December 27, 2014

Shadowcon Overviews: Lindsey Stirling

Shadowcon presents
An opinionated analysis of
Lindsey Stirling's career from 2010-2014

I have been a fan of Lindsey Stirling for the past four years or so now, and there are few people besides her who I consider to be personal heroes of mine. Her story of succeeding even when everyone said she couldn’t make it on her own is one of inspiration and, if not talent, then determination to see one’s goals accomplished. She is someone for whom I have had deep admiration because of her independence and her success in the face of resistance. She has influenced my love of the violin, broadened my tastes in music, and Lindsey was, for all intents and purposes, my first personal hero- I discovered her on my own, met her in person on my own, and was personally invested in her and in what she was doing. And yet, my views on her have changed drastically since I discovered her four years ago. I no longer find myself overcharged with energy after a new music video comes out, no longer head-in-the-clouds excited when she posts a photo to Instagram, and no longer impatiently waiting to get to the next new song because it can’t come fast enough. Instead, I’m rather irritated when a new video comes out, I generally pay no attention to her Instagram exploits, and I am far from holding my breath hoping that a new song will come out at all. So what changed? What happened to her? What happened to her music? What happened to me and my feelings towards her as an artist and as an inspiration?

With this Overview, I intend to take a look at how Lindsey Stirling has changed both in terms of her style and music, but also how she’s changed as an inspiration to me, how she’s developed over time and the effect that that’s had on me. None of this is to say that I don’t think that she’s not influential or unimportant; on the contrary: she’s helped me through a lot of personal trials and hard times and that’s great. But maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s all she needs to do, and maybe she’s done that to the best of her ability, and I can move on. So take this for what it is: just another Overview per my Christmas/New Years tradition. It just happens to be of a different kind of genre and subject matter.

Debuting to the world on the 2010 season of America’s Got Talent as a semi-finalist (you can see the video here), Lindsey was promptly told by Piers Morgan, one of the judges of the show, that what she does would not work, “to do what you do, you’ve got to be a world-class violinist. Because if you don’t, when you’re moving around and being thrown around and still trying to play, you end up doing what you did and that’s missing loads of notes.” Following that comment, Sharon, another of the judges, said: “I think the problem with you is that you need to be in a group. You need a singer; you need to find a group of people to work with.” And yet, after being crushed and defeated on the show, Lindsey got back up and built her own platform on YouTube. That called to my mind the image of the common person building themselves from the ground up; indeed, Lindsey herself had no record label backing of any kind for the first two years of her career. In a Huffington Post article published this past year, Mary Kinney notes the following: "Stirling essentially created a genre, combining violin and dance. What’s more, she built up her brand without the help of a record label. She originally took the traditional route and tried to find a label, but Stirling was told over and over again that she was "too outside the box." She owes much of her success to YouTube: 'I didn't have to wait for someone else to tell me, "You're ready. Okay, you're good enough."' Instead, she didn't have to change anything to fit a mold. Stirling says, 'The beautiful thing about the way the world is today is that I think the new model is this kind of world of self-made artists.'"

Lindsey proved almost immediately that her style and crossover of genre and instrument was viable, and indeed a huge success, in a market that stressed artistic conformity to pre-prescribed labels for genres and instruments. Lindsey’s notion of the “self-made artist” is part of the draw here. By mixing genres and breaking down the barriers between those genres, Lindsey roped in not only dubstep, rock, or fiddle fans, but also classical violinists such as myself, video game nerds, and film buffs. “Most fans I spoke with” says Gina DePinto, also of the Huffington Post, “found Stirling’s videos through word-of-mouth in the blogosphere, and a surprising number previously played a stringed instrument in a school orchestra program”.

Criticism of Lindsey Stirling has certainly been laid out plainly and loudly. The New York Times published an article in 2014 featuring an email exchange between two music critics, one of pop and rock and one of classical music. In that article, the two critics brought up the notion that Lindsey’s music is lacking purpose saying that “She seems to be a competent though hardly dazzling player. What I kept feeling was that New Age vibe you’re mentioning. I kept trying to listen and the music would just fade into the background.” And the Strings Magazine article is not shy about pointing out the faults of the artist either. “Stirling plays out of tune in high positions, struggles with technical passages, and only plays legato. She doesn’t use dynamics and her playing is musically flat”. But Kinney insists that Lindsey is still appealing even with these faults, saying “that’s not the point- Stirling’s appeal is not technical agility, but using the violin as part of her larger act… Stirling’s playing may not be technically perfect, but the whole package feels authentic”. For me, what makes Lindsey special is not her music, though her early stuff is very cool to me. And it’s not her playing either. I will concede that Lindsey is not a particularly good violinist, but as Ramey says, that’s only a part of Lindsey’s “larger act”.

