All Commentary
Saturday, August 27, 2016

Why Are We Fascinated with Terrible Public Performances?

We laugh but also admire because we see ourselves in these pictures of failure.

I laughed, cried, and cheered throughout “Florence Foster Jenkins,” the new movie starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant (brilliant performances both!).

I have a bias. Strangely, I was raised on Jenkins’s singing. My family only had about twenty vinyl albums in the record cabinet in the living room, and “Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!!” was one of them. My brother and I, bored on Saturday afternoons, would pull it out and listen. We played it constantly.

Why? Because it is hilarious. Certainly for us, being raised in a musical family, this stuff was side splitting. Simply put, it is the worst singing you have ever heard. We couldn’t believe she actually did it. She utterly and completely botched every song she ever attempted. But she kept singing. It’s mind boggling.


Huge Popularity

Why did my father have a copy? Millions of people did. She had recorded some singles in the late 1930s, then an album in 1944, the year of her death. It became a smash hit, heard in homes all over the US. It was played on radio stations. She was truly famous, as she wanted to be; but not for the reasons she desired. Later the album was picked up by RCA and it sold throughout the 1950s and 60s. 

Why was such an album ever recorded at all? How did she come to sing at Carnegie Hall? The story I learned as a child – and it was the one most people know – is that she was a very wealthy heiress and benefactress. She was a gigantic supporter of the New York arts scene in a time of great need.

Then she decided to sing herself. She bought her fans. She bought her reviews. She bought her sound studio. And she bought her way into Carnegie Hall.

What’s more  – and this is obvious from the recording – she apparently did not know that she was terrible. Therein is the element of tragedy.

This too we intuited as children. So we, like all her fans for half a century, were indulging in a bit of cruelty here, laughing at her expense. Just as interesting for us was to know of her weird popularity. If this is not evidence of the illusion or the fraud of fame, nothing is. 

The Bubble of Wealth

Where would any of us be in our careers or our lives if we didn’t try to do what we cannot do well?For us, it was a lesson in the dangers of being rich enough to create a bubble for yourself by surrounding yourself with flatterers, so rich as to be insulated from normal criticism. The super-wealthy do this, surely. To make fun of it is a way for us normal folks to be comforted about our meager lot in life. At least we are not so deluded as to think that because of our wealth we can do things we cannot.

The movie shows it all. People would show up to her performances and bust out in laughter. But it was a strange laughter, one you did not want the singer herself to see. And why?

Here is where matters get complex.

Beyond the hilarity, there is a sort of appreciation at work here. After all, she is doing it and we are not. Good for her! This must have been part of her appeal too, in the same way that people have liked the terrible performances of William Hung in our own time.

Or perhaps this is why “fail” videos are so popular on YouTube. We like to see people try to do improbable things, even – or perhaps especially – when it ends in disaster. We laugh, and that’s the only emotion that is expressed out loud. But inside, we feel something more complicated.

Where would any of us be in our careers or our lives if we didn’t try to do what we cannot do well? If we only do what we can do well, we would never make any progress at all. We have to have the courage to try and the willingness to take the risk of falling on our faces.  

More to the Jenkins Story

The movie adds a painful dimension that I had never known. She apparently contracted syphilis at the age of 18 from her husband who died a few years later. This later mutated into neurosyphilis, enhanced by the prescribed therapy of  mercury injections, which introduced disorientation, confusion, mood disturbances, and reality perception problems.

In other words, she was…crazy.

If you have never sung in public, perhaps it is difficult to appreciate just how terrifying it truly is.This helps explain so much and adds to the tragedy of her life. Somehow you come away from the film not with a sense that she was a ridiculous person but rather that she was a heroic figure, a benefactor who loved music and exercised tremendous personal courage in the face of uncommon physical suffering. Audiences had every reason to pay high prices for her concerts and give her repeated standing ovations!

Her mental illness – not so much her wealth as such – is how she could muster the courage to stand in front of audiences and sing so dreadfully and go into the recording studio and produce the worst sound ever heard by the human ear. Sure, that’s nuts. Would that we were all so crazy because in that nuttiness is a level of bravery that we only wish we could have.

The Terror of Performance

If you have never sung in public, perhaps it is difficult to appreciate just how terrifying it truly is. I was tapped to do that very thing this summer: to sing some Cole Porter songs at a dinner at FreedomFest. I’ve given thousands of speeches and even sung liturgical music for many years. What I’ve never done is stand in front of an audience that expected me to delight them with the on-stage production of art.

“Some may say I couldn’t sing. But none can say I didn’t sing.” ~ Florence Foster JenkinsI worked on that eight minutes of music for months. I had no idea what would happen at the actual performance. Would I forget the words? Would I stare out at the audience and suddenly choke in terror? Before going out on stage, my hands were dripping wet with sweat. I could barely see straight. I was shaking like a leaf – and this is after many years of speaking and singing non-entertainment music!

How did I do? I was fine, not great. A major problem with my performance that I had not anticipated is that I had no idea what to do with my hands while I sung. So I put them by my side and that looked very odd. Now I watch music videos and see that what you do with your hands is hugely important for conveying a sense of exuberance and freedom.

Next time I will know. I will do a better job. But there still had to be that first time. That first time is what strikes terror in our hearts: hence the legendary fear of public speaking that is apparently universal. 

Perhaps this is why we laugh so hard at bad public performances. It is our own way of dealing with the awareness that most of us lack the courage to even try to do that. It’s how we justify our own refusal to stick our necks out, perform, and endure the judgement of the listeners. Laughing is our way of saying, “see how right I am not to try this.” 

She Did It!

In Australia a few years ago, I was sitting on a large lawn with several hundred other people, and we were watching an old man on stage dancing to a beatbox playing 80s music. He was absolutely awful. Everyone watched attentively. I was confused. Finally I leaned over to the person next to me and said: “he is terrible. Why are we watching this?”

She snapped back at me: “We are watching him because at least he is trying. I don’t see you doing it.”

Wow. Good point. And so I watched with greater appreciation.

So cheers to Florence Foster Jenkins, a model for us all. She did the thing, and so should we.

“Some may say I couldn’t sing. But none can say I didn’t sing.” ~ Florence Foster Jenkins

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Here is a beautiful documentary on her life: