Hollywood vs. my brother

December 23, 2008

This was an essay I wrote about my brother who, at the time, was addicted to karaoke. 

Frank Sinatra

Every Friday night my brother is at Joe Pop’s in Ship Bottom putting his own spin on Frank Sinatra. When he’s not there, he’s at the Quarter Deck and at 11, after all the other karaoke stints are over, he’s at Kubel’s where the clients are as old as the paneling on the walls but the applause is just as loud as anywhere.

And it’s the same thing. He never progresses past “Fly Me to the Moon,” or “Zing! Went the Strings of my Heart.” But each time he goes up, the crowd cheers. With his smooth mix of originality and Sinatra-isms, like the snapping of his fingers, Eric is pure entertainment.

Hollywood, of course, would never think so. 

Unlike the perfection and polish we, as an audience, are accustomed to viewing in sitcoms and dramas on TV or the big screen, my brother does not offer the same Hollywood standard of refinement and honing. He’s not a pro. He never went to Julliard or trained on Broadway. He never went to acting or entertaining school. He was never lucky enough to know someone who knows someone who knows someone else who could get him in to meet Martin Scorsese or the head of EMI. He could care less about becoming the next Harry Conick Jr. And when he hits the wrong note up on Kubel’s 5×5 ft. stage, there’s no editing out the mistakes. Pure. Raw. Unadulterated. And that’s OK. He doesn’t seem to mind, and despite moderate flinching from the audience, neither do we. What’s more, even though he’s just as influenced socially and culturally by the industry’s ideal of what is “standard” entertainment, it has no bearing on his courage or ability to perform anyway.

I, on the other hand, cannot claim the same amount of courage, regardless of having a fairly decent voice. When we make our rounds of the karaoke bars, it takes me five Yuenglings and a shot of tequila before I get up to do Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” Is it stage fright? Not exactly. I’ve been teaching in front of classrooms and speaking publicly on and off for 15 years. Maybe it’s disinterest. Again, this is far from true after a sober realization of wishing I pursued a career as a singer. No. My lack of courage comes instead from having watched too many Turner Classic movies. It comes instead from falling prey to the idea that the media define what is acceptable or unacceptable. It comes instead from being tricked by the smoke and mirrors of perfection Hollywood has created. And it comes instead from a belief that if I can’t sing just like Patsy, I shouldn’t sing at all.

It’s pretty safe to say that while Eric is the exception, I am the rule. There are hundreds of thousands of people who do not possess an ounce of stage fright and are born with sufficient amounts of ambition for this kind of life. But something holds them back.

That “something” might be that their definition of talent isn’t really theirs at all. It belongs to corporate America, to the 10 o’clock news, to Hollywood and the music industry. It’s an extremely narrow, corporate point of view that dictates how we appreciate art, music, film, theater, even the clown at a neighborhood children’s party. And it skews our thinking of what normal is as far as the concept of performance is concerned.

Take Britney Spears for example. For more than ten years she seems to have set the standard by which all other female entertainers follow. Sony/BMG Label Group (Spears’ record label), thus, defined a good performer on youth, looks, sexiness and blond hair. And after which, America was inundated with Britney look-alikes: Christina Aguilera, Hillary Duff, Hanna Montana, Jessica Simpson and so on. They literally stopped taking a chance on any other entertainers that did not fit this description. “Pink” somehow squeezed through, but only after ditching her edginess for a more conforming look.

Another example: When it comes down to what is aired on radio stations, the repeat time for a “top ten” hit outweighs and out-buys what any local, new artist could ever squeeze through the turnstile of opportunity. One song, in fact, must earn the amount of money required to pay royalties on mechanical rights, performance rights and now, movie rights. And so air-time is essentially monopolized by a few hundred hit songs all trying to earn their keep. There is no room for anything else. When I think of how many times they still play Rod Stewart when there are so many new and noteworthy bands out there, I want to vomit. 

Statistically speaking, it’s sad when you learn how limited our choice of entertainment is.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is an umbrella trade organization that represents a little over 1600 record labels and claims that it “creates, manufactures and/or distributes approximately 90% of all legitimate sound recordings produced and sold in the United States.” But of those 1,600 or so labels there are only four major ones: EMI, Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group, which control 70% of the industry. In March of 2006 Myspace had 1.4 million registered, unsigned bands. How many of them will ever see the likes of a Warner Brothers contract? Answer: less than one percent.