What makes Lindsey special to me is her story of success. For someone to go out there and be themselves only to be told that they can’t cut it in the music industry is heartbreaking, and it’s one of the many problems the art industry as a whole is deeply rooted in. But to see that person then essentially say ‘fuck it’ and put herself out there on the internet for all to see, and then have the audience judge whether or not the person is viable as an artist on their own terms instead of some faceless record company, that is powerful, that’s moving, and it’s the reason I love Lindsey. And her success as DePinto says is due largely to word-of-mouth. That’s amazing; for someone to reach such high success due to people just talking about them is astounding. But then, that’s the power of the Internet- hell, you think I could’ve reached the amazing audience of 100 people if not for word of mouth? God no!

I: Breaking the Formula- Phase One

In general, I tend to break down Lindsey’s musical career and YouTube success into four phases. Outlining Lindsey Stirling’s timeline with this scheme I think helps to illustrate how she has developed as an artist. Each phase also highlights general themes that Lindsey explores during the time periods that that particular phase encompasses, and Lindsey’s history and the different means for her success fit relatively well into these four blocks of time.

The first phase ranges from her disqualification on America’s Got Talent and her launch on YouTube to the end of 2011. The first YouTube video of her that I watched, “Zelda Medley”, comes in at the tail end of this phase too, so it is fitting to start here. Phase one established the roots of Lindsey’s stylistic dancing choreography, her interest in electronica and dance music, the first of many covers the videos for which are brilliant in and of themselves, and also the first couple of many different collaborations with different artists around the net. Her music videos for “Electric Daisy”, “Spontaneous Me”, and “Transcendence” all represent the beginnings of Lindsey’s original work with their fast pace, electronica backbeats, and of course Lindsey showing off her dancing skills. Those three were released along with “Song of the Caged Bird” in her first EP, Lindsey Stomp, and with “Zelda Medley”,  which presented me with a vanguard of sorts for Lindsey’s music. This music was new for me; I had never ventured outside of classical music very much; I listened to the Beatles and that was about it. Lindsey’s electronic hip-hop style was very different from the music I was used to listening to up to that point. I think what really helped acclimate me to her musical style was the fact that the violin, Lindsey’s instrument of choice, was something that I could relate to, given that I was a violinist. That bridge of instrumentation helped tie me over until the music itself began to grow on me, and I found myself really liking the electronic music that Lindsey produced.

“Zelda Medley” was my first exposure to Lindsey Stirling’s music, and it’s still a favorite of mine today. The video impressed me with its visuals, Lindsey’s joy in playing the violin and dancing around, but the music itself also moved and engaged me. Here was a medley of The Legend of Zelda tunes that actually felt cohesive as a single piece of music instead of a deliberate attempt to move from one tune into the next; few tempo changes and the fact that the music stayed in a single key for most of its run helped give the feeling that this was a piece of music on its own terms. And the way Lindsey crafted the work and looked so engaged and energetic while playing it in the music video sparked a renewed interest in the violin for me. Just the way she moved and the clear happiness she was getting out of playing the music spoke to me as a sign that you didn’t have to be uptight and ornery to play the violin; indeed, as I’ve grown as a musician, the idea that violinists (or any musician for that matter) stand or sit stock still while playing has been refuted by teachers and conductors many times. But Lindsey was the first person to demonstrate that to me, and “Zelda Medley” was the first video to show me that violinists play with energy, but also with enjoyment; there are few moments in the video where Lindsey isn’t smiling.

