselves through it and can’t tell the difference.
Ally doesn’t need a muse, but Jackson clearly does. He can’t deal with staying sober because sobriety has no rhythm or rhyme. It’s piercing. It takes work to create and he can’t do that without the bottle or Ally. He needs inspiration like a substance. Ally’s songwriting is informed by life. She belts out to Jackson in the parking lot, or jots down verses on the road. She’s in tune with her artistic voice; she believes in the labors of creativity and all the rough drafts that come with expression.
As Bobby relays, “Music is essentially twelve notes between any octave. Twelve notes and the octave repeats. It’s the same story told over and over. All the artist can offer the world is how they see those twelve notes.” Jackson’s beset by the tyranny of the blank page whereas Ally has the resolve to say something new each time.
The existential crisis of the artist is being unable to create. Because what’s a writer who isn’t writing, or a musician who isn’t performing. Jackson’s self-worth is teetering, his career in decline as Ally achieves liftoff and he’s so full of loathing that he decides to chip away at her success.
The false promise of success is that it does not resolve the battle with the self. Fame complicates that for the both of them, puts their insecurities in the limelight for all to see. Even as Ally forges a path in the industry, she still struggles with her self-image. Jackson, at his lowest, prods at Ally’s most profound scar. It’s his reflection he can’t bear to see because to look at himself would be to look at his brother, their alcoholic father, to wrestle with a teenage suicide attempt. His subsequent performances show a desperate man seeking solace in the crowd to avoid being himself.
The allure comes crashing down when Jackson’s revealed to be what he really is – a drunk on stage. Ally has her big moment at the Grammys, and Jackson kills it. There is no comfort in Jackson’s ending. It’s a trajectory that rings painfully true. When Ally takes the stage fully on her own, she’s shed the dancers, the stylized hair, the fake eyelashes. Out on the deep end, she’s as vulnerable as she’s ever been and we see.
Ally and Jackson’s stories are the fateful duality of the artists’ existence laid bare. It’s the battle we wage with our selves. When one star dies, another star is born. Self-expression, for some, is an aspiration, a line of work. For others, it’s a matter of life and death. There is no victory in this. Only being.
Last year I took the leap and now I’m freelancing full time. I’m trying to find peace in expression, in the routine of creating, even though it’s the same song on repeat. The mornings will feel sluggish as they always do, and, when the opportunities evaporate, as they always do, I’ll have to remind myself that I chose to do this; it didn’t choose me. It’ll take work to look at the same old draft, to find myself in the same place I was stuck yesterday and the day before. And, when the self-loathing hits a deeper chord and the only thing I can do to quiet myself is to just write, I’ll finally get what I have to say out on paper. It’ll be terrible like I knew it would, but it’s a release I’ll never find in any milligram or milliliter. And tomorrow, I’ll do it all over again.
Adrian Manuel is a freelance culture writer. He studied Film and Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University. He’s written short nonfiction for A Quiet Courage, submitted personal essays to The Good Men Project and Mamalode, and he’s contributed relationship and lifestyle articles to Thought Catalog. He lives in Maui.