Who The Hell Are You Anyway?
Establishing an instantly recognizable identity can be the most elusive ingredient in building a career as a young musical artist. We see the difficulty every time we tune in to American Idol. Young artists competing for public recognition struggle every week to be whatever it is they think will keep them on the show another week. They adopt new hairstyles, change their demeanor, paint their nails, get a new tattoo and make the sort of unfortunate wardrobe choices that could easily backfire in any posh big city nightspot. No matter how well or badly these aspiring idols are able to perform, I always want to ask the question, “Who the hell are you anyway? I mean…really…who?”
Now, we can talk all we want about artistic integrity and all of that sort of balderdash. But if you are a musical performer attempting to enter the professional ranks as a recording artist, the issue of commercial marketability is inescapable and must be addressed. Every public image, every word, spoken, written and sung, every video, every note produced is a commercial advertisement of your product whether you like it or not. You are perceived as being the sum of that which you allow to be put before the public.
In today’s marketplace, the highest priority is given to immediacy of product identification. When you go to the convenience store to buy a pack of breath mints, the box that looks the coolest will win every time. The mints might taste like horseshoe nails and there might be the most amazing breath mints only inches away in a plain brown wrapper. But by the time you realize you’ve bought the box instead of the mints your money is already on the way to corporate headquarters. This distasteful form of hucksterism has sadly become the engine driving public underwear-washing displays like American Idol. The contestants who are fortunate enough to make the show spend so much energy trying to be everything to everybody that we never really get a chance to know them. Am I seeing an artist who has average abilities in multiple genres, or am I watching a victim of multiple personality disorder unravel like Sally Field’s Sybil as she tries to decide on which of her sixteen personalities will be the flavor of the day?
It’s not that I’m knocking American Idol, nor do I wish to downplay the need for effective marketability. But if you think about it, of the many talented artists who have managed any sort of post-Idol career, the most publicly accepted are the ones who showed their cards early on. Carrie Underwood has always been a wholesome Country Artist even though she had to prove herself relatively competent in multiple genres during her competition. Chris Daughtry is another example of an artist we felt we knew from the start. Adam Lambert on the other hand, could be one of the most impressive singers in the show’s history. But will his chameleon-like ability to transform into anything that serves the moment be an asset or a liability? Would true Country fans accept Adam’s interpretation of a Dolly Parton classic? Do die-hard Queen fans really take Adam’s performance with the band as anything more than a novelty. There’s no question that, purely on a technical level, Adam sings higher and louder than many of the great Motown artists. But would real Motown fans swallow an Adam Lambert remake of What’s Going On? Singing ability aside, you just want to ask yourself “Who the hell is this guy…really?”
There can be a wide gulf between great musical artists and great entertainers. Great artists can also be considered great entertainers but great entertainers are not necessarily great musical artists. Tina Turner and Elvis Presley are the epitome of the former while Sammy Davis Jr. and Wayne Newton are examples of the latter. Time and public acceptance will answer as to where Adam Lambert’s contributions will fall in this equation.
Two other examples of artistic multiple personality disorder spring to mind. I attended the American Music Awards a few years ago when Rod Stewart took the stage to perform a medley from his Great American Songbook album. You had to be a true blue Rod Stewart fan to keep your pre-show h’ordeuvres from making a curtain call. And Michael McDonald wouldn’t have lost one molecule of career luster had he let someone else make a spiritless remake of Motown classics. There are just some things that don’t need to be done. I admit that Stewart and McDonald were established superstars and had a right to do as they pleased. Established stars can remake themselves to varying degrees of success over the length of a long career. But for an unknown artist to morph across genres while compiling material geared to attract industry attention is a mistake.
A good pal of mine mentors aspiring recording artists seeking fame on different web-based platforms like AKAmusic and Sellaband. His DreamTeam members are at the stage at which they must make the choices and decisions which will define their artistic identities to potential fans with whom they may never have personal contact. The era of booking a showcase gig and padding the house with friends and relatives is over. Music lovers can search the web and find the music they like from an ever increasing pool of talent. So, how should these artists proceed? How can one artist become the sought-after product desired over millions of others offered for consideration?
For these up-and-coming then, there is the question of what to do, what to do? The first thing I suppose is to decide what you are. Are you a singer, a songwriter, a pianist, a guitarist? Is there one aspect of your talent that holds court over the others? Does the interaction between your singing and playing embellish or detract from your performance? Are you ready to admit that there may be a difference between the genre that you enjoy as opposed to the genre in which you are most capable? Are you a Rock singer in an R&B body or is there a Country heart beating in your Alt-Rock chest? These are some questions that have to do with what’s on the inside and only you can answer them.
What’s inside will eventually make its way to the surface. So what condition is your outside in? Do you dress the part? And if you do, is it just a part or is this who you really are? Did you get a tattoo to show your individuality, or did you do it because you didn’t want to be left out? Do you take a magazine to the hairdresser to give an example of what you want to look like, or do you put a pair of underpants on your head to keep your hair out of your eyes as you hover over your laptop writing your heart out.
Appearing onstage can be a matter of playing a role, wearing a costume or playing pretend. But when all you have between you and your public is a set of headphones it makes being somebody more important than being like somebody. And when a truly great artist hits that first note you don’t need to see a driver’s license or passport to know who they are.
Believe me when I tell you that I don’t have any answers. But I’m still left with one important question…Who the hell are you anyway?