A few years ago in an entirely different era, a guy named Todd Snider had a popular song on the radio called Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues. This was 1994.
Talkin’ Seattle was a hidden track on Snider’s debut album. It spent five weeks on the Billboard, where it peaked at #31.
This was Snider’s only hit.
If your acclimation to popular music has remained entirely within mainstream circles, you’d consider this musician and this song to be a one-hit wonder.
But Todd Snider’s hundred thousand+ fans on Spotify would suggest otherwise.
Snider’s 19 and counting albums, too.
And Snider himself— who is on tour, right this minute — would very likely reject the very notion that mainstream regard is equivalent to success. That, in fact, he would argue that the desire to have large amounts of people love you isn’t the point at all.
Why? Because of a simple but powerful idea that informs all of his songwriting, and which stands as great advice for any creative who works in public:
“Your job is not to be liked. Your job is to be judged.”
Talkin’ why was this song even popular?
Talkin’ Seattle tells the story of a fictional band that rises to stardom by not playing music.
It’s a brilliant little goof.
The song title is a riff on Dylan’s own Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues; Todd Snider was (still is) an American folk singer. The track itself drags the Alternative music scene, which—if you didn’t have the dubious distinction of living through the early ’90s, allow me to edify you—had just passed the disaffected and self-loathing apex of its popularity:
Now to fit in fast we wear flannel shirts
We turn our amps up until it hurts
We’ve got bad attitudes and what’s more
When we play we stare straight down at the floor
How totally alternative
Now to fit in on the Seattle scene
You’ve gotta do somethin’ they ain’t never seen
So thinkin’ up a gimmick one day
We decided to be the only band that wouldn’t play a note
Under any circumstances
Music’s original alternative
Talkin’ Seattle is catchy (all of Snider’s songs are catchy), but its mainstream popularity was something of a curiosity.
Besides grunge, this was the melodramatically poppy era of Bonnie Raitt, Ace of Base, and the soundtrack to The Lion King.
I defy you to find, in the mid-90s, another folk rock jam in the Billboard Top 100.
I especially defy you to find one who evokes the melancholy and understated humor of John Prine.
In 1994, Todd Snider stood alone.
Which begs the question: why was this track popular?
Here’s an educated guess:
Besides simply mocking the Alt scene, Talkin’ Seattle mentions a lyric from Nirvana’s most popular song, Smells Like Teen Spirit. Snider’s track was released a few months after Kurt Cobain died. I don’t think it’s a knock on Snider’s talent — nor do I consider it to be conspiratorial — to suggest that the primary reason the track was popular was because it referenced the death of Kurt Cobain. I can see the record label execs thinking ooo, that’s gonna rile people up, also the song is kinda catchy, also this might extend our capitalization of grunge despite grunge being over, also we have no idea what we’re doing — let’s promote it.
In other words, Talkin’ Seattle was the ’90s version of @’ing somebody in a twitter beef.
Of course, Snider wasn’t dragging Cobain. In his book I Never Met A Story I Didn’t Like, Snider explained:
“People thought I may have been making fun of Kurt. I wasn’t. In my mind, I was crowning him as the guy that all the douchebags from my generation were going to copy, and I was determined not to be one of those guys. When I heard his music, I knew it was great, and I knew I’d never measure up to him by attempting to do what he was doing.”
Translation: it wasn’t an anti-Cobain song.
It was an anti-Candlebox song.
Creating for yourself
Snider knew (knows) something important: he wasn’t going to make it far by copying somebody else’s style. Copying that style is just an attempt to make something that people already like.
But if you’re a musician or a writer or any other kind of creative who works in public, your goal is not to achieve the regard of your audience. Creative work isn’t a popularity contest.
Your goal, instead, is to get the audience to react. To give them the opportunity to appraise you. Creative work is a contest with yourself.
Snider wrote about this, too, in his book:
So the most famous singers ought to be the thickest skinned, right? Nope, I think the reason these people are famous, and the reason you like to hear them sing, is ’cause they’re so sensitive. They’re thin skinned, and you can watch and listen right through their skin, and that’s a fun thing to do. So now to do well you’ve got to accept people judging you, and you’ve got to be extra-sensitive. Which is kind of like catching soup or at using chopsticks.
The truth is that you asked someone — everyone — to feel something. And if they do feel something, you do not get to control what that feeling is. Whether it’s a fan, your mom, a journalist, or the paper boy, you sing them your song and ask them to feel. Don’t be a dick and try to control how they feel after that. Do the world a favor and leave those people alone. They already did you the favor of listening to your whole fucking song. Now you want to tell them to do something else? Or you want to be angry because they did what you asked them to do? Jesus Christ.
IOW: Your job is to produce. Their job is to critique.
Or as Snider himself put it:
“You are not trying to be liked. You are trying to be judged.”