My discovery of this video and my almost frantic search for the sheet music to it after I saw it made me realize a very important fact: playing the violin can and should be fun. Up until that point, I had never really found the violin to be very interesting on a pure joy level. It was, for the most part, something that I did because my parents got me into it at a young age (and that’s only because they couldn’t find any classical guitar teachers). as the pieces I practiced became more challenging, my violin teacher became more concerned with auditions and getting me involved in orchestras. My skill level was waning as well: the energy just was not there, and the violin was losing most of its appeal to me. However, Lindsey’s “Zelda Medley” video changed that. Wanting to learn that music awakened a passion in me for playing and practicing the violin that I had only felt on very few occasions before. And my teacher was totally supportive of me exploring other forms of music. So the discovery of “Zelda Medley” and the pursuit of non-classical music to take on as a violinist helped me in expanding my music horizons, and as a consequence made me enjoy and appreciate Lindsey’s music even more.

II: Hitting Her Stride- Phase Two

Lindsey’s second phase begins in early 2012 and stretches to the fall of that year, starting with her release of “Shadows” and its corresponding music video, and ending with “Come With Us”. Phase two has many of the heavy hitters within its lineup, from Lindsey’s big break video “Crystalize” which as of now has over one hundred million views on YouTube, to “Shadows”, to her cover of the theme from the video game Skyrim, all the way to what I consider to be Lindsey’s peak, her “Phantom of the Opera Medley”. All of these videos were directed by Devin Graham, who directed most all of Lindsey’s previous work, and he churns out stunning video for these projects as well. Phase two was where Lindsey really hit her stride; there was a significant boost in production quality and ambition in the videos, and the technicalities of the music became more complex. For example, “Shadows” employed a triple meter and a kind of jazz swing to it, with lots of off-the-string staccato bow strokes. “Crystallize” continued Lindsey’s musical “style” of being very busy with notes, but there was a flow and logic to the notes that seemed more grounded than her previous compositions.
The music also had more deliberate messages behind it. “Transcendence” had a message behind it as well (and a deep one at that), but “Shadows” and “Crystallize” both had clear and solid visual themes within them that the music videos for both attempted to realize. For the video of “Shadows”, the whole thing was rendered in monochrome with Lindsey dancing with a shadow puppet duplicate of herself, interacting with it and playfully competing with it. This gave the music itself a kind of call-and-response vibe to it, with the shadow version playing some sections of the piece while the real Lindsey took a break and vice-versa.

Lindsey’s covers of “Skyrim”, “We Found Love”, “Starships”, and “Grenade” gave viewers the chance to see and hear Lindsey collaborate more frequently with other YouTube artists (her first joint-video was with Shaun Canon, and that was way back in June of 2011). 2012 brought Lindsey into the limelight by having her not only show off her own talent, but by having her presented as a person who was a part of this online community of people and as someone who knew how to operate within that.

Medleys of the Lord of the Rings and Phantom of the Opera music gained Lindsey further attention without relying on other celebrities’ star power, and for me, gave the best thing that Lindsey has ever done to date. Coming in as the penultimate music video in phase two’s lineup, the “Phantom of the Opera Medley” remains my favorite Lindsey Stirling piece of music, cover or otherwise. What makes this medley so awesome is the fact that it not only demonstrates a maturation and growth both in composition and in playing ability for Lindsey, but it also gets back to what made “Zelda Medley” so special. Remember, her original intent with her violin was to be herself, to take songs that she liked and put a little of herself into them. Well, this takes that idea and goes to town, becoming Lindsey through and through! The musicianship is fantastic, true, but the gelling of all the different Phantom of the Opera songs works beautifully here. Musically speaking, all of the trills, runs, grace notes, cadenzas, and glissandi amount to a really crowded yet surprisingly crisp rock-type violin solo; it remains signature Lindsey-Stirling-busy without being busy for the sake of it. The guitar, drums, keys, and faux strings orchestra all do their part very well, and once again, Lindsey turns a classic theme into a spunky hard rock concert song with many bells and whistles left over from the violin’s time as a classical instrument. Everything is balanced beautifully, and nothing feels out of place here. “Phantom of the Opera Medley” is Lindsey’s peak for me. That’s not to say that she failed to deliver some awesome stuff after this, but no piece that featured Lindsey alone would ever give me as many chills and as strong a sense of giddiness as this piece.

Phase two ended with a rather fitting music video to set up phase three. “Come with Us” was an original song by YouTube band Can’t Stop Won’t Stop and the music video for this  featured the band and Lindsey on the road in a big tour bus rounding up other YouTube artists on the street. This video represents Lindsey metaphorically stating for all the world to hear that she is “one of the YouTubers” at long last. With this phase and what soon follows, Lindsey was firmly planted in the YouTube community.

