By Lisa Okuhn
The film 20 Feet from Stardom, which won the 2014 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, focuses primarily on the careers of African American female singers who backed up musicians from Elvis Presley to Madonna to Michael Jackson. Despite their tremendous talents, and the fact that their voices and presence onstage transformed American popular music, most of them never gained the spotlight.
But from my perspective, the movie’s not primarily about disappointment. And although it touches on the subject, it’s not really about white musicians appropriating and benefiting from the African American gospel voice. The movie is about art, and love, and why we do what we do.
Although fame would have been welcome, these singers weren’t simply chasing glory. They built solid careers, and they made good if not astonishing sums of money. They sang because they were given prodigious gifts, because they loved music, and because they took pride in the fact that their voices and musical contributions created a shift in the world’s cultural paradigm.
Sure, many of them tried to make it big, and while some background singers succeed in becoming stars in their own right, many do not. Merry Clayton’s solo career wasn’t stratospherically successful, despite releasing several albums. But that’s OK with her. She says, without a trace of bitterness, “I just do the work.” Indeed. Listen to the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” It’s Clayton who gives the song soul, depth, sheer power.
These days it seems like many young artists seek stardom above all else. Dancers aim to win So You Think You Can Dance, to star in a movie, to choreograph for Nicki Minaj. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with ambition—we should all dream big and work hard. But I fear that some dancers forget how satisfying it is to dance their hearts out with no promised acclaim, no million-dollar contract, not even a follow-spot.
In my experience, dancing as part of a group—dancing backup, if you will—can be as satisfying as dancing a solo role, although it’s a different experience. As Lisa Fischer said in the documentary, about singing background for artists like Luther Vandross, Tina Turner, and the Rolling Stones, “I love melodies. I’m in love with the sound vibration and what it does with other people. . . . Singing is about sharing. It’s never a competition.” Dancing is about sharing too, not pushing everyone else aside to scramble to the top.
Part of the problem, as I see it, is that with the decimation of the middle class and the ever-widening chasm between the 1 percent and the rest of us, we’ve lost the sense that there is dignity in hard, good work—even in the arts. There’s less and less proud middle ground between being number one and being a failure. Culturally, we’ve set up a zero sum game, where artists feel like they have to win season six of whatever to hold their heads high.
It’s easy these days to forget the pleasure and satisfaction to be found in moving as a group across the stage, in sensing how you and your fellow dancers are changing the physics in the room, in working assiduously but perhaps unglamorously to highlight with pinpoint precision a moment or a sound or a gesture.
Not that these vocal artists’ extraordinarily talents go unrecognized. The platinum-record, arena-filling, multimillionaire musicians with whom they worked have nothing but respect, admiration, even awe, for the singers’ gifts: their raw talent, their musicianship, and not least, their professionalism. Darlene Love was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. Lisa Fischer won a Best R&B Vocal Performance Grammy for her single, “How Can I Ease the Pain.”
But when Fischer told the New York Times, “I reject the notion that the job you excel at is somehow not enough to aspire to, that there has to be something more,” I think she was saying that it’s enough to love your work, and do it well. She put words to a truth that so many of us who have spent many years in the dance field have known for a long time: we don’t all have to be stars.
DSL associate editor Lisa Okuhn is a writer and a former dancer with Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians, ODC/Dance, and others. She founded arts-focused Okuhn Public Relations.