The idiom of the “rat race” originally referred quite literally to rats entrapped in a laboratory cage, fighting for dominion over a single piece of cheese, twisted by the cynical irony that their fates are unfortunately predetermined. Its first historical use appears in American author Jack Franklin’s 1950 science fiction novel, ’The Rat Race,’ later metamorphosing into the metaphorical meaning it’s taken on today. That meaning has adopted a negative connotation at face value but when we look deeper into what society deems important, it becomes clear that the rat race is intrinsic to our shared value system, leaving us on a predetermined and treacherous trajectory.
Swiss-alps native, Vôx Ve harbors a surplus of thought-provoking insight on this “success-or-die” mentality. A member of the millennial generation, she feels that this phenomenon especially plagues her age group. Those babies born between 1981-1996, often raised by a combination of the internet and helicopter parents, indoctrinated by the idea that only by accomplishing feats of grandeur will their true happiness be achieved.
Vôx Ve copes with this hardship via artistic expression. All forms: music, dance, the visual arts, interweaving them to create something even more meaningful than the mediums themselves. Her most recent single, “Into The Wild” and its awe striking visual companion, directly critiques our obsession with achievement at all costs, revealing to her audience the toll this mindset can take on one’s mental health.
A thoughtful, introspective being with an inspiring idiosyncratic approach to life, we had the opportunity of conducting an interview with the alchemic artist. Read on below…
How did you first discover your love for music and artistic expression?
Apparently my 3rd grade teacher heard me singing by my cubby one day and alerted the school music teacher—who became the reason I started performing often from a young age. So I knew I loved singing, and I started songwriting for my hilarious Red-Hot-Chili-Peppers-loving rock band in the tenth grade. But I didn’t identify at all as an “artist” until my twenties.
Now, though, the artistic expression piece—how you use music and visuals to conjure feeling for the listener—is a hundred times more interesting than the singing to me. I definitely would have quit a long time ago if it was still about singing. It was discovering how much I wanted to explore artistic expression, music production, and cultural conversation that kept me in the performing world.
Growing up in the Swiss Alps, were your creative pursuits encouraged?
Oui. Despite coming from a very small pond and a non-artsy gene pool, I’m extremely lucky that my parents supported my interest; piano lessons and kind tolerance for my more um creative talent show performances.
What prompted the move to the States? Do you think you’ll stay here forever?
I made it (foolishly) do-or-die for myself in high school to go to a well-known college, and the American Ivy League had a global reputation. Also, I had grown up with an idée fixe about the “The Big Apple” and getting myself there as soon as possible so I could graduate and start in music as young as possible. This is back when I looked at life like a ticking time bomb threatening to explode “failure” all over me if I didn’t get where I needed to be yesterday!
It looks likely I’ll stay forever. I was lucky enough to find my partner of 11 years here and we flirt with a fantasy about Coopenhagen but, the US, for all its ideological dangers, is also exceedingly fun. There is Spikeball at cocktail parties here.
You pursue an array of artistic ventures, do these mediums intermingle often or do you have separate avenues for each?
Ay yes, my fascination with dreams, in both senses of “success” and the subconscious, appears across my musical and visual art. And I say “ay” because I know it’s healthy to have one medium that is just an avenue for nothing (I must resume my embroidery;) But I really started songwriting, producing, and painting more consistently as a way to externalize all the feelings, figures, and colors of my relentless subconscious dreams so, some of my dream-y song palettes started as paintings and vice versa.
Your most recent single “Into The Wild” critiques “achievement addiction” which significantly plagues our millennial generation. How did you become aware of this “success-or-die” phenomenon?
When I moved to college in nyc and was surrounded by the most ostensibly “successful” students and career achievers in the world is when I really started to notice how chronically stressed and dissatisfied most of them seemed. It was starting then, but especially after college, when the success-first value scheme became most destructive for me personally—as I ignored obvious signs of unwellness and denied myself human needs (community, family, time, space, nature, self-esteem, compassion, peace) until I could prove myself “special” or worthy through some kind of widely recognized achievement.
This single, though, represents the first rumblings of my turning that awareness into actual healing action; “into the wild into the wild” was almost like my mantra to be braver about going mentally beyond the inherited ideas of success that were making me unhappy, to a space where I could actually hear and follow my own instincts about how to live my own version of a fulfilling life.
Becoming increasingly aware since then also of the research and sheer numbers behind this Millennial mental health struggle–with rates of anxiety, depression, burnout, and suicidal ideation higher than any generation before us–really solidified my commitment to rethink our psychology and ideas about a good life.
Is this unique to the United States or do you think this is prevalent all around the world?
Aspirations of achievement and productivity of course exist everywhere; I do feel though, at a higher fever pitch here in the US. You can see it in the shorter vacation allowances and maternity leaves but also in the relatively high daily awareness here of the rich and famous. There are a couple of janky “society” magazines on newsstands in Switzerland that few people read, but the US invented the genres of US Weekly, TMZ, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, My Super Sweet Sixteen, Forbes 30 Under 30, Keeping up with the Kardashians, and so on, that you see on your TV, phone, grocery store checkout, nail salon, etc.
