Wednesday, February 25, 2015

20 Feet from Stardom

The other night, we watched the movie "20 Feet from Stardom".  This is an Oscar-winning documentary film that focuses on background singers who stand, literally, 20 feet from the star of the show.  It features a few legendary singers like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, the Waters family, and Lisa Fischer, as well as the emerging artist, Judith Hill.  It's a powerful discussion of the music industry, artists clawing their way to the top, and what their definition of "the top" is.  I recommend the New York Times review for an in-depth discussion of the film.

Although the focus is on singers, the discussion is really about finding success.  And in this way, it is directly applicable to theater, visual art, and many other fields of endeavor.  It presents us with several women with phenomenal voices.  They live to sing, and the things they can do with their voices will bring tears to your eyes: the power, spirit, joy, and pain are unbelievably rich, sometimes raw, sometimes both.  They are incredibly powerful artists who can sing better than many (most?) big-name stars.  Yet none of them became a music star in her own right.

So you have to wonder, why is that?  How can somebody who can sing like that not be a star?  Part of it, I think, is the music industry, part is our culture, part is luck, and a big part is the individual artist's personal character.  And there's another question: does success always require being a star?  Or is there another way to define success?  Let me ramble on those thoughts for a few moments.

It's well-known that the music industry is cut-throat.  There was a bit of discussion in the film about Phil Spector's handling of Darlene Love and others back in the '60's, in which Darlene and others recorded songs that were then released under other groups' names.  Actions like this weren't uncommon and were cold marketing decisions.  Unstated in the film, but certainly true then and now, is that we expect our star singers to be really good-looking.  A singer may have a phenomenal voice, but if he or she is a bit pudgy or plain-looking, they don't get the attention.  (Adele is the current exception that proves the rule).  The music industry makes decisions on artists that will be promoted, get the press, get on late-night TV, and so on, based on what their money-making potential is perceived to be, and singing is only part of it.  I used the impersonal term "the music industry" deliberately, because it is an impersonal process.  Yes, there are people in it who are passionate about particular artists, but the the process as a whole is impersonal.

And it's not unique to music.  Think about baseball, for instance.  Every baseball player wants to get to the major leagues.  Few do.  For every major-league short stop, there are dozens in the minor leagues, and hundreds of good college players who didn't make the transition.  Why?  Well, some of the things discussed in this movie are the same things happening in baseball, just described with different words.

I mentioned culture earlier.  We live in a culture that is constantly bombarding us with things demanding our attention.  We can't possibly listen to every musician out there.  So we ignore most of them and listen to those we know we like.  Your iPod will probably show you that you listen to the same few artists, songs, and albums a lot more than you listen to most of the stuff that's on there.  So even though Darlene Love and the rest have pipes that can blow you out of your car, you're not going to listen to them if you don't know their names.

A comparison might be restaurants.  Say you're rolling down the interstate and getting hungry.  You get off at the next exit and there are two places to eat: one named Joe's and the other a McDonald's.  Which one will you go to?  You go to the one you know.

Another part of making it to the "star" level is luck.  Pure and simple: being in the right place at the right time, with the right sound, and being heard by the right person, is critical.  All the big stars, if they're honest, will tell you that.  And most of them are a bit nervous, because they know that there are lots of people out there with equal or better talent that have not been discovered yet, and they could be dethroned by the Next Big Thing.

But the major factor in whether an artist makes it to the top is the individual artist's character.  Talent and ability is the foundation, of course: if you don't have the pipes, you're not going to be a singer.  Having the will and the drive is the difference between the club singer and the star.  In the film, more than one person mentioned the "killer instinct" - that ability to go for the jugular when necessary, and putting the goal of being a star singer above all other goals.  But being the star means making lots of tradeoffs.  I've seen that first-hand in other career fields when people put their career first.  Families and relationships often pay the price.

One of the things that made "20 Feet to Stardom" so powerful was the exploration of what being a success was all about.  Most of the singers wanted the spotlight for themselves and thought of backup singing as second-tier.  One singer, though, thinks differently.  Lisa Fischer has a voice so powerful that she tours with the Rolling Stones to sing "Gimme Shelter".  She has a world-class voice.  Yet Lisa isn't interested in pursuing the solo dream.  She loves singing for itself, she loves singing with others, and loves building something beautiful on stage.  Other singers in the film said that Lisa doesn't have the killer instinct.  And Lisa will agree with that.  She found a niche that she loves.  She found her own definition of success and, with that, found her own happiness.  Lisa's not chasing a dream that somebody else defined for her.

And this translates directly to my own experience with art.  I've got a pretty good set of artistic pipes with my ability to paint and draw.  I've got things that I want (need) to say with those skills.  I tried pursuing the "successful artist" standard - which is generally defined as selling your work through lots of galleries, making lots of money doing it, and so on.  Turned out it wasn't for me.  The things I wanted to paint didn't sell, and the things that sold, I didn't want to paint.  I was like a folk singer being told that I had to record pop songs if I wanted to be a "success".  So, like Lisa, I redefined what success meant to me.  I'm never going to have a retrospective exhibit at the Met and none of my works will ever sell at a Sotheby's auction.  I'll be the painter's equivalent of a backup singer.  And I'm really cool with that.  

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