Of all the potential talent that exists in this country alone, there are only one or two albums each week that will sell a million copies—only a pathetic few actors (about ten) will be handed a check for 20 million for one film. And with big Hollywood corporations like Disney and Viacom buying up independent radio stations, TV channels, movie production studios, newspapers, book publishing companies and even cell phone provider companies we are left with less and less diversity and a more corporate, Disney-esque view of the world. It’s no wonder I find it hard to get up on stage and sing my heart out. One wobbly note tosses me into the slush pile of performers who weren’t schooled in the Mickey Mouse Club.

Here’s an embarrassing fact. I was in my late 20’s when I found XPN. For those of you who still don’t know exactly what XPN is, it’s an independent, member-supported radio station from the University of Pennsylvania, that (get this) still includes contact information where you can send your own, original music if you’d like it to be considered for air-play. When I came across this station, purely by coincidence, it was during a phase of instinctual curiosity and a basic need to find folk music, a genre of music I grew up with but truly believed died out with bell-bottoms and hip-huggers. My parents, both musicians, played their Martin acoustic guitars almost every where they went, singing songs from Bob Dylan, Eric Andersen, Peter, Paul & Mary, Emmy Lou Harris and others. As I grew older, I found it hard to believe that there wasn’t a new generation of people who might produce music like that, but I never, ever, ever, ever heard any folk on the big stations. So, for the longest time, I figured it didn’t exist. Until one day, I began a search. When I hit 88.5, there it was: a whole new world of music revealed to me.

Josh Ritter, Wilco, Clem Snide, Martha Wainwright, Joe Purdy. Ray LaMontagne, Damien Rice, The Damnwells, Bon Iver, Glen Hansard. And on and on. I wondered why big labels never picked up half these musicians. I wondered why radio stations never played them. Though I was grateful to find this genre of music, I was eerily disturbed by the fact that it’s been kept such a secret; that “variety,” “diversity” and “talent” don’t earn as much money as over-produced bleach blondes with belly rings and double-D’s.

There are several arguments of which I will not get into: 1.) that Hollywood caters to popular demand and gives us what we want; 2.) that Hollywood defines popular culture and tells us what we want; or 3.) a combo of both. Anyway you look at it, there is a huge gaping disconnect between the popular entertainment that we’re spoon fed and the reality of a more natural, flawed, human entertainment. For a change, listen to one of XPNs live studio sessions compared to one produced by a Clear Channel-owned station. This difference is enormous. When Regina Spektor was invited to XPN for a live session, you could hear pages turned, throat clearing, notes that were improperly hit. She sounded magnificent. She sounded real. And it made all the difference in the world when it came to appreciating the human quality of her performance and believing I too should be able to sing and make a few mistakes.

Gladly, Hollywood has no authority at Kubel’s where there’s no TV hovering over the bar and the crowd of shots drinkers mostly, has much lower expectations of a good performance. It’s Friday, and that means karaoke, which ultimately means my brother. 

This week he’s doing one of Sinatra’s best, “The Lady is a Tramp.” He promised a few regulars the week before that he’d do it. And he always keeps his promises. I’m there for support. Though he doesn’t need it. When he grabs the mic from behind the bar, he tests it once or twice for feedback. He nervously laughs and then says, “hit it Johnny,” despite knowing that the DJ’s name is Rob. As the music starts, he begins keeping time with a finger snap and a foot tap. There’s a twinkle in his eye. His voice is a little off. He doesn’t hit every note. But he’s charming. He really draws you in. I think what makes him so good is that he really believes he’s Frank, if just for the time it takes him to hit that last, sustained C note.

I sometimes laugh at guys like Eric who will never amount to all the hype I’m used to seeing on the big screen, but I shouldn’t. He deserves credit for maintaining individuality in a world where expectations are at the mercy of a very small, narrow-minded clique of people who pick and choose entertainment for us. I give credit to the audience too, for sacrificing their more rigid and illusory vision of what entertainment “should be.” It’s very hard to overcome socially determined notions of fashion and behavior, and simply enjoy entertainment for entertainment’s sake. It’s hard to accept other interpretations of performance without feeling ashamed or embarrassed for the one performing. 

Of course, a little bit of Hollywood mixed with a lot of reality makes the best performance. And that’s possibly why Eric is so worth watching. He gives us both. And even though he’s not getting paid for his rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema,” he’s happy. Occasionally one of the “dames” at Kubel’s will buy him a drink after the show. That’s pay enough—and it’s usually always the same: “two fingers of Jack Daniels over the right amount of ice.” Just like Frank.

Resources: stopbigmedia.com, musicthinktank.com

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