Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why Susan Boyle makes me sad

Moosebutter's award-winning song, "Psycho the Musical" (Thanks, MaxedOut Puppetry, for the music video--directed by the lyricist, I might add), is one of my favorite and one of the most consistent belly-laugh getters in their repertoire.


Because when we have an expectation, and someone tweaks it or twists it or messes with it or outright knocks it out from under us, it evokes a surprising and often intense emotional response--and when it's in a circumstance that is controlled, where we feel safe, the response is often delight (rather than disappointment or confusion, which we often feel in real life when expectations are not met). This is the foundation of comedy, magic, and infomercials.

'Psycho' works because it plays with a number of normal human expectations, like that a beautiful voice will sing a beautiful song, and the subject of a beautiful song will not be murder, and that that particular tune goes with a certain set of very familiar words, and that humans must use the bathroom, and what the phrase "music of the night" actually refers to, and that a particular bit of very familiar horror film music is instrumental and therefore never sung, and that you are familiar with the film "psycho"--at least a little bit. Moosebutter challenges all these assumptions, evoking delight and laughter as it repeatedly sets new expectations throughout the song and then, just when you're comfortable that you once again know what's going on, they blow you away again, bringing on another chuckle or rofl.

Good humorists know that comedy, by messing with our expectations, is successful not only if it gets laughs, but also if it provides 'ah-ha!' moments where we, in great delight but without guffaws, look at the world in a whole new way, even just for a moment.

Now, if you haven't heard of Susan Boyle, go to YouTube.com and search for her name and watch the video of her performance at the Britain's Got Talent competition. I'll wait.

Now that you've seen it, here's what I think:

There are a thousand women in the world, or maybe a million, who can sing like that. But the basic assumption we have is that beautiful voices come from beautiful faces. The producers capitalized on this, cutting together the film to emphasize the extremely rude reactions to the woman's appearance on stage (since politeness doesn't make good TV) from both the judges and the audience, using that to set or emphasize our own expectations, as viewers, that beautiful songs come from beautiful birds. After all, nobody wants to be reminded that peacocks can't sing or that most canaries are brown plain janes. If Susan Boyle had been beautiful, her song would not have been nearly as well received, and certainly wouldn't have become a YouTube sensation. She might not have even got through the audition round. We like to root for the underdog, see the "Jack" topple the giant, watch the little boy expose the Emperor's foolish nakedness, and root for the little frumpy cat-owner who is a virtuoso in disguise. And producers like to sell a story--ugly woman impresses simon cowell--more than they like to sell a voice.

The reason this bothers me is that it simply furthers the damaging idea that normal people and people over the age of 18 can't have talents--and if they do, it's so unbelievably noteworthy that it takes the world by storm.

It's damaging because it cuts us off from getting the benefit of the talents that God gave each of us to benefit others and because it discourages us from developing our talents when we aren't young or beautiful (and most of us aren't). I honestly went through a period of severe disappointment and discouragement when I turned 20 because I had graduated from college and hadn't 'made it' yet--at 20!--because the world teaches us that the definition of success is fame and the key to fame is being a young prodigy. It wasn't until I was 24 and my eye doctor (of all people!) commented that I was awfully young to be writing a book did I realize what I had been believing and how dangerous it was.

The other thing that makes me sad about the Susan Boyle phenomenon is another culturally and emotionally dangerous idea that is embedded in it.

On the clip I saw, before Ms. Boyle sings, the judges ask her, essentially, what she wants to be when she grows up. She says she wants to be a singer. The judges go on to ask her why, if she wants to be a singer, at 47 years old she isn't one already?, the obvious implication being that she can't sing or she would be a singer already, if that's what she really wants. She says, "Because I've never been given the chance."

THAT really bothers me. In music (and probably other fields), nobody GIVES you anything. They don't come beating down your door asking you to work for them. Like in publishing and any other field where the supply exceeds the demand, they put the opportunities out there and then have the freedom to pick and choose who they want. If you've "never been give the chance", that means one of two things to those of us on the other side of the audition table: either you're no good, or you're not trying.

Since clearly Ms. Boyle does have the talent, then I place the blame for her 'never having the chance' firmly in her own lap. She could have been auditioning for things, saving her pennies and releasing a cd of her own music, putting her voice online, singing in every community event. She could have done like a thousand other hopefuls and moved to a city where there actually ARE opportunities and then started performing in every audition and venue that would let her. She could have been singing on street corners, for city festivals, for local talent nights, at open mic nights in bars. She could have, at the bare minimum, put herself in a town with a community theater (or started her own) and spent the last 27 years on stage in a local area, sharing her talent with at least those around her. She could have been out networking with other performers, meeting the local professionals, sending demo recordings to or otherwise meeting local producers and recording engineers (not the big ones that work for record companies, but local guys). She could have tracked down an indie recording label or studio and pitched a project to them.