Thanks to “Crystallize” and the general output of excellently produced videos, Lindsey’s success skyrocketed during this time too; in her 2013 Strings Magazine article, Corinne Ramey notes the following of Stirling: "In less than a year, [she] went from virtually unknown to a YouTube sensation, thanks, in part, to elaborate special effects that place her playing and dancing in an ice palace or enchanted forest, with more than 160 million video views and nearly a million subscribers on her YouTube channel, lindseystomp… This puts her way above the number of views of major classical artists (by comparison, Itzhak Perlman’s YouTube channel has 475,000 video views) and in the category of pop stars (Taylor Swift, 117 million views) and cute baby animals (the sneezing baby panda, 148 million)."

This quote encapsulates why Lindsey was successful for mainstream audiences, but it does little in presenting the reasons she was an important figure in my life. Note that Ramey only points out the music videos themselves as the draw of this artist; there’s nothing in there about Lindsey’s technique, her sound, or any other musical element. Obviously, other bits of the article that this quote comes from talk about that stuff, but when recognizing Lindsey’s success, the media turns to her image, not her musicality. I think that’s what’s ultimately made her fall out of favor for me; as I’ll mention in the next two phases, Lindsey will become increasingly more and more concerned and concentrated on her image and publicity than on the sound of her music. In the beginning, Lindsey’s music was all I had to represent her struggles to get to where she ended up; it was her mode of telling her story, and listening to it was my way of understanding her and having her constantly represented in my life. As she progresses, her ability to communicate will transcend music and move into the media; I too will think of Lindsey not as the dancing violinist, but as the woman who wanted to tell her story somehow and just happened to pick music as the medium with which to do that. That might sound harsh, so let me explain what I mean by that in the following sections.

III: The Album and Tour- Phase Three

Phase three took Lindsey’s success to the literal stage, as in September of 2012 she kicked off her first North American tour in conjunction with her first full album. I was lucky enough to meet her in person, have her sign some memorabilia, and see her perform live in Tempe, Arizona. And while the geography placed me squarely in the hot maw of hell, the concert itself was something that has stuck with me ever since.

Quite frankly, this was a dream come true, not just because I got to see Lindsey Stirling up on stage, but because I got to meet a personal hero of mine whom I had discovered on my own. This was a personal highlight for me; meeting her, being able to physically shake her hand and talk to her was just a real treat. And the concert itself proved to me that Lindsey can in fact do a full head-to-the-ground backbend while playing the violin. And this event happened right as my violin and music composition skills were really starting to manifest again; my school orchestra was to play my first big work and I was working on music that I enjoyed. Meeting Lindsey gave me such a boost in confidence, and seeing her enjoy the violin so much really moved me and reinvigorated my love of the violin again, just as she had when I first discovered her on YouTube a year ago.

Given that this happened, it might seem odd for me to say that this was also the time where Lindsey began to very slightly slip in quality, but it was. Both in video quality and in directional quality, here began Lindsey’s slow and steady descent from greatness. On YouTube, phase three spans from the release of Lindsey’s and Peter Hollens’ cover of the Game of Thrones theme in September of 2012 to their “Star Wars Medley” in August of 2013, and even looking at these two videos alone and side by side, the decline in quality of sound and the lack of fluidity between vocal tracks and violin is apparent. Unlike “Skyrim”, which blended vocal tracks and violin seamlessly to create an epic score, “Game of Thrones” and especially “Star Wars Medley” lacked that polish that made “Skyrim” work. The videos themselves saw different people in the director’s chair instead of Devin Graham which threw me the first couple times I saw these. Peter Hollens taking up a percussive sound with his voice detracted from the work rather than boosted it, and Lindsey Stirling fell back to a safe but unpleasant position of running sixteenth notes for much of the duration of these two songs, and this tactic ended up bringing the quality down further.

While the bookends of phase three might not have been the best things that Lindsey had done, what meat can be salvaged from the middle of the timeline is for the most part rich and exciting. “Elements” continued the trend set by “Crystallize” of the music having a theme to it, though this was a case where I actually enjoyed the video more so than the music. The music supplemented the visuals as often as the visuals worked to boost the music, and this strength would eventually turn into a trend of having the video eclipse the music’s importance completely.

