It's About the Work, Not the Glory
By Mark Small
In the minds of many, fame and fortune are inextricably linked and perceived as highly desirable. TV shows such as Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood fan the flames of everyone's fantasies about stardom. They offer numerous views of the glamorous side of celebrity and an occasional view of its downside. And these days, we seem to hear more about rich and famous people than ever before. Comedians, corporate CEOs, athletes, and politicians as well as movie stars and rock gods are in the lenses of the paparazzi and the tabloids. Today's relentless and pervasive media has enabled us to become ever-more obsessed with famous folk. Nevertheless, those who attain widespread and enduring celebrity status constitute a very small-if highly visible-segment of the population.
What's the Attraction?
A friend of mine (who is not a musician) told me he could easily understand people seeking fortune but that he didn't get the quest for fame. Fame, he supposed, would be a nuisance. His opinion, though, was from a vantage point outside the chimerical world that most musicians inhabit. Baby boomers-my generation-were swept up in the sensational worldwide fame of the Beatles. It all seemed so cool and exciting: thousands of adoring girls swooned over them, hordes of autograph seekers waited in long lines to see them close-up, and impassioned crowds chased them down the streets in the movie A Hard Day's Night. Their music reached me as a young teen, and after the British invasion, I became one of the 5 million people who bought a guitar. Years later, I was surprised when I read George Harrison's thoughts on his Beatle experience. "The split-up of the Beatles satisfied me more than anything else in my career. Being a Beatle was a nightmare, a horror story. I don't even like to think about it."1 Wow, I never expected that.
Most musicians who aspire to the stage first experienced those absolutely intoxicating moments sitting in the audience before a show: witnessing the stage lights dim, a beloved performer appear amid huge applause, and those magic seconds of silence before the first notes break the spell. In the best-case scenario, a concert experience with a legendary performer can feel like an afflatus to audience members. To aspirants, it somehow seems logical that creating such an atmosphere as part of a day's work makes up for the disruptions to personal life that fame brings.
Some celebrities crave-even demand-the spotlight, others shun it, some are quite at ease with all the attention. Among the ranks of those at ease is Aerosmith's Steven Tyler. A few years ago, when he was at Berklee's commencement to receive an honorary doctorate, I asked him what he'd tell new graduates who strive for fame.
"I would tell the kids to go for it," he said. "It sounded strange to me to hear my early peers say they thought their fans were crazy people. If I record a song that gets on the radio and the Billboard charts, it's not strange that someone comes up and wants a piece of me. . . .They don't deserve to be in my backyard and climbing up the roof-which people will do-but you've reached people when that happens. I always wanted to reach people."
Truth. The best performers are those with the gift to reach people. We feel indebted to an artist whose music has underscored parts of our lives, was poignant during a difficult time, or embodied the joy of our carefree youth. We feel a kinship with those whose life experience plays sincerely through their music. We imagine these artists to be friends despite the fact that they don't know us and we really know only their music, not them.
The Perils of Fame
For some, of course, fame becomes a heavy burden. Elvis Presley spoke of growing weary of being "Elvis" and the desire to walk away from it all. But he didn't. "It's too late for that. There are too many people that depend on me. I'm too obligated. I'm in too far to get out." 2 The annals of music history-in rock, jazz, blues, folk classical, and country music; genre doesn't matter-are full of tragic tales of those who lost their footing after becoming objects of public desire. Some were not grounded beforehand, but often their baggage held mass appeal. Some possessed such a compelling gift that all else was overlooked. The mean streets of stardom have led some to drug or alcohol addiction, unhappy marriages and costly divorces, even suicide.
In a 2005 Berklee Today interview, John Mayer revealed that he understood the perils of the fast lane. His view was that when an artist makes sound decisions, he can circumnavigate the risks. "Fame is interesting," he said. "It can come to life. There are nights when I want to get trashed on heartbreak, Hollywood, camera flashes, cars, pushing past the line, the music, and the romance-but those are tickets out." 3
For some superstars, there appeared to be no way they could control the momentum once their careers hit warp speed. Ubercelebrity musicians such as the Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Michael Jackson have generated massive media attention worldwide. With the recent passing of Michael Jackson, we've been reminded that the untimely death of an artist increases fans' fascination, offering a star an imperfect immortality of sorts. But ultimately, the fame game runs its course, and the frenzy abates.
It seems that most who come to Berklee are serious about music first. Many believe it's a solid stepping stone to whatever fame they dream is possible for them. If you put forth the effort, you will improve your craft-guaranteed. Fame is more elusive, less bankable.
In a recent phone interview, Linda Ronstadt told me that she'd experienced surprise attacks by the paparazzi when she starred on Broadway and that occasionally people attempted to follow her home. Her advice: don't aim for or count on fame.
"Often it's not the most talented person who becomes famous," she says. "Culture is odd and can resonate in unexpected ways. Some people are just lined up with a strange set of circumstances that can't be replicated. [Broadway producer] Joseph Papp told us 'The work is all.' It's really true. When you get stuck, turn back into the work. Don't think about the public. Think about what you have to say, and make it clear."
Indeed, we can't count on fortune or fame that could end up being a cage. But we can rely on the sweet taste of sincere music making. Fame and fortune will visit few, but those pursuing musical artistry have already tasted the fruit of their labor, and it's deeply satisfying. It's not diminished because it hasn't made you a household name (yet).
1 Giuliano, Geoffrey. Dark Horse: The Secret: Life of George Harrison, Toronto: Stoddart, 1989, 66.
2 McKeon, Elizabeth and Linda Everett. , Elvis Speaks, Nashville: Cumberland House, 1997, 147.
3 Small, Mark. "Running with the Big Dogs," Berklee today, vol. 17, no. 2, 2005, 13. (www.berklee.edu/bt/172/coverstory.html).