We create art for all sorts of dumb reasons. As a kid I signed up for art class because I didn’t want to join any sports. In that class, I drew a portrait of Charlie Sheen (Charlie Sheen!) because I had a crush on him. These are terrible reasons to create.
In John Carney’s Sing Street, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) just wants to impress a girl. He sees Lucy Boynton's Raphina standing on a corner, and he's taken by her “dangerous eyes.” She tells him she’s a model, and he asks her if she’d like to star in a music video for his band. She agrees - so now all Conor has to do is form a band. And write a song. And teach his new band that song. And produce a music video.
He does all of those things, and it works. Raphina’s impressed with this shy fifteen-year-old schoolboy. He’s got her attention. After filming that first video for Sing Street’s “The Riddle of the Model,” if you asked Conor why he writes his songs, he’d probably tell you he’s doing it solely to impress a girl. In fact, he freely admits as much to his older brother and musical mentor Brendan (Jack Reynor).
'It’s all about the girl, isn’t it?'
'Yeah, the girl. Yeah.'
It's actually very useful to have a specific audience in mind when creating your art, even if that art will never reach your audience, or will reach far beyond it. We usually create better when we’re creating for someone. At least that’s how it starts.
But the more time Conor spends writing songs he thinks Raphina will like, the more he starts to create music for himself and the rest of his band, a hodgepodge of misfits and weirdos who belong to something for the first time in Sing Street. They need Sing Street, and forgetting the superficial motive that brought Conor here in the first place, he needs it, too.
His home life is in constant turmoil – his parents are unhappy with one another, Brendan's practically a shut-in – and after a change of schools, his life there is no better. He’s sent to the Christian Brothers institution to save money, and on his very first day he’s singled out as a loser. He has a bully, and worse, he’s got a principal who’s out for Conor’s blood. His shoes are the wrong color, his hair’s too wild, “men don’t wear makeup.”
Before Sing Street, Conor quietly bristles under such unjust authority. But the first time he touches his pen to paper and writes “The Riddle of the Model,” he begins to reject these rules – at first through his music, and then in more concrete acts of defiance. Conor’s art gives him the strength to confront a hostile system.
It also gives him the strength to understand who he is and why he’s rebelling. At first, Conor tries on musical styles and looks with no real sense of commitment – he bounces from Duran Duran to Depeche Mode to The Cure before settling into his futurist look and sound that’s a little bit of everything, and a lot of just Conor himself.
That look and sound have a name: “happy-sad,” coined by Raphina and wholly adopted by Conor, a philosophy that fortifies him into standing up to his bully, the principal, his parents and anyone who has ever made him feel small and worthless. Conor breaks down this new way of thinking for his band, and as he’s explaining it, the very moment he’s saying the words, you can see him starting to believe it. This is the moment that Conor’s music transforms him, and it’s after this moment that he transforms his music right back, from a pop pastiche of different bands admired by his brother to art that is a true reflection of Conor's soul.
‘What does happy-sad even mean? How can you be both things? It makes no sense.’
‘It means that I'm stuck in a shithole full of morons and rapists and bullies, and I'm gonna deal with it. Okay? It's just how life is. I'm going to try and accept it, and get on with it, and make some art.’
‘So how does that affect our music?’
Conor's just one kid, one without physical strength or material resources, but he can fight back against bullies and a broken system though his music. And he does.
I’ve read too much since Tuesday night, poring over political analyses and calls to arms and the white noise of the Internet that has grown much noisier in this time of crisis. I’ve read too much to remember who said what, in many cases, so here I’ll have to paraphrase an unknown source, with apologies:
We create our best art and our best selves in a counter-culture.
There are different ways we can fight, and we should use them all, any way that empowers us and protects those who need protecting. March, donate, volunteer, listen, stay informed, stand in between a hostile authority and those it seeks to trounce.
But art will always be the best way to fight bullies, to rebel against a broken system. It makes sense when you think about it: how do we fight destruction? We create. It doesn’t have to be overt, a rabble-rousing treatise nailed to the door of the White House, and it doesn’t even have to be covert, anti-governmental subtext woven into the narrative of your dystopian fiction. It can be either of those things, or it can just be art for art’s sake, which is in itself an act of rebellion – a way to make something beautiful in a world that suddenly feels uglier than it ever has.
Make art for dumb reasons. Make it to impress a boy or a girl or your parents. Make it because you can't sleep or you're anti-social or you want to get out of P.E. Just make it, and then watch as it makes you stronger and better, a person more willing and better prepared to speak up for good and protect the unprotected.
And while I'm telling you what to do - watch Sing Street. It's newly on Netflix, and I needed it last night. You probably need it, too.