Lindsey Stirling, the self-titled studio album released in conjunction with Lindsey’s first US tour saw the violinist reach the top of the Dance/Electronic Albums and Top Classical Albums charts in the first week of it’s release, and it came in at position 17 on US Classical Albums chart by years’ end. With this release, Lindsey got more press than before as well, further bolstering her image on the national and international stages.

Unfortunately, regardless of what the charts say, this is a surprisingly weak release. Of its twelve tracks on the first-release version, six of them were tracks that had been released beforehand. “Crystallize”, “Shadows”, “Spontaneous Me”, “Transcendence”, “Electric Daisy”, and “Song of the Caged Bird” were either released as singles or in Lindsey’s EP. And the rest of the material on the album packed less of a punch than the tracks already released. New material such as “Minimal Beat”, “Stars Align”, and “Anti Gravity”, felt a lot more like background material for something else than music able to be enjoyed in its own right. Upon first listening to the new stuff on the album, I kept asking myself “where’s the Lindsey Stirling in any of this?” I’ve since warmed up to the songs, but it took a long time for me to do so, and even now they're not nearly as good as her earlier works.

On YouTube, things took a dip in quality and fun for the first part of this phase. As I’ve discussed already, “Elements” was released in conjunction with the album and that was fine. But a month later, the music video for “Moon Trance” was released. This was the second of Lindsey’s songs to see a music video release after the song itself (the first was “Song of the Caged Bird”), and so the effectiveness of the video was lost on me. The video for “Elements” made sense and was released the same day as the album, so there was little to no conflict in image here. But with “Moon Trance”, audiences had about a month’s time in between the song’s release and the video’s release, so the effectiveness of the video was substantially less than that of “Elements”. This remained true for the video of “Song of the Caged Bird”; while there had already been supplementary material written by Lindsey herself about what “Bird” meant to her, the possibility for one’s own images to come to mind when listening to the song was still a viable one. The music video damaged that possibility greatly and was not as beautiful nor as powerful as I think it could have been.

Her “Assassin’s Creed III” and Just Dance 4’s “Good Feeling” covers suffered in the wake of the tour and release of the album as well. While “Assassin’s Creed III” was a great orchestra and violin adaptation of the video game’s music, it’s sound was very clearly lacking in Lindsey style. And “Good Feeling” sounded like the worst aspects of Lindsey’s album had bled over into the work; the electronic dance music now affected the violin so much that the instrument barely sounded authentic anymore. Rounding out 2012 was Lindsey’s annual Christmas cover, this time a rendition of “What Child is This?”, and 2013 began with a collaboration video with Tyler Ward in their cover of “Thrift Shop”. Both songs were nothing special and almost felt like afterthoughts to me (in the case of “Child”, Lindsey wasn’t even planning on doing a Christmas song at all, having been exhausted from tour and just wanting some time to herself; she was convinced by a group of fans to do it).

But after this, there was a defiant and surging return to form with three collaboration videos released over the first third of 2013 that just smashed any doubts I had about my hero and snapped my love of Lindsey back into focus. The first of these videos united Lindsey Stirling with fellow YouTube music crossover group The Piano Guys, a cello and piano duo with two other members serving as cameraman and editor respectively. Now, this group found success on YouTube around the same time Lindsey did (roughly a year earlier), and the fan bases for both had wanted a collaboration for a good long time. "It was May of 2011... a few days after Lindsey Stirling and ThePianoGuys had each filmed their first official YouTube videos… Lindsey and Steven Sharp Nelson (cello guy) shared the stage at a concert. After the show they talked enthusiastically about a YouTube collaboration down the road."

Well, they finally delivered in early 2013, and holy hell was it a treat! The music video for this was super fun to watch and I could tell that everyone involved with it was having the time of their lives. To combine the theme from Mission Impossible with the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C was classic Piano Guys style, as the group’s “signature” is combining classical music with modern pop or film hits, and to have Lindsey and Steven work with and against each other made the video engaging and the music all the stronger. “We chose the theme from ‘Mission: Impossible’ because we thought it would be a great music video to 'be ourselves' in — to play off each other, throw in some special effects, a couple 'stunts,' and some slapstick!” Lindsey’s collaboration with The Piano Guys proved to be a huge hit, and quelled the doubts I had built up in late 2012. The video remains engaging to me to this day, and the piece is one I listen to frequently!

