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.  

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Creativity in Different Forms

Shortly after my last post, back at the end of December, my consulting business had a major project come in.  It wound up requiring a 7-day-a-week effort that is just now coming to completion.  I wasn't able to even go to the studio for a month.  One day, when I was a bit frustrated over the lack of time for making art, I saw a Facebook post from a friend that helped put it in perspective.  It was a quote from an anonymous source:

"I think everything in life is art.  What you do.  How you dress.  The way you love someone, and how you talk.  Your smile and your personality.  What you believe in, and all your dreams.  The way you drink your tea.  How you decorate your home.  Your grocery list.  The food you make.  How your writing looks.  And the way you feel.  Life is art."

Things have a way of slapping you in the face when you're ready for them, and I was ready for this bit of wisdom at that particular moment.  I realized that all my work on this project was, in fact, art.  And more than that, it was going to directly affect the lives of a great many people over the next five years, and many more indirectly for many more years in the future.

Okay, to back up a little and set the stage.  In my consulting work, I'm helping a couple of client companies put together contract proposals.  This particular proposal was in response to a call by a US government agency for companies who could provide specific services in developing nations around the world over the next five years.  One of my client companies is pretty well-positioned to do much of what was needed.  We brought in two other companies to fill in the capabilities that they lacked.  I wound up driving the effort to put the proposal together.

This was no small task.  The proposal had very specific requirements for what had to be addressed, which forms had to be filled out, what typeface and font size had to be used, the maximum number of pages, and so on.  Some of the requirements were contradictory: one form could not be filled out using the typeface and font size specified, for example.  And, since we were working with two other companies, I had to take their inputs and edit them into the required format and structure.

So how is this art?  Well, when I'm working in the studio on a "serious" painting, I've got something specific in mind regarding what I want the artwork to say.  Everything is crafted around that goal: the composition, things depicted, their relationships to each other, the play of light and dark, color choices, and on and on.  Everything is constantly being compared to everything else and tweaked to make the whole painting sing one harmonious song.  I'm not an impulsive painter, never have been, and cannot work that way, although I have great admiration for artists who can do it well.  I'm a linear thinker in the first place, and that trait was honed over 20 years in the Navy.

My proposal writing uses the same approach.  I had something very specific in mind, along with some given limitations of what I could and couldn't do.  Everything was crafted around the story that our team could do a fantastic job with any tasks that the government agency might need.  I built an outline (like building the composition in a painting), started filling in the major areas, added details, deleted less-valuable stuff to give more emphasis to more-important stuff, and in general made it as strong as I possibly could.  Then I sent it off to the client and partners for review.  When I'm creating a painting, I'll often ask a few people (my wife, for one) for their thoughts on the work-in-progress as I want to see if it says what I want it to.  In this case, it was very important that the experts in the client company and the two partners ensure that the proposal was (a) accurate and (b) compelling.  Then it went through revision after revision.  Again, this is something I do in a painting - there are many works where every square inch has been repainted multiple times.

So now we're down to the final few changes.  When it gets down to very minor wordsmithing, you know it's done.  And this one is very strong.  I'm extremely confident that we're going to get it.

I came to the realization a number of years ago that my goal in life is not necessarily to make a lot of paintings, but to create things that make a positive change in the world.  If I can do that through paint, wonderful, but it's not the only way.  This proposal we're finishing up will make a huge difference to the people who will actually do the work.  They're going to get the opportunities to work in places they've never worked before, and they'll be helping people who really need their services.  Even after the contract is over, the results of those services will be making a positive impact.  And this wouldn't happen if I did a crappy job with that proposal.

So I'm happy with the results of my work for the past month.  It was creative and it will have an impact.  But now I want to spend some make-up time in the studio!