I don't normally watch TV. Mainly, I don't have the time, but also I find TV makes me feel hopeless. The way people behave on television seems like bad medicine to me, all gossipy and manipulative, downright competitive and cruel.
Regular TV watching sort of "sanctions" the worst in people. I realize, of course, that there are great shows out there too, with excellent content. And I know tonnes of people who enjoy watching TV, so I continually try and get into it, just to feel connected to the masses and understand popular thinking.
My favourite time to watch TV is with family, because it's vaguely social. I like watching what they like watching, because TV shows make them happy. That, in turn, makes ME happy. I like to see what my family and friends are interested in, because most of my hours are spent alone, doing what professional artists do; working.
Being an artist is a full time job, unlike a 9-5 job where the hours are more structured. Observing, practicing, writing, refining and managing ideas, synthesizing what we see, and attempting to create products that reflects a distinct world view in a manner which hopefully brings clarity or joy to those who come in contact with the work, these tasks are an all-day process. They do not stop when you leave the office, because life and living is the office.
In addition to the reflective side of being an artist and interpreting/synthesizing information, artists also have the same day-to-day stuff of running our businesses like any other business owner; administration, money management, keeping track of our staff, making sure product moves forward on time, endless digital file management, communicating and building meaningful relationships with agents, labels, engineers, mixers, mastering studios, press, other artists, sponsors, managers. And then of course there are the responsibilities of tending to our families -- and by families, I do not simply reference biological offspring, but more on that in another blog...
Anyway I keep hearing about the show The X Factor, so recently while hanging with family, I suggested we watch the program. I thought it would be interesting to see that big showy side of the music world. But what I witnessed made me uncomfortable. TV programs like The X Factor offer zero insight into the real work ethic behind being a professional artist, all the while encouraging people to think of music as some vain pursuit of splashy fame, setting potentially talented kids and adults up for a permanent sense of dissatisfaction in the arts "unless they become famous."
As a caveat, I acknowledge that there ARE people who want fame for fame's sake. I've met them. They drive the music business forward economically by continuing to make choices that promote the hell out of their songs. These fame driven artists are an important component of the music industry, but they are not 100 per cent of it.
Back to The X Factor...
So we sat down as a family one night to watch this show that millions of people apparently LOVE, and a very sweet 13-year-old girl belts her heart out under televised blinged-out pressure. Immediately, I felt really, really sad for her. What is she learning while being primped and posed, positioned in the spotlight of a TV show aimed at fleeting, exaggerated record deals?
We can see over and over by now that except for a select few of these fame factory winners (such as Carrie Underwood, who maintains a solid career and is by the way, a Native American woman, but more on that in another blog), the so-called "opportunities" offered through being on TV do not guarantee the winners anything but passing fame.
Where will this young 13-year-old go from here? Will she always associate singing with "I almost made the finals on a TV show"? What will happen to her love of singing? Will she associate it with failure if she doesn't win? Here is a kid who is holding herself like an adult, belting out her soul with the conviction of an adult, clothed and made up to look like an adult. My heart bloody ACHED for this child.
I know I know I know that everyone is supposed to want fame, and that she is clearly being parented by those who want fame for her, but I have to say that fame is not the best side of music-making. MUSIC is the best side. Joy is the reward. Hard work ethic and a sense of completion is the reward. Knowing you created something out of nothing is the reward. Making your own path is the reward.
My concern is that encouraging people to want fame, rather than to want the process of developing divergent skills, a self motivated work ethic, and an entrepreneurial vision, is to miss out on the creative joys of being an artist. Like I say, I realize I am not in the majority here, but I think we have gone a bit far with the promotion of fame just for fame's sake, and I think TV shows like The X Factor are making a whole generation of egotists who have no idea what it takes to actually BE an artist, and are focused instead on "getting famous" -- whether through YouTube hits, or TV, or getting "discovered." What about wanting to make music and art because it heals the body and soul and makes others happy when they are exposed to it? What about wanting to be an artist because it makes you strong by virtue of creating your own path?
If I were that 13 year old's parents, I would keep her far, far away from those TV shows that pit people meaninglessly against others. I would encourage her to work hard on her gifts rather than putting her in grown up shows under grown up pressures. For every kid who wants to sing and be the prettiest and most famous, there is another kid who also sings and is pretty too, with wealthier parents, more money, more access to press, and better connections to the music industry. Look at Lana Del Rey if you question the way the music industry works. She wanted fame bad enough that her billionaire daddy bought her a new face and the best producers money could buy -- and now she is a household name.
Most artists do not have parents or investors that can pay for facelifts and million dollar videos or studios, expensive marketing campaigns and tour support. And aside from the fame that might one day come, in North America, being an artist is an entrepreneurial venture in which full time work loads will forever be mocked by folks who only view "real jobs" as jobs that they can understand in a conventional manner; like a doctor, or a teacher, or a lawyer, etc.
Being an artist, even if you are successful, does not necessarily mean you will have splashy fame, or gain the respect of your family or friends. It means that no matter how hard you work, most folks will assume you sleep late, float around with no responsibility, and have no goals.
These prejudices are firmly in place, therefore the very act of being an artist is fortifying by resisting convention. You can escape condescending remarks about your job while working overseas, but in North America, it's pretty certain that only your hard work will provide you with a sense of self-worth. Maybe when you are in the paper or on TV people will give you fleeting respect, but it will be fleeting, as people follow media to determine their beliefs, and media itself is fickle.
Because making music requires massive amounts of time alone, people will assume you "do nothing." And because there is no office, no steady paycheck, and no set category for what you produce, you, and you alone manifest long and short-term plans that require immense creativity, clarity, adaptability and VISION.
And even though you are making the music that will keep people happy in traffic jams, make them feel good while they cook dinners and dance with their kids, you will still be treated poorly, have terrible health coverage, and be looked down upon and belittled by relatives and friends. But they don't show this side of music making on The X Factor. I guess hard work ethic does not make for good TV?
Imagine a different world -- one where gifted kids and adults had no X Factor shows encouraging them to seek fame as the ultimate measure of success, and instead theses people were encouraged to create work that lasts, rather than sells, and were given the respect that conventional jobs are given, including paid days off and proper health insurance, maternal and paternal leave, etc.
Away from the lure of internet celebrity and the TV fame game, imagine if that 13-year-old girl was encouraged to become innovative and confident, skilled and resilient as the artist she might become, creating work that has no measure aside from the compass inside the body that says, "you worked hard today. Well done."