The next big video to come out proved to be an even greater success than the previous one. Collaborating with a cappella group Pentatonix, they decided to cover Imagine Dragons’ hit “Radioactive”, giving it a more human and classical feeling with the violin and cello duet in their rendition of it. While Lindsey’s collaboration with The Piano Guys may have been a great gift to the fans of both artists, her collaboration with Pentatonix was a smash hit, winning a YouTube Music Award later that year.

Following that up was the much-hyped collaboration with William Joseph, a pianist, and his and Lindsey’s rendition of the Halo theme. This one was also a great video, and seeing Devin Graham return to the director’s chair for this made things feel like the best of phase two; the color and locations were bolder, the shots were crisper and more cinematic, and the song gave Lindsey a lovely piano and violin duet to execute with Joseph in proper Lindsey Stirling fashion.

Given this development, I was ready to believe that Lindsey was back, that she was delivering videos like she always had… and then something hit me: Her three biggest successes in this phase were collaboration videos. In terms of video views, “Mission Impossible” was quite low on the list (though The Piano Guys did upload an identical version to their own channel that currently holds 2 million more views than Lindsey’s own version), but in terms of fan response, that video saw success like few other videos released from either artist had. “Radioactive” grew so much in popularity that it became Lindsey’s second-most-viewed video on her channel. “Halo Theme” was a solid Devin Graham and Lindsey Stirling outing with a stunning piano part performed by William Joseph.

So, with all of that collaboration and success in mind, doesn’t that say something about Lindsey as an independent artist? What was it that Sharon of America’s Got Talent said to her after she performed for the judges? “I think the problem with you is that you need to be in a group. You need a singer; you need to find a group of people to work with.” What came to light three years after that is that she was right, at least in part. While the videos for “Moon Trance”, “Assassin’s Creed III”, “Song of the Caged Bird”, and “Good Feeling” were excellent on a technical level, none of them thrilled me as much as these three collaboration videos did, and I think that says a lot about how far Lindsey had veered during this time, and it foreshadows heavily what was going to happen next. A final solo cover of “My Immortal” proved that Lindsey’s solo work definitely suffered since the beginning of phase three. Following that was the previously discussed “Star Wars Medley” and that’s what concluded this phase; things did not end on the highest of notes, and I was left with the impression that Lindsey probably does operate better as part of someone else’s act, and that really had me wondering if she was even viable as a solo artist anymore.

IV: Shatter Me and the Fall- Phase Four

It began with a deal with the devil. Well, okay, not really, but Lindsey did make a deal with Lady Gaga’s manager, Troy Carter in April of 2013. When this was announced, even without any more information than just the fact that this was happening, I was already worried about this. On the one hand, it was great that Stirling was getting recognition, but my main concern was that she was going back on what had made her great. The idea of independence, of working your way up to the top without any help from labels or sponsors or managers, that was what drew me to Lindsey in the first place. Now that she’s at the top, she’s going to go back on that and get into bed with the industry anyway? Wonderful. Obviously Lindsey’s fame and the demand for her presence had grown so much that there was no way that Lindsey could possibly manage it herself, but the mere act of publicizing something like this gave me pause, because that act sent a message to my mind that Lindsey was no longer independent. Seeing her on tour in 2012 was amazing not just because I got to meet my idol; I also got to see in person this figure who was not bogged down with sponsorship and such- hell, her own sister was one of the people selling souvenirs. But with this development, Lindsey had a whole marketing and business front developed, and that really did not gel in my mind with an independent YouTube violinist.

While this technically overlapped with the ending of phase three, I mention it here because it correlates more to what goes on during this time. From here on out Lindsey’s path is kind of all over the place. Lindsey’s video of her orchestral remix of “Elements” was worked as a way to promote the at-the-time new ABC drama Dracula, again giving into the allure of studio and big business pressure and making content not for yourself but for promotion of another company. “Elements” didn’t even have anything to do with Dracula at all; it felt as though they needed a track to go behind the visuals, so “Elements” was the song they chose.

