Peter Davison explores some of the myths of stardom and wonders whether there are lessons to be learnt, discovering what it reveals about our human need for creative freedom and expression.
Can you be the star of your own show?
Every child and many adults too, dream of being the star of the show. It is a potent fantasy; to be valued and acclaimed without reserve by everyone. As children we also learn that there are easy ways to become centre of attention – doing something clever, something naughty or even just looking cute. (Divas learn their trade at a young age!) Now if you have a talent and people like what you can do and will pay you for it, that is cause for general celebration and I would not complain. Anyone who achieves real distinction in their lives deserves all the credit they get. But being the star of the show is not something that everyone can be all of the time, and often we feel uncomfortable that in our present culture, a lot of attention goes to people who have no talent, who seem even to embody mediocrity and keep real talent out of the limelight. What does it take to be a star in a culture where no-one seems to know what is worthy of praise or attention anymore?
We live in a complex multimedia age. Fame can be achieved overnight for doing very little, and easily digestible talent is sold to the mass-market with ruthless efficiency. The intoxicating fantasy of fame, fortune and fast-living has become a cliché and a strong motivation for youth to dream of avoiding the hard slog of earning a living by other means. This instant celebrity phenomenon has achieved its apogee in reality TV shows where contestants become stars for their willingness to humiliate themselves and expose their worst failings. But who is manipulating whom in these tawdry programmes? Is the audience, whose voyeuristic appetites have no bounds, exploiting the contestants or – are the contestants exploiting a gullible audience who fuel their narcissistic fantasies? Or is it perhaps just the TV moguls who are grateful for the general lack of taste? The crowd and the celebrity are locked in a deadly embrace.
The same applies to many aspects of the musical world – and I include a few classical artists here. It is easy enough to stand out from the crowd by wearing some unconventional attire, revealing rather too much décolletage or playing a weirdly shaped instrument. There is always a temptation to find the gimmick which sets you apart in a competitive market-place. Good looks and youth help, as well as the willingness to bend your talent (if you have some) to suit the demands of the image-makers. Off-stage antics which attract press attention and create self-serving myths never do any harm, if you want to boost sales.
Now this post is beginning to sound like another cynical whine about the lack of substance in much of what passes for musical life in all its genres. Phoniness is everywhere, and has been for a long time, but I want to stand everything on its head, and find out what being a star really means. It is my belief that it is something very different from the kind of exhibitionist displays we usually associate with stardom and which are then endlessly imitated by those seeking instant celebrity. A lot of this is just plain ego-ambition and a compulsive need for attention – attention at almost any cost. But the point is….YOU CAN BE THE STAR OF YOUR OWN SHOW!
Let me redefine the terms. What most popular performers have, and which, if we are honest, we more self-conscious individuals envy, is that shameless desire for attention. They don’t apologise for wanting you to notice them and they don’t apologise for what they do, even if what they do is often awful. Most of us, programmed by our conditioning for modesty and fear of failure, are a bit more cautious than that. We soon learn that, if we don’t attract too much attention and don’t take too many risks, we can avoid being noticed and criticised. We get used to being told what to do, what to think and what deserves our attention. We rely on dreaming vicariously about being the star, which makes us vulnerable to the hype which surrounds the achievements of others and the power of suggestion upon which celebrity culture thrives. The real motivation for a lot of a lot of “pop” culture is after all about getting noticed, not about revealing real creative gifts. Millions fall for the trick, mesmerised by sexual glamour, cultivated eccentricity and scandalous tales.
The success of talent shows is that their audiences are just like the people appearing in them. Then audience behave as if amazed to discover that there are people who can sing, dance and do magic tricks living around the corner. That is what impresses them, rarely the act itself. Not only that, stardom is conferred just by being on TV and that makes the mundane seem special. But all of this presupposes that stardom is about appearing on TV and performing in a particular way that most likely mimics the style of someone who is already a star. So while it looks as though these instant celebrities are standing out from the crowd, they are actually reinforcing the idea that there is only the crowd. The crowd itself dictates who is noticed and who is left submerged within. But here is the big secret! The crowd is a fiction created by the fear of not being part of the crowd. It is the place where you can hide your talent for being you and instead entertain the crowd by giving them a mirror of themselves.
So you can see that being the star of your own show is very different from being a star on a TV show. Being the star of your own show means dismissing the idea there is a crowd to please. You choose your own crowd and that crowd may be just you, for that in the end is whom you have to learn to please. You should be the centre of your own world and when you do things that are central to your own world, you will fulfil your potential. Your world might be big or small, here or there – but the important thing is that it is your world and no-one else’s. No TV Mogul, marketing executive, tabloid newspaper or peer group can tell you what your world is. You discover it for yourself, create it on your own terms and set up your own parameters of success. And finally, yes, you can learn a lesson from those stars of popular culture by not apologising for doing what you do, however grand or modest in content. You should create your own show, where you are always unashamedly the star-performer.
You might be thinking, what will happen if everyone becomes their own kind of star? Certainly interest in talent shows would decline, because nobody would be at home dreaming of success, because everyone would be out there being successful. But success would not be having your own TV series, nor singing Elvis songs with a karaoke machine. That would be far too uninteresting and predictable, because it suggests I can only be “like” someone, never be me. In fact, I have no idea what would happen if everyone became the star of their own show. It would be dangerously anarchic. It might lead to flash-mob opera performances or it could be as discreet as someone having the nerve to write down what he or she feels at dawn. Creative impulses are spontaneous and meaningful regardless of context, and when we have the courage to follow them, even if no one is there to witness it, we are for that moment the star of our own show. You don’t need outrageous costumes, flashing lights and a frenzied sea of humanity to be a star. You are a star every time you liberate yourself to do and express what is really inside you.