Monday Motivation: I See Stars

If you’re anything like me, you probably started the day by recognizing that the start of a new work week had indeed arrived and then immediately began shaking your fists at the sky in anger. Monday is rarely anyone’s favorite day, and from what I have seen firsthand it feels safe to say it’s the one day of the week some people outright hate. I guess to them the arrival of the work week symbolizes the end of their quote/unquote freedom, and as a result they head into the office/factory/restaurant/store with a negative outlook already on their mind. This leads to bad attitudes, which only makes the experience of being at work worse, and for some reason it also seems to make time slow to a crawl. We’re not about that life, and we hope this post can do the same you that the song contained within it did for us.

I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations over the last week. The media will tell you to define your life on your own terms, but that really isn’t the world we live in anymore. Everyone is connected to one another, and we all live vicariously through one another with each high and low our connections experience. If someone sets out to launch their own business, everyone they know is made aware of those plans before the business in question is more than a URL and some notes scribbled down on paper. If we want to start a family, our connections can quietly watch as we stumble our way through the dating world, experience our weddings through digital photo albums, and, hopefully, learn to be a parent. Unless you’re living a life completely disconnected from the digital world you know there are expectations for your life that you have no real say in, and even if you do manage to live untethered to the internet their are still expectations from family and close friends that linger in the back of your mind with every step you take. You may know what you want to be, and if so that’s great, but you also know what your family wants for you, what your friends expect from you, and what society says is acceptable.

Now that I’ve settled into the brief period between the ages of 25 and 30 I’ve begun to think of expectations in a manner far different than I did in my teen years and early 20s. Back then, my biggest concern in life was reaching the goals I had set for myself, regardless of how arbitrary or over-the-top they may have been. I think most of you reading this now would agree you found yourself in a similar position. Our childhoods were filled with pretty telling us to reach for the stars, be all we can be, and to always be looking on the horizon for our next big move, but anyone who has passionately chased their dream for a year or more will tell you there is nothing on that horizon except more work. There will always be another hill to climb, another plateau to reach, and countless number of peers who seem to remain miles ahead of you despite your best efforts to be number one. The idea of being the absolute best at anything related to careers or hobbies is a myth we tell ourselves is achievable because otherwise we might not even try in the first place.

In my life I have been fortunate enough to realize what I wanted to do at an early age and receive the support I needed from family to chase after that goal. I wanted to work in music, so I set out to do just that from the age of fifteen and poured everything I could into the pursuit of that dream. This meant going to college for a degree in music business, spending money I didn’t have on travels to events where no one new my name, and, perhaps most importantly, moving far away from the tiny farming community I called home. My parents were sad to see me go, but they knew I had to try and make my dreams a reality because they could sense the fire in my soul. They knew I loved them and music to such a great degree that demanding I choose one or the other would only result in stress and tensions that could be avoided, even if they wished they could somehow change my mind. It took me years to understand how this decision probably meant letting go of expectations they had set on me, as well as our relationship, but now that I’m a little older and have an understanding that can only be gained through experience I feel for the sacrifices they made. In order to let me be the person I felt I was meant to be my parents had to let go of some things they probably wanted for me since the day I was born, all in the hope I would one day return.

Anyone who chases a dream fervently for years will eventually find themselves in a place where they have to face the fact that seeking a sense of wholeness or contentment through hobbies or a career is an impossible task, but not everyone will be able to pinpoint when that moment happens. It’s the kind of realization that happens gradually over a long period of time, and for many it may be years or even decades before they find themselves in a place where their passion has become their career and they still feel a void in their soul that yearns to be filled. For me, that realization followed the death of my best friend, Justin, when I was 26. Justin had expectations for his time on this Earth, and his parents had their expectations for him as well, but despite his best efforts to live a long and successful his time was cut short due to an incredibly rare blood disease based on genetics that has no cure. Justin didn’t even know he had the potential to have this disease until it had already begun to attack his body, and that was nearly four years before he would ultimately pass. During that time I watched his aspirations for the future fade into distant memories and his desire for an understanding of who he was, as well as a closeness to friends and family grow. Tomorrow didn’t matter to Justin because he understood what it meant to say that the next day was never promised, so he only lived in the moment, and when he made that choice the expectation he had set for himself beyond loving and caring for those around him did not matter.