Shatter Me, Stirling’s second studio album, proved to be even more of a mixed bag than her self-titled debut album, though it was a stronger release despite that. I was so excited for this project and I followed the development from its inception with a kind of rabid curiosity. What Lindsey had to say about the album before its release got me really excited because this felt like the project that she had wanted to do from the beginning. With her first album things were less than impressive for someone like me who had already heard all of the good material on there. But I came to realize that that’s not the album that Lindsey got to go all out on and take risks; that album was the one that she had to prove could swim before she could get into deep diving with any subsequent material. Given Lindsey’s uneven track record since then, dry spells, dips in quality, and everything else in between, I was in need of something to get me back into her music. Shatter Me was looking better and better as Lindsey talked about it more and more. With this new album, she really wanted to tell a story with it and convey a personal theme through the music: "For some reason, I had this little burst of inspiration. I just saw the image that is on my album cover. I saw a ballerina on a music box… I related so strongly to her because there was a time in my life when I was surrounded by this shell that I had basically built around myself, this image of perfection because I was so obsessed with being what I thought everyone else wanted me to be [until] I realized one day that I was so unhappy because I was a slave to my own control."

Using the art of music to convey a personal story is very powerful and admirable, and Lindsey’s wanting to do so is clearly felt beneath the music. To be able to finally tell the world through song about dealing with anorexia, self-image and self-empowerment, and staying strong for herself must have been so rewarding for her and I am so happy that she got to say these things. Unfortunately, many of her images and themes were lost in the final product. There seems to have been a definite disconnect between concept to execution, because what we ended up with was an album that had the violin sounding more electronic and less like Lindsey with every piece. It felt like the musicality of the work had taken a few steps back instead of forward- the violin was more robotic, the backbeats and synths more pronounced, and there was a lack of humanity throughout the album that really strained Lindsey’s supposed messages that she wanted us to hear.

Getting Lzzy Hale of one of my all-time favorite bands Halestorm to come in and do the vocals for the titular song was a great idea in concept but again failed to live up to the potential it could have yielded. Hale sounds very constrained when singing this, and I personally don’t think the song is very good. Many of the lyrics don’t make a lot of sense: “I see the stars through me/ Tired mechanical heart/ Beats 'til the song disappears.” How is she seeing stars through herself?, songs are not visual, and so on. The chorus to this does work to convey the message that Lindsey wants, and the power behind the words is clearly there and it’s obvious that she put a lot of thought and care into the making of this song and its corresponding video. But all of this was made rather moot by the fact that there was another song on the album that I think should have been the flagship of the project instead.
That song is called “We Are Giants”, and it is the only other vocal track on the album. Lyrics here are sung by Dia Frampton who is sadly rather wasted in this role just as Hale was in “Shatter Me”. But what makes this song the best on the album is not the star power; it’s what the song has to say. For one, the lyrics are simple and make sense, and they convey something that goes back to Lindsey’s beginnings as an aspiring star, as a person wanting to break out of the mold set by modern music industries and who was willing to do so in order to do what she wanted to do: "Do you feel like you're second-hand?/ Do you feel you're afraid to stand alone?/ Cut away every safety net./ Live your life so you won't regret the road./ Feels like you’re just standing there so small,/ Just the space between the stars./ Don’t be afraid to risk it all/ Cause we are,/ we are,/ We are giants… Raise your flag; let your voice be heard/ Put your heart into every word you say./ All your failures' a cornerstone/ Build a house with the things you've thrown away./ Feels like you’re just standing there so small,/ Just the space between the stars./ Don’t be afraid to risk it all/ Cause we are,/ we are,/ We are giants"

This is the Lindsey Stirling that the fans all know and love; what the song says here is exactly what she did after Talent. People told her that she wouldn’t succeed, and what did she do? She cut herself off from the suits and studio execs and became independent. She raised herself up, she let her voice be heard, she remained true to herself, and she took risks. That kind of message resonated far more with me upon first listening than the one conveyed in “Shatter Me”. And that’s not to say that “Shatter Me” did not mark an important development in Lindsey’s personal life, but given that the emphasis of the album and the tie-in tour that Lindsey did for it was on “Shatter Me”, with “Giants” almost as a kind of afterthought (it is the last track on the album, connoting a disinterest or “less”-ness in regards to its placement within the lineup) emphasizes the direction that Lindsey is currently taking, and it’s one that I am not happy about. Lindsey’s current message is less about building yourself up on your own terms and more about being bold, being powerful; both messages are clearly Lindsey Stirling and both are powerful and important, no question, but “Giants” conveys its message more clearly and it resonates more with me as a fan of her work than “Shatter Me”.

