Friday, August 12, 2011

Mozart, Black, Brontë: thoughts on fame

I've been thinking about the nature of fame. It's a strange beastie. Is fame completely capricious, or is there a pattern? Can anyone become famous? If so, why do some people with demonstrable talent remain obscure, while others with only mediocre ability become household names? Is it true that only a few people have what it takes to be famous? Or is it more true to say that many have it in them to become famous in some way, but only a few possess the will to act on that seed of ability and turn it into something truly notable?

Let's consider three case studies in fame: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Rebecca Black and Branwell Brontë. (It's just possible that these three names have never before been grouped in a sentence, for reasons that should become obvious.)

Mozart is almost universally considered to be a genius and a musical prodigy, and no doubt he arrived on the planet with the seed of an astonishing gift. But if he had been born into another family or in a slightly different time and place, his gifts likely would have remained embryonic and he would have lived and died in obscurity. Instead he was born to Leopold Mozart, a teacher, violinist and deputy musician to the court orchestra of the Archbishop of Salzburg. From the time he was a toddler, Wolfgang was fascinated by the sound of the clavier, and soon Leopold was teaching lessons to his three-year-old son as well as to Mozart's older sister Nannerl. In addition to regular teaching, insistence on daily practice and encouraging his children to compose their own musical works, Leopold had an eye for commercial exploitation of their talents; both children completed several continental tours of Europe as child prodigies. Mozart thus became accustomed to performing difficult pieces before large audiences, all before the age of ten. Leopold made certain his son had a chance to meet and learn from well-known musicians on these tours. And Leopold was constantly on the lookout for employment prospects for his son, probably helping him find his first employment as a Salzburg court musician and a later appointment as court organist and concert master. Mozart seemed to have trouble coping on his own without the redoubtable force of nature that was his father.

No doubt Mozart had a considerable natural talent for music and composing, but where would it have taken him if he had been born into a different household -- say, for instance, if his father had been a farrier or a chandler -- with no musical instruments in the home and no particular interest in growing that natural talent into something more? His father's position and drive to help his son succeed made the difference, for Mozart, between obscurity and fame. If there had been no Leopold to recognize Mozart's natural talents, to push him to learn and practice those talents, to make him perform in front of others, or to set him up in positions where those talents could be honed and improved, it is very likely there would be no W. A. Mozart in the canon of classical music.

Now consider the mercurial singing career of Rebecca Black. I know I'm about to be egged for mentioning Black in the same breath as Mozart, but believe it or not, they do have a few similarities. Black's parents also had faith in their daughter's abilities and championed her desire to sing, paying $4,000 to a vanity music producer to write her a pop ballad and a supporting music video. The result, the execrable "Friday," was released to YouTube in early 2011 and went viral within a month. The video's iffy production values, mindless bubble-gum lyrics, highly-processed vocals and irritatingly nasal chorus seemed to disgust most viewers -- but they were disgusted enough to pass the video on to their friends. "Friday" became a paradox of the so-bad-it's-good variety; almost everyone agreed the song was terrible, but they also found it terribly entertaining. It was widely parodied, became fodder for late-night opening monologues and pseudo-intellectual deconstruction essays, even spawned a cover version on Glee. Rebecca Black, who had set out to become famous and instead became infamous, was the recipient of both downloads and death threats for much of Spring 2011.

I suspect most people, having experienced this kind of negative attention, would have retreated into obscurity to become an asterisk on the pop charts. But Rebecca Black has not gone quietly. She responded to death threats and bullying by quitting public school, established her own independent record label and released another single, "My Moment," whose lyrics directly address her many critics. On August 10, she appeared on a segment of America's Got Talent in which, outshone by stage pyrotechnics and the Solid Pyrite Backup Dancers, she performed an unevenly-pitched medley of "Friday" and "My Moment" that could only be described as awkward. And she intends to press forward with her debut album.

