Every season, you tune in to watch another generation of Idol contestants. You relish the transformation of an awkward teenager to international star. You embrace the evolution of an obscure unknown to Grammy winner. You cry along with the singer who has emerged from the privacy of their bedroom to take the stage euphorically as a consummate professional. It’s the rapid rise to fame that the Idol franchise – and other shows like them – promise to those who are lucky enough to get on TV.
And maybe they give you hope. Maybe you imagine that you will be next. Maybe you see it as proof that the industry is thriving, that there’s an audience out there for you, too. Maybe you enjoy the secret knowledge that you are better than all of them.
But if you’re anything like many of the artists I have worked with, that might not be all you’re taking away from these shows.
Many artists, I’ve discovered, actually don’t identify with the winner. They don’t secretly nurture the belief that they are the one who gets through the auditions, attracts the coveted praise of the judges week after week, wins the votes and goes on to a fabulous career.
They don’t even identify with the loser. No – many artists identify with someone else entirely, someone who gets even more press and more attention than the star, the one person who is remembered for years after the winners have been forgotten…The talentless buffoon who graces the stage in early audition rounds. You know who I’m talking about – those contestants who seem to be completely unaware that they have no talent – not an ounce, not a murmur, not a far-distant hoot of talent – but sincerely seem to believe that they are the universe’s gift to the music industry and have the tenacity to tell everyone who will listen.
I mean no disrespect to these contestants. Some are clearly doing it for the attention, hamming it up for the cameras. Others are simply victims of a production process that takes whatever natural lack of talent is apparent and magnifies it through interviewing and strategic editing. These buffoons are an important part of the entertainment value of the show, but they are characters, created for TV by TV and bear very little resemblance to real life. Clowns have been used in theatre for a very long time, and reality TV is much more theatre than reality.
But, somehow, artists watching the show forget that these are clowns. Fictional characters. Distortions.
Instead, artists identify with the clown. Rather than believing the inner voice that tells them that they have talent, they start to internalize the insidious voice represented by the clowns. Fear and insecurity bury their way into the chasm deep within each artist where such evil resides. There they fester – unacknowledged, unspoken – until someone, maybe a friend, a creativity coach or a mentor, helps the artist to hold them up to the light.
“What if…?” the artist whispers, trying to understand a paralyzing inability to commit to a new project, almost too afraid to speak their secret truth out loud in case it becomes true. “What if I’m like one of those people on Idol? What if I think I’m good, or even just ok, and everyone else knows I’m really, really bad? What if everyone else is laughing at me, and I’m the only one who thinks I’m any good?” There it is, the stark, naked truth. “What if I’m the clown?”
The sad thing is, none of the artists who have confessed this fear to me are even remotely in that position. Many of them are extremely accomplished, having worked in their field for years. They have learned the hard way the importance of preparation, practice and feedback. There even seems to be some inverse logic at play – younger artists seem to identify more with the winners, seeing that it could easily be themselves; the more experienced, seasoned artists seem more likely to harbour this secret fear and identify with the clown. Perhaps because they have lived through humiliation a million times in their minds over the course of their career.
There’s only one real solution I’ve found. The fear has to be acknowledged, brought out into the sunlight, examined from different angles, and then thrown away as ridiculous, or at least unlikely. Even if there was a real world equivalent of the humiliation that is thrown at the clown characters on TV talent shows, unless you have a completely overblown, grandiose view of yourself, and you’re really, ridiculously bad (not just mediocre, but absolutely shockingly bad) you’re very unlikely to be the target of such ridicule.
And that little inner voice that tells you that you have talent? It’s almost always more reliable than the voice that is getting ready to laugh at you.