On the YouTube front, things have become stagnant. Sure, “Stars Align”, “Shatter Me”, and several other songs from both of her albums have received video treatment, but in terms of releasing new music along with appropriate music videos, Lindsey has not released a new video with new material since last years’ Christmas song… or so we all thought. See, in a really strange coincidence, Lindsey put up a new video of her cover of the new Dragon Age: Inquisition video game music literally a day after I wrote out the first draft of this paper! Was this the fates vying for my attention and trying to rekindle my loyalty towards Lindsey? I don’t know, but the video itself was beautiful to look at even if the music was not Lindsey’s best. Still, it is new material, so I must addendum this section of the paper to reflect that. That said, prior to this release, her content only included songs that we had all heard before, and the videos for them make little sense to me, often coinciding with the titles of the works and nothing else about them beyond that (e.g. “Master of Tides”, “Stars Align”).
Lindsey’s first world tour has taken up much of her time of late, so it’s not that there is no excuse for the lack of new songs and videos (and the videos released have been amazing on a technical level), but she has veered so far from what I loved about her in the beginning. I read in October’s edition of the Willamette Collegian, the newspaper for my college, an article by Jamie Ervin called “Why I stopped caring about Lena Dunham”, and at the tail end of that piece, she said something that I think applies to my situation and feelings towards Lindsey Stirling: to paraphrase to the extreme, Stirling served her purpose for me. I found her presence empowering and encouraging to me in a past but pivotal moment in my development. My liberal arts education has taught me (if anything) the importance of challenging our heroes, and sometimes that means realizing that they aren’t really your heroes anymore.

What made Lindsey special and important to me was her utilization of YouTube as a means to put herself out there, as a means to show the world that she was able to rake up a giant following simply through word-of-mouth and the internet. But now she’s come so far, gotten so big in name and in popularity… and it’s not really for the better to me, and that’s a criticism that I make boldly and without hesitation, because Ervin is right, it is important to recognize the faults in our heroes. Lindsey herself says that she's gotten past being just a YouTube celebrity: "That line [between YouTube star and mainstream star] is going to get more blurred as time goes on... I was talking to some guy at Atlantic Records and he was telling me how different things are now in the industry. Atlantic no longer has to comb high and low for new artists- artists are rising themselves up on YouTube and all Atlantic has to do is swoop in and pick them up. That's the new model. Eventually it's not going to matter if you're mainstream or are big on YouTube- at some point, it's all going to be synonymous."

My response to this should be obvious: Lindsey, your fame is not synonymous with YouTube sensation fame, not anymore. You passed that. See, that's the thing that she's not getting. She's placing herself in a future where there is no divide between the two categories... except there is a divide, there's one here, now. And to recognize that I think would do people some good. That's not to say that either fame is good or bad, but merely that one is not equal to the other, at least not yet. Finally, she closes with "I want to be the artist that bridges that gap." Lindsey, allow me to be blunt (if I haven't been blunt enough already.) You do not get to be the artist that bridges that gap. You've passed that gap. You've taken the world by storm and inspired millions, and that's wonderful. But don't you dare attempt to speak for those still on YouTube. You're not on YouTube. You've got a channel up that you occasionally pop in on and upload something to, but your YouTube days are over. Backup dancers at live concerts, plugs for products or television shows at the ends of her videos (when she even has a new one for us to view; her “Dragon Age” cover did in fact have a plug for the game at the end of it), a lack of interaction with the YouTube community, record sponsorships, and full-time touring; this is not the Lindsey Stirling that I discovered three years ago with the simple yet suitably epic “Zelda Medley”. This is a Lindsey Stirling who has grown past that; she’s transcended the mantle of independent YouTube celebrity and has instead assumed a pseudo business mogul position with lots and lots of money and sponsorship. Lindsey has been able to go bigger: bigger in quality, in budget, in equipment, in personnel. But she hasn’t been able to go deeper. I will forever be grateful to her for what she did for me in 2011 and 2012, but her mantra of “stay true to yourself” seems lost on this current version of her, and I do not see her getting back to her roots any time soon.

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