We were backstage mingling around with our peers and our gear, our stomachs in knots as a result of the anticipation and excitement. We had never done this before. How was it going to play out? Exactly how many people are out there? Do we have any clue what we’re doing?
The auditorium backstage I am speaking of belonged to my middle school. The people “out there” were our classmates. It was the 8th-grade talent show. This was my first gig. It was 1988.
My first band was called High Voltage (don’t laugh, at the time we thought it was “cool” in an AC/DC kinda way). I will say this about us: we were so green that we thought the difference between guitars was how they were tuned. In other words, we didn’t even realize you had to tune your guitars together. This led to a classmates father (who “produced” our demo in our drummers’ basement) to inform us that we sounded like “Sonic Youth.” We were Iron Maiden/Judas Priest/Kiss-loving teenagers, we had no fuckin’ clue who this “Sonic Youth” he referred to was (the ultimate irony being that they are now one of my all-time favorite bands). Another thing I will say about High Voltage is that we wrote our own songs, no covers. “Danger In The Night”, “Living In A Nightmare” were a few titles, so you get the gist of what we were shooting for at the time. With lyrics like, “he’s out in the night, looking for a fight, danger in the night, danger in the night” no one was mistaking us for Dylan.
We played the show that day and it was a feeling that I will never, ever be able to replicate again as long as I live. To say it was exhilarating would be an understatement. We honestly didn’t care about it being a talent show/competition, we just played for 300 people and it was our first gig. We played our three original songs for our classmates and showed them how cool we were cause “we play in a rock band!” After our set we went backstage and high-fived each other, packed up our gear, and chatted with our fellow contestants. Two of our classmates lip-singed and break-danced to a couple of Run DMC and LL Cool J songs. Another did an incredible lip-sing-while-actually-also-singing-above-the-track version of Marvin Gaye’s “Heard It Through The Grapevine” and we were all impressed. There was talk of an Aerosmith/Run DMC-type collaboration but we might have been getting ahead of ourselves. It was a very self-congratulatory moment for all of us.
Then the judges announced the winners. “Grapevine” lip-singer won, Run DMC lip-singers came in second, and we came in third. Were we disappointed? A little. Did we think two acts that lip-singed were more talented than a young band who played all original songs (and their own instruments)? I am not sure what we thought. I know we respected our classmates talents, I am pretty sure they respected ours. But this was the moment, my first gig ever, that I realized something: music should never be a competition.
Today, almost every major television network has some sort of singing or talent contest program. The goal being to give amateur talent a platform to expose themselves in hopes of breaking into the business (and for the producers of said shows to cash in on it). While these shows are extremely popular and sometimes do, in fact, find incredibly talented people, I cannot get behind any program that is essentially pitting artists against one another. Someone once told me, “it’s not like there is only one record contract out there.”
Competitiveness is not necessarily always a bad thing, even within music. Being competitive might drive you to become a better drummer or singer, or push your band to its limits, or force you to think outside-the-box. In sports, if you lack it, then you are probably only there to collect a paycheck. Some of the greatest athletes of all-time were extremely competitive (ever hear of Michael Jordan, Mohammad Ali, or Derek Jeter?). Eric Claption saw Jimi Hendrix play and realized he needed to step his game up. Is that Clapton being competitive or influenced? We may not ever know that answer, we don’t know exactly what motivates people (coaches have been trying to figure this out forever). Maybe Clapton went home that night and decided “I have to become a better guitar player than him.” I doubt he did, but it’s possible. More than likely, if he is like most musicians, than he was simply influenced and inspired by Jimi’s playing. Let’s face it, it would be foolish for anyone, even Clapton, to think they were going to top Jimi.
When winning talent shows, battle of the bands, or any sort of “contest” becomes your main goal than you are missing the point of being an artist. Sure, winning one might jump-start your career or expose you to an entirely new audience, but you should never look at the singer, band, or magician next to you as your competition. You should look at them as potential inspiration. I don’t listen to Neil Young because I want to be better than him. I don’t enjoy his music because it makes me want to top his success’s. I listen and it inspires me to do my own thing, be my own artist, expand my box as wide as I can.
That is not to say that people aren’t inherently competitive, because most are in some capacity. It is human nature to want to succeed at whatever you are doing and if someone else is in line to share or take that success then you will want to make sure your game is in top form. But when it comes to the arts, I feel that competition should be a four-letter word. Replace competition with inspiration.
I will leave you with an appropriate joke for this piece:
How many guitar players does it take to screw in a light bulb?
One to do it and 49 to say ‘I can do that!'”
Great article! Performing live in any setting is nerve racking, so when you add competitiveness to it you just make it worse imo. Love the part about being influenced/inspired by another artist – that’s what it’s like for me. When I see others doing their thing at open mics – it’s good energy to feed off of. Which is probably why I haven’t enter in any competitions. Or the fact that no matter how much I practice my guitar, I’ll never be as good as Jimi Hendrix. lol
Yuuuuup. It’s an interesting distinction between influence and competition. I suppose the good thing is that direct, curated competition is pretty rare (it’s pretty much just battle of the bands, right?). I think that when you strive to beat another musician your loosing sight of why you became a musician in the first place – because you like playing music. It’s a thought provoking article. Well done!
Your teachers were total dicks man!
I think the problem with TV talent shows is that everyone is competting for the same incredibly narrow idea of what fantastic actually is – there’s no room to be truly individual because it’s not as marketable.
I like battle of the bands weeks or nights in clubs though – were every one is doing there own thing and judged on their own merits.
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