Will Rebecca Black ever make it as a singer? It's tempting to scoff at the idea, but it's not that easy to dismiss her. True, Rebecca Black is no Mozart; she clearly has little natural talent for music. But she has a few other key ingredients that often lead to long-term fame: parents who clearly support, both morally and financially, her desire to be famous; a willingness to put herself in front of audiences on a regular basis, even if the response tends to be more catcalls than curtain calls. More than anything else, though, this 14-year-old girl has DRIVE. Death threats, criticism, and a simple lack of ability will not dissuade her from her goal of becoming a well-known singer. How many teenage girls do you know who have this level of desire? If she can channel that unusual drive into regular practice with talented vocal coaches, and if she can learn to take constructive criticism from people who want her to succeed, her name could become something more than pop-culture shorthand for crash-and-burn vanity performances.

Finally, we come to Branwell Brontë. If you're saying "Who?" at this point, don't be concerned; Branwell wasn't anywhere near as famous as his sisters, novelists Anne, Charlotte and Emily, and he is sometimes known as "the forgotten Brontë." But in his youth he was the hope and the pride of his family, who regarded him as the brightest and most likely to succeed of any of the Brontë siblings. And by all accounts, Branwell was brilliant. He was widely read, wrote prolifically, created fictional worlds with his sisters, drew well and painted capably in oils. Patrick Brontë made no secret of the fact that his only son was his favorite child. He chose to send his daughters away to a charity boarding school, but kept Branwell at home, personally tutoring him in a classical education to prepare him for one of England's great universities and grooming him for the future success as a painter that everyone, including Branwell, assumed would be his destiny.

And then Branwell left home and steadily, surely, repeatedly failed to ignite. He never bothered to apply to the Royal Academy of Arts, tried his hand at being a private tutor but was dismissed repeatedly for drunkenness, had an ill-fated affair with a married woman fifteen years his senior, was apparently addicted to laudanum and other drugs, and developed the DTs as a consequence of chronic drinking. His family, at first perplexed and then horrified by his personal failures, continued to support him financially in the hopes that he would finally achieve the destiny for which he had been prepared, but the closest Branwell ever came to burning brightly as an adult was in the throes of his depression after his married mistress had rejected him, when he attempted to commit suicide by setting fire to his own bed. He died of complications from chronic bronchitis at the age of 31, having failed to achieve any work of lasting artistic significance, though his dissolute adult life may have inspired many of the characters and situations in his sisters' novels.

Branwell had most of the classic ingredients for success: natural brilliance and talent, a keen imagination, a family who supported and championed him, a fantastic preparatory education. He was petted, pampered, trained, groomed, brought to the very edge of a sea of artistic possibility -- and he wandered away. Because the one thing this young man did not have was a drive to succeed. With all his meticulous preparation for life, Branwell Brontë seemed to be missing a key element: he may have assumed, along with his family, that it was his destiny to become a great painter, but he seems never to have considered the idea that this destiny would require him to act decisively to achieve it. Instead, he meandered from one inconsequential job to another, blundering from misadventure to addiction to despair, forever waiting for his expected destiny to show up and bestow itself upon him. His sisters, who were not raised with the same expectation of their destiny, went on to prove themselves in far more spectacular ways than their brilliant but dissipated brother ever did. Their works have shone brightly for the better part of a century and a half, and public interest in them shows no sign of flagging.

So perhaps, more than natural talent, educational development of that talent, or familial support, the single most important factor in determining any one person's fame is personal drive to succeed -- something that can neither be taught nor bestowed, but has to come from within. I guess everything else is gravy.


Lady Arat said... is this a message to members of the family... ?

Soozcat said...

It wasn't really meant to be pointed at anyone. Insofar as I identify with any of these people I usually identify most closely with Branwell: capable enough, but lacking drive.

I do think that drive is one of the most necessary factors for success. At the same time, I'm not sure whether drive can be learned, or whether it's simply inherent. I'm still thinking about it. But sometimes that's why you write -- to figure out what you think about something.

Scarehaircare said...

Well written, Sooz.

Soozcat said...

Thanks, Carrie.