What I think is damaging about this heightened daily awareness of the rich and famous, is, first, the way we praise those attainments without often discussing the ethics of what that rich or famous person is putting out into the world, and second, that it implicitly situates everyone’s life relative to a sky high bar, which often diminishes their evaluation of their own lives.
Social media ironically fuels artistic expression and achievement addiction simultaneously, is it possible to utilize social media without falling victim to the unhealthy thoughts and feelings it often manifests?
I believe so, with two meaningful changes: more awareness of the mental health value of serious time limits on usage (constant connection can be very sneakily mind-warping and exhausting) and more commitment to only following people whose values support your mental health and the ethical and ideological health of society.
How do you decipher the difference between working hard for notoriety versus for personal fulfillment?
I believe a person can notice something potentially amiss about their goals if pursuing them negatively affects their emotional wellbeing. If playing guitar makes you happy but pursuing fame makes you feel terrible or drives you to self-sabotage in some way, it’s worth critically evaluating what part of being a musician truly fulfills you and what specific goals in that avenue would truly make you happy. For instance, I personally realized only in retrospect that I wasn’t actually depressed because I wasn’t notorious, I was depressed because I was terribly lonely. So finding meaningful human connection became a much bigger goal than audience size for me.
How can we as a society combat against this for generations to come?
I’d venture that it starts with looking at the evidence, in terms of our health and mental health picture, and acknowledging that our current values around successful living aren’t really fostering success in terms of wellbeing. Medical journals show 1 in every 6 Americans above age 12 is on antidepressants. So, more awareness around other factors of happiness besides achievement (again—community, connection, nature, time, peace, etc) would likely be very healing.
But people will always go where the praise is. So we also have to shift what we publicly glorify from follower counts and luxurious lifestyles to inner wellbeing and ethical contributions. I’d personally love to see an Oscars awards for senior care workers, or people who’ve beaten cancer, or people who worked on their emotional wellbeing so they’d stop hurting others. I’d watch that:)
You seem very philosophical, how did you form your view of life? Did you have mentors? Particular studies, ideologies, or practices that spoke to you? Any recommendations?
A former church youth group leader from home told me at a wedding recently that I was always the one in class to critically analyze the teachings or push for the deeper “but why?” So it may be part of my nature. But I also definitely think moving countries as an adult + my accidental philosophy major contributed. (accidental because, I was majoring in economics but the philosophy classes were too interesting to stop).
I wasn’t wise enough earlier in life to know how much humans need real-life mentors, but I found my way to light with a lot of help from paperback mentors like Brené Brown, the Minimalists, Neil Pasricha, Elaine N. Aron, and others, plus an amazing free coursera.com course by Dr. Laurie Santos on the Science of Wellbeing. She started the course at Yale after noticing how depressed and stressed her student population always seemed to be, and it became the most popular course ever taught at Yale. Go figure…
Your singles thus far follow overarching concepts and aesthetic themes, can you expand on how these connect to your debut EP ‘Dream Theory 1’?
The overarching concept of ‘Dream Theory 1’ is our culture’s obsession with big “dreams”—in the sense of “success”—and the overall aesthetic theme in the soundscapes and visuals is my vivid subconscious dreams; so it’s essentially “dreams” within dreams.
When I wrote these songs I was being rocked around every night by anxious subconscious dreams—either a heart-pounding nightmare, filled with all the fears about my life path that I was controlling during the day, or a stunning dream of a different reality with all different rules and expectations…as if urging me to see that all our societal expectations are made up, and not necessarily valid. And during the day, I was consumed with our cultural obsession with big “dreams” as in “success,” and whether I should actually question it or unfuck my mind of its more toxic effects.
Ultimately, I think the EP ended up representing one personal story in a much larger generational struggle to rethink our inherited values and their neglect for our mental health.
If this is the first, will there be a second volume…? Still following the similar thoughts and themes ooor? (sorry I know I’m shamelessly digging…)
No sorry! I do indeed have a lot more songs within my Dream Theory journey, which have inadvertently fallen into two volumes: the songs that capture what I think of as the “low lows n lie lies”—low moments in the middle of my journey, when I was still falling short often to the trappings of my success-or-die psychology—and then songs that capture what I’ve experienced since finally reprioritizing my life and finding happiness.
So I’m planning an album split between the two volumes: four lying “lows” and four happy “highs” which I’d release two at a time (one low and one high) to show that life truly is all a matter of perspective, and happiness is an inside job (only 10% determined by external factors according to Santos’ course 😉
I also have an uncharacteristically sexy bop that doesn’t fit at all within Dream Theory themes so I might put that out in between time as a fun one-off.
CONNECT WITH VÔX VE
photos / courtesy of the artist
story / Jessica Thomas