Watching Justin adjust to his changing circumstances and face each new twist with a heart endlessly full of hope gave me cause to pause and review my own expectations. I may have told myself I wanted to work in music, but that decision was based on an expectation from teachers, mentors, and the outside world that I would pursue something other than an understanding of self and the connection I shared with those around me. When he passed, I realized how all I really wanted in life was to find myself in a position to spend as much time as possible with those I loved while still doing whatever needed to be done to keep a roof over my head and food in my stomach. I wanted that task to be as fun and/or easy as possible, which is why I pursued entertainment as a career, but ultimately that path was only a means to an end that, hopefully, would allow me a greater understanding of who I am, why I exist, and what it is I am supposed to do with my time on this Earth.

I cannot speak to the experiences of others, but I do know what I can infer from the art they create. I See Stars are a rock band that has experienced the highs and lows of the entertainment industry while maintaining a bond of brotherhood that has only strengthened in time. I don’t know what expectations they set on themselves when they were forming, but I saw our culture place many expectations on them in the light of their debut album, 3D, hitting stores in 2009. At the time, the band was creating a hybrid of pop-rock with elements of post-hardcore and EDM that made for a decidedly intoxicating combination that critics either praise for its catchiness or slammed for its sugary sweetness. Some wrote the band off as being the last death wails of a dying neon-clad movement in alternative music, while others saw them as a sign of where music was headed. I was working in music and covering the band at the time, so I’m sure I added to this pile of ideas as well, but my thoughts should not have mattered to the band (even though I’m sure they did, as all creative people have an inmate desire to seek acceptance from the world around them).

As time carried on, I See Stars struggled to break free of the expectations thrust upon them by fans and critics. Most artists believe their earliest fans want to see them succeed by creating the same type of music they were writing when they were just starting out, which is fine for a time, but ultimately such efforts become problematic because – like everyone else – artists need to constantly progress in order to stay engaged in their own creation. The confines placed on I See Stars by the outside world caused a bit of stagnation in their music, which was painfully evident on 2011’s End Of The World Party and still lingering on 2012’s Digital Renegade. Listeners paying close attention could hear the band’s struggles to find their own path, but something about their output told you they still felt beholden to longtime subscribers and critics who believed their first work was their best work. It was almost as if the band was trying to recreate the lightning in a bottle moment that launched their career, and it took them several years (not to mention multiple releases) to understand such efforts will always be made in vein. That time was in the past, and trying to live in that moment continuously is never truly possible.

I See Stars found some footing with 2013’s New Demons, which would later prove to be the most popular release in their career. The band had shaken off the majority of their early work and focused on finding a new way to share their evolved world perspectives without completely abandoning the sounds and ideas that made them popular in the first place. The entire released carried an edge of “we don’t care what you think” that fans embraced with open arms. It was not a destination as much as it was a step in the right direction, and it gave the members the confidence needed to create what would be, at least in my opinion, the best work of their career.

This week, music fans around the world will be able to hear I See Stars’ fifth studio album, Treehouse, in full. The record blends together everything the band has done in the past with a very focused look towards the future that could very well be the genre-defining sound people suspected them of crafting over half a decade ago. It’s lush, yet refined, and bursting with a sense of honestly not found in many of the band’s genre peers. For the first time in their entire career I See Stars appear to have shaken off all expectations, including their own, and focused on what they felt was most important. They laid themselves bare on digital tape and found the results of those efforts were more pure than anything they had created in the past. They were also more diverse, as is apparent on the hip-hop influenced “All In” or the soft synth of “Walking On Gravestones.”

If you listen closely to I See Stars’ new record you can hear a band that understands their greatest strength resides in the connection they share as people. Their most powerful weapon is the love and respect they share for one another, as well as their fans, and tapping into those emotions have provided a wealth of new ideas that challenge expectations across the board. You might not like what they produce, but you have to respect the willingness to do what feels right instead of what is most commercially viable.

I cannot covert you to being an I See Stars fans, but I do believe you can find the strength to live life free of the constraints of expectations by experiencing their art. Do not miss Treehouse.

James Shotwell is the Digital Marketing Manager for Haulix. He is also a professional entertainment critic, covering both film and music, as well as the co-founder of Antique Records. Feel free to tell him you love or hate the article above by connecting with him on Twitter. Bonus points if you introduce yourself by sharing your favorite Simpsons character.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.