In short, she could have been working the local circuit. Just like the rest of the musicians in the world who want to do it as a career. And if there wasn't a local circuit where she lives, she could have done like the rest of the musicians in the world and moved to a place where there was one--it's not like she was giving up a job (since reports say she's unemployed). And I'm not advocating moving to a performance town to "make it big". I'm saying she could have done like the rest of the musicians I know and go where the auditions are and get any old podunk job she could while she pursued her passion as a hobby or second job on the side.

Now, it may be she WAS doing these things, but a hardworking musician isn't a story--the public much prefers to hear the cinderella story, so a smart producer would try to bury those facts and really emphasize the 'out of the ashes' angle because it makes a bigger story, drawing bigger audiences and theoretically therefore selling more products for the advertising sponsors of the show. Either way, it's what the public is being taught that makes me sad and frustrated.

There are two massive myths in the public about careers in music, and this idea of 'being given the chance' embodies both. One is that the only career in music is massive, worldwide fame and huge fortunes. This is, in my mind, akin to a person developing a great product (and make no mistake, selling your voice or performing skill is turning it into a product just like if you developed a new energy drink) and planning for it to be in every household in the world within 2 weeks. Or akin to an entrepreneur opening a little storefront somewhere and assuming they are an utter failure if they don't eclipse WalMart within a couple months.

In reality, a career in music most often parallels careers other entrepreneurs have: they produce a great product, spend a fortune marketing it, and are content to have a positive income and be able to support themselves by selling it on a local level, with a lot of work, a lot of free samples, and a lot of luck. Do they dream of nationwide distribution? Probably. Are they considered hugely successful with consistent regional distribution? You bet. Most successful products are widely recognized on a regional level and unknown outside their region. Do most have to be content with steady local business and operating in the black most years? I'd guess the answer is yes.

Saying you've never been given the chance also pushes the "myth of discovery"--the idea that the only way to a career in music (which is understood to mean fame and fortune, not steady work with steady pay) is by "being discovered". Not by hard work. Not by developing a fantastic product and then marketing it like crazy. Not by investing time, money, and labor in your product. Not by any action on your part.

How many times have performers said, in response to the question, "how does it feel to be an overnight success?", "If that was overnight, it was the longest night of my life."

Getting 'discovered' and becoming an 'overnight success' takes 10 years or more of hard hard work, and years and years of using your talent to give the best performance of your life, night after night, to crowds of 5 people, three of whom are your relatives, and then spending all day honing your craft, marketing your product, improving your show, and working. And then sometimes something happens that you can't control that rockets you into the national spotlight, but more often than not, you have to either carefully engineer the opportunities to be seen by more of the right people, or be content with a regional presence and just enough money to scrape by if you live modestly.

Success in music is not fame, and certainly not money, for most professional musicians. For most, success in music is getting enough work that you don't have to quit. It's being content being the entirely disposable second guitar player in the third-tier but long-running show in some obscure, dirty casino. It's paying quarterly taxes as an independent contractors, performing and rehearsing at all hours of the day and night, living without health insurance, and going for periods where no money comes in at all. It's having a fantastic reputation among people who hire (not among the legions of cd buyers, but among the production managers, producers, band leaders, recording engineers, and other musicians)--a reputations for being reliable, showing up on time ready to work, doing your job perfectly, being easy to work with, taking feedback--both praise and criticism--with dignity and grace, and getting the work done both quickly and accurately, and being talented. It's a reputation that every businessman needs--as a person who provides the advertised product with good customer service, high quality, on time, and for the agreed-upon price.

Talent is certainly part of the equation. Hard work is. Lacking an ego but having a great deal of humble confidence is part. Being easy to work with is. Knowing your business is. Honesty is. Hard work is. Luck is.

Getting "discovered" really isn't part of the equation. Neither is a desire for fame or money or a diva attitude.

And that's the bottom line. Nobody is going to GIVE you the chance. In music, you have to take chances (in both senses of the phrase) and make chances.

And that's what makes me sad about Susan Boyle. I'm excited for her success and wish her all the best, but I am sad for the legions of dreamers who want it all--fame and fortune--handed to them on a silver platter, and who think that the way Susan Boyle got it is the way it's supposed to be done. It's the gambler's dream, and Satan's plan, and a detriment to our society. And it just got a big shot in the arm by a poor frumpy cat lover who got attention more because she shattered our media-defined and driven expectations than because she can sing.

1 comment:

Heather said...

Very well said. Thanks.