The Upside of Vanity

November 10th, 2005

One of the first lessons of stage performance that we all learn is a lesson in humility, as preached by folks like Don White. My version of the lesson goes like this: a performance is an opportunity and a responsibility. It’s an opportunity because the audience is ready to like you, and that is a gift from the audience to you; it’s an responsibility because your job is to ensure that the audience is rewarded for that gift. Your performance is not about you, so the lesson goes; it’s about making the audience feel good about the investment of time and attention they’ve made.

This lessons means a lot of things, like how it doesn’t matter how well you think you did, but how well the audience thinks you did, which is why you say “Thank you” instead of “Well, you know I screwed up the entire second verse” when Joe Audiencemember says that he liked your song. It means coming down off your high horse and giving up on that seven-minute epic you wrote about spinach, no matter how deeply every single word means to you. And it seems to mean that your enjoyment and pride in the moment is secondary to whatever enjoyment you bring to the listener. And since very few of us are Mother Teresa, the question has to be raised: if this is the most important lesson of performance, what the hell are any of us doing on stage?

Let me elaborate. Being a good performer is astonishingly hard. I know how hard I work at it, and I know how hard my friends and colleagues work at it. If you think it’s easy, or that it doesn’t require a gigantic amount of attention, just sit in on one of David and Buffie’s performance classes, and find out how little you really know. For those of us who aren’t gifted, it takes years to learn to do it well, not to mention the agony of spending three weeks looking for a rhyme for “watermelon” because your newest song demands it, and on and on. And after all this work, our First Lesson of Stage Performance tells me that I’ve done it for someone else. Well, even though we all seem to have taken that crucial vow of poverty, folk singing is seldom grounds for sainthood, and I’m no saint. So why don’t I take my bat and ball and go home? Why don’t we all?

The answer is that the simplest version of the FL of SP is profoundly misleading. It talks about the act of performance, but not its preparation, or its result. The simple fact is that I perform because (a) I want people to hear my songs and (b) I like it when people applaud. In the most cynical of views, the FL of SP isn’t an invocation to monkdom; it’s an instruction on the mechanism of vanity indulgence.

That’s right, we’re vain. Every artist has to be. Being a good artist is too damn much work to engage in it for altruistic reasons. Setting out to make someone else feel good is both a conviction about the value of our own creation or talent and a way to seek validation about that conviction. Think about it. How many people have you encountered at open mikes who were, frankly, not very good, or even downright annoying? They weren’t there for you, the listener; they were there for them, the performer. The difference between them and you, fair talented reader, is that you think they don’t entertain the audience, and you think you do.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s a problem here. Without vanity, there would be little or no music, or art, or literature. Because my buddy John Schindler has his share of vanity, I get to hear his wonderful music, and because I have my share of vanity, he gets to hear mine (or so I flatter myself, but that’s the point, after all). So once you really understand the context of the FL of SP, it’s clear that we’re talking more about a trade than a gift.

The FL of SP, in its simplest form, isn’t really fair to the audience, either. After all, the audience isn’t a passive participant in the activity. Each listener took the time, made room in his or her schedule, spent the money, to come and see us. That is, the FL of SP talks about our obligations to the audience, but doesn’t justify the obligation. Again, there’s nothing really sacred or noble involved; it’s a fair trade, no more, no less.

So in the end, the FL of SP is really about how everybody wins. We do our work, and the audience does its work, and the audience gets its gift, and we get ours. And I can live with that.

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