The Emperor’s New Clothes

I had the opportunity to attend Pop-Up Magazine’s, “The Song Reader Issue” earlier this week. The premise of the event is a bunch of stories told in unique ways, and that the night happens live, and only once. The show organizers don’t record or photograph the event, and the audience is encouraged to respect the code as well. Most audience members choose to experience the night live, without documentation. This issue was the first to feature music, singing, and a focus on sound. In general, the performances are spoken word, so Pop-Up was a little bit out of their wheelhouse this time around. The tickets sold for $35-$55/ticket, and the event was hosted in the Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. The tickets sold out in 3 minutes. Literally!  I came away from the night with a few interesting take-aways.

Authenticity vs. perfection: These two characteristics felt like a dichotomy at this event. I often shoot for perfection in my performances and professional endeavors, and most of my peers do the same. When you are that polished, you generally lose some of the authenticity. However, Pop-Up strives for raw, authentic, sincere performances, and unfortunately, they sacrificed perfection. The thing is, though, it wasn’t just a lack of polish, but in my opinion, a lack of talent and showmanship. It’s one thing to have an awkward transition between acts, or a technical malfunction with the microphone, but to sing out of key/rhythm, or to try so hard to be “real” that you end up trying too hard does not mean you have tapped into an authentic performance. It’s a fine line, authenticity vs. perfection, but lacking skill or talent does not equal sincerity. (Note that there were a few STELLAR performances, hitting the mark for both authenticity AND perfection.)

We pay for THAT? And yet, many people criticize the quality of community theater performances, or balk at a $20 ticket to a local show. So, why is it that we’re willing to pay for sub-par quality in some situations and not others? I’d argue that the Pop-Up brand equity carried the sales for this event. They’ve produced quality content in the past, and so, even though many of this year’s performers were less than perfect, everyone felt that it was worth it to pay to be part of the evening. But, you can only produce lower quality experiences for so long before you tarnish the brand equity and lose your strong following. Are we willing to take a step back and say that yes, it was an interesting event, and yes, it sparked conversation. But, no, in fact, it was not the most amazing set of musical performances I have ever seen. Are we willing to shell out for a local performer because we know their talent and dedication is worth the money? Where do we draw the line on paying for authenticity vs. perfection?

At a certain age… you should just stop trying, right? WRONG. I’m having this interesting debate with myself about my judgy attitude toward the performers. On one hand, if you’re charging that much for tickets and holding it in a prestigious venue for a well-attended event, you should have some talented people, the best of the best, up there singing and playing their hearts out. On the other hand, why are we (fine, FINE, I’ll admit it, I am critical) so critical of musicians once they reach some magic age? When you’re a little kid, it’s totally acceptable to sing incoherently or forget the lyrics, it’s super cute, because you’re a kid. Even in high school, we’re all very encouraging to soloists who miss notes or go a touch flat, because, hey, they’re young. But why do we require all performers over the age of 20 to be amazing? Why can’t we let people sing their hearts out just because they truly love to sing? For me, I think the deciding factor is whether you’re paying for a certain level of quality. You know that the guitarist at a local club is probably not worth $100 a ticket, but a world-class rock star can demand $400 a ticket. Then again, “world-class rock star” doesn’t actually indicate a higher level of musical or vocal skill or talent. So what makes it ok to pay celebrities millions for auto-tuned tracks and pyro-technic shows that drown out the music, but phenomenal artists with beautiful voices or technically adept fingers barely make a living? There’s something wrong with our (my) thinking.

So, I don’t really have an answer for my musings. I will say that Pop-Up accomplished the goal of being inspiring and thought-provoking. It’s also resulted in many conversations with my co-workers and my husband, all of which are quite authentic. Kudos to you, Pop-Up… maybe I missed the point entirely by assuming I was in for a superb amount of perfection. Then again, the conversations and internal struggle might prove that I actually understand Pop-Up perfectly.

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