Todd Rundgren’s Advice to Young Artists: Be Free and Fearless, Make Art That Expresses Your True Self, and Never Mind the Critics

The Inter­net has redeemed grad­u­a­tion sea­son for those of us whose com­mence­ment speak­ers failed to inspire.

One of the chief dig­i­tal plea­sures of the sea­son is truf­fling up words of wis­dom that seem ever so much wis­er than the ones that were poured past the mor­tar­board into our own ten­der ears.

Our most-recent­ly found pearls come from the mouth of one of our favorite dark hors­es, musi­cian, pro­duc­er, and mul­ti­me­dia pio­neer Todd Rund­gren, one of Berklee Col­lege of Music’s 2017 com­mence­ment speak­ers.

Rund­gren claims he nev­er would have passed the pres­ti­gious institution’s audi­tion. He bare­ly man­aged to grad­u­ate from high school. But he struck a blow for life­long learn­ers whose pur­suit of knowl­edge takes place out­side the for­mal set­ting by earn­ing hon­orary degrees from both Berklee, and DePauw Uni­ver­si­ty, where the new­ly anoint­ed Doc­tor of Per­form­ing Arts can be seen below, study­ing his hon­oris causa as the school band ser­e­nades him with a stu­dent-arranged ver­sion of his song, All the Chil­dren Sing.

Rundgren’s out­sider sta­tus played well with Berklee’s Class of 2017, as he imme­di­ate­ly ditched his cer­e­mo­ni­al head­dress and con­ferred some cool on the sun­glass­es dic­tat­ed by his fail­ing vision.

But it wasn’t all open­ing snark, as he praised the stu­dents’ pre­vi­ous night’s musi­cal per­for­mance, telling them that they were a cred­it to their school, their fam­i­lies and them­selves.

His was a dif­fer­ent path.

Rund­gren, an expe­ri­enced pub­lic speak­er, claims he was stumped as to how one would go about craft­ing com­mence­ment speech­es. Reject­ing an avalanche of advice, whose urgency sug­gest­ed his speech could only result in “uni­ver­sal jubi­la­tion or mass sui­cide if (he) didn’t get it right,” he chose instead to spend his first 10 min­utes at the podi­um recount­ing his per­son­al his­to­ry.

It’s inter­est­ing stuff for any stu­dent of rock n roll, with added cool points owing to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s fail­ure to acknowl­edge this musi­cal inno­va­tor.

Whether or not the Class of 17 were famil­iar with their speak­er pri­or to that day, it’s prob­a­ble most of them were able to do the math and real­ize that the self-edu­cat­ed Rund­gren would have been their age in 1970, when his debut album, Runt, was released, and only a cou­ple of years old­er when his third album, 1972’s two disc, Rital­in-fueled Something/Anything shot him to fame.

After which, this proud icon­o­clast prompt­ly thumbed his nose at com­mer­cial suc­cess, detour­ing into the son­ic exper­i­ments of A Wiz­ard, a True Star, whose dis­as­trous crit­i­cal recep­tion belies the mas­ter­piece rep­u­ta­tion it now enjoys.

Rolling Stone called it a case of an artist “run amok.”

Pat­ti Smith, whose absolute­ly manda­to­ry Creem review reads like beat poet­ry, was a rare admir­er.

Did a shiv­er of fear run through the par­ents in the audi­ence, as Rund­gren regaled their chil­dren with tales of how this delib­er­ate trip into the unknown cost him half his fan­base?

How much is Berklee’s tuition these days, any­way?

Auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal urges from the com­mence­ment podi­um run the risk of com­ing off as inap­pro­pri­ate indul­gence, but Rundgren’s per­son­al sto­ry is sup­port­ing evi­dence of his very wor­thy mes­sage to his younger fel­low artists :

  • Don’t self-edit in an attempt to fit some­one else’s image of who you should be as an artist. See your­self.
  • Use your art as a tool for vig­or­ous self-explo­ration.
  • Com­mit to remain­ing free and fear­less, in the ser­vice of your defin­ing moment, whose arrival time is rarely pub­lished in advance.
  • Don’t view grad­u­a­tion as the end of your edu­ca­tion. Think of it as the begin­ning. Learn about the things you love.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Byrne’s Grad­u­a­tion Speech Offers Trou­bling and Encour­ag­ing Advice for Stu­dents in the Arts

John Waters’ RISD Grad­u­a­tion Speech: Real Wealth is Nev­er Hav­ing to Spend Time with A‑Holes

The First 10 Videos Played on MTV: Rewind the Video­tape to August 1, 1981

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in New York City this June for the next install­ment of her book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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