“I spent nearly a decade missing the point of Elliott Smith’s music for reasons that I really wanted to interrogate. When I first heard about Elliott’s music, it was in the context of, “Here’s this guy who was basically a homeless junkie and did tons of drugs and now he makes this sad folk music about it.” When I finally started paying attention to XO–really paying attention–I was pretty shocked to realize that Elliott was not only avoiding those clichés, he was actively taking them apart. Here was a record where a guy was actually saying, “Look, pain isn’t beautiful, creativity isn’t borne of suffering,” and he’s saying it through these impossibly precise Beatlesque pop songs. Yet it still gets pretty consistently described as sad folk music.
I find the romanticized connection between suffering and creativity hugely troubling. I’ve seen it used to justify awful, self-destructive behavior. I wanted to write about Elliott’s music in a way that sheds some light on all the actual work that went into his creative output; it’s not like he just put down a syringe, picked up an acoustic guitar, and channeled his deep existential suffering into beautiful words and melodies. I also wanted to dig a bit into why we find the romanticization of suffering so compelling, why we assume that an artist’s most compelling work must have roots in their darkest personal histories.”