What does being a rock star truly entail?

Published 9:14 am Friday, March 1, 2013

Column: Paths to Peace, by Jeremy Corey-Gruenes

The other night at supper, my daughter Ava asked if we knew any rock stars. My wife and I looked at each other and chuckled.

“Well, your dad was a rock star once,” Jenny joked.

Jeremy Corey-Gruenes

Jeremy Corey-Gruenes

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Ava’s eyes got big. I should be ashamed for not shutting down this farce immediately, but who am I to shatter a young girl’s image of her father?

Beginning in college, I played in a reggae band off and on for about four years. We called ourselves The 1-Drop — the name taken from reggae’s distinctive drum beat — modeling our sound after Jamaican roots reggae from the 1970s. We recorded a CD and played most of our shows around campus.

Despite the obvious temptations, I resisted becoming a Rastafarian, dreading my hair and speaking with a Jamaican patois. Five white dudes playing reggae in central Minnesota was eccentric enough.

We were small time, to say the least, but we weren’t bad, and playing music to receptive audiences gave me a sense for what being a “rock star” might have been like.

That term, “rock star,” is kind of funny. People use it today to describe much beyond music. I heard it just the other day. Someone said, “He’s got a shot at the job, but I’ve heard he’s up against a real rock star, so … “

What does that mean? Does simply being really good at something merit the rock star label?

Jenny asked Ava what it means to be a rock star, and Ava responded, “Famous and crazy.”

Jenny added “intense” to the description.

I’d offer that nonmusical rock stars give themselves completely to the task at hand, lose themselves in the moment and put on amazing shows. They’ve honed their crafts to near perfection though meticulous preparation and are passionate about what they do, and this type of commitment can border on obsession.

Twentieth century German philosopher Martin Heidegger addressed this point in his great work “Being and Time.” His purpose was to examine what it means to exist, and while the English translation I own doesn’t include any term remotely close to “rock star,” it explores greatness in the human experience in a very similar way.

Heidegger suggests we humans are never really anything concrete until we’re dead. (It’s not as depressing as it sounds.) While alive we are merely “possibility,” like actors playing different roles but never actually becoming the characters we play. I am a teacher, but that’s not really who I am. I’m a dad when I come home and an immature screwball when I’m around my siblings.

None of the roles I play defines who I really am, and yet playing these roles is all I really am.

(It took me a whole semester in the mid-1990s to understand that, so if I’m not making any sense, pretend it’s because I’m being really deep.)

For Heidegger, rock star performances occur when someone is playing their role so well that they’ve minimized that distance between their true selves and the role they’re playing to such a degree that the difference between the two is imperceptible.

Rock star performances by athletes come to mind, like when a basketball player has that look in his eyes, knows he’s on fire, knows every shot he throws up is going through the net. At that moment he’s as close to truly being a basketball player as he will ever be.

Being a rock star in any field is tough because to become that good at something, and that engaging to your audience, you have to make sacrifices, and other parts of your life can really suffer. Balance and being a rock star don’t coexist easily, and sometimes rock stars forget that they aren’t really rock stars but rather — as Heidegger contends — human beings playing the roles of rock stars; consequently, their lives become inauthentic, out of balance and potentially destructive.

At some point in our lives, we all dream of being a rock star at something. But we might ask what are we willing to sacrifice for greatness, and what’s really driving us to be rock stars? Is our motivation pure? Or are we simply chasing after status or fame?

As I knock on the door of 40, I can’t help but ask myself questions like this, wondering if I’ve accomplished enough, rethinking choices I’ve made to do this or that, to take risks and pursue dreams or stay put and establish roots.

I realize these are the types of questions that may lead to a mid-life crisis. But I’ll be OK.

At 20 being a rock star seems like a real turn-on, but at 40 you look at things a little differently.

I haven’t played in a real band in 15 years, and I wouldn’t call myself a rock star teacher, father or husband. But I do have my moments, moments when I get a taste for what being a rock star in my life really is, moments when connections with my students, wife or daughters are so wonderful that I’m reminded of my good fortune — sort of like when The 1-Drop was playing some pretty authentic reggae at Brother Willie’s Pub in 1997, and I noticed some students from the Caribbean bobbing their heads with smiles of approval.

We weren’t really rock stars, but we had our moments, and our motivation was pure. There’s no shame in that.


Jeremy Corey-Gruenes teaches high school in Albert Lea, where he lives with his wife and two young daughters. You can reach him at jcorey2@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @jemcorey.