Genius, By Invitation Only

Written by on July 5, 2015

“What kept me sane was knowing that things would change, and it was a question of keeping myself together until they did.” — Nina Simone

I think most humans are voyeuristic by nature. We linger, pry, dig into situations and people’s backstories like they are somehow public property and available to us without the tariff of compassion, empathy or even genuine interest. We honestly believe that we deserve to know. And nowhere is this more apparent than with the combined intrusiveness of celebrity and the 24-hour news cycle.

I found myself swept up in deeply emotional territory last week around music and artists I love: the sad anniversary of Phyllis Hyman’s suicide, some fleeting moments of reflection on Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday living their blues as powerfully as they sang them, the potent lyricism of Kendrick Lamar’s latest album “To Pimp A Butterfly,” and the Netflix documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” All beloved icons. Performers. Public figures, living private lives that very few of us could know or comprehend. Success, whether financial or commercial, does not spare you from demons taunting you with their snide whispers, pain that vacillates between psychological and physical, or actual life-threatening drama that turns up its volume once the stage lights go out and the crowd disperses.

Our dependence (perhaps, insistence) on the private pain of performing artists is particularly vulgar and sadistic. It’s our impulse to state publicly that we liked Mary J Blige better when she was strung out on drugs or getting her ass beat. That we liked “fat Luther” and wished he wouldn’t get caught up in the weight loss yo-yo and just accept himself the way he was. That Tupac was brilliant, but he always kept bad company around him, and it’s no wonder that his life ended so early, violently and tragically. WHAT?!?! Do we listen to ourselves when we spew such hateful nonsense in casual conversations, or think about the effect of releasing all of that negative energy into the Universe, directed at specific people and their innermost trauma? We project to these artists that their pathologies work to our benefit. They should suffer in shadows, but shake it off in time for them to take center stage and sing, act, play their instruments and dance, at our pleasure. On demand, regardless of the consequences. Subject to our criticism if it doesn’t all go down the way we expected or imagined, especially if it doesn’t sound as flawless as the record.

Just plain selfish. And horribly, destructively short-sighted.

We do Nina Simone’s legacy a grave disservice by boiling her career’s decline down to her mental illness. Billie’s to her alcoholism. Or Phyllis’ to her depression. It is so much more layered and complex than what happens in the public eye, analyzed through our limited lenses, regardless of how much we love their artistic talent. We first must accept that we only have access to the gift, the personality, and their work because they allow us to. We are not entitled to any of it. These performers have a compulsion to share their gift, and we lap it up like sweet cream. If we expect that exceptional artistry can survive these tumultuous times in which we live, we also have to know when to toss a lifeline. Reduce our demands. Create space for a troubled soul to heal. Mature. Fine-tune the voice and the message, and share more of it only when they’re ready. Do we really believe that people can sing our life stories out loud, beautifully and painfully, without consequence? That truth-telling is easy? That liberation happens without casualties?

We have access to genius by invitation only, and we need to do a much better job of honoring the privilege and recognizing that our payment is far higher than the number on the ticket stub.



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