To start at the beginning of this blog series: in a nutshell: I was invited to compete on “America’s Got Talent” last March in Seattle, I played James Brown “I Feel Good,” was buzzed to rejection with lightning speed, and the show aired a few days ago. The previous blog tells about how I prepared for the contest, which started as an adventure and a creative research project, but quickly became conflict-in-microcosm for a serious conflict playing out bigtime in my ‘real’ life.
We lose ourselves and we find ourselves in the most unexpected ways.
By the time I walked onto the AGT stage, my 90-second performance of James Brown’s “I Feel Good” represented the entire struggle between buying the idea that who I am as an artist is fundamentally unmarketable — and believing that “sellable or not – this is who I am and this is what I do.”
It hurts that I still struggle with that after years as an artist, and that I still find myself at times unable to stand up for the artist I am — notwithstanding the fact that I still can’t articulate what that is. But this is why artists have managers in the first place: the greatest managers – like the greatest directors, or producers or teachers – fight fiercely to keep revealing who that artist really is, particularly to the artist — but also to the public.
Without that support, there’s a constant conflict between trying to maintain (while still discovering) ones’ individuality — and thinking that each glitzy new mold we could pour ourselves into might bring us ‘real’ success, not the fake kind we have. Maybe other artists are more self-realized. Me? I struggle with that every day.
But why play that conflict out on National TV?
If I was a more cosmic-type, I’d say that I needed that kind of floodlight to see it myself.
In any case, there I was, backstage at “America’s Got Talent,” deeply conflicted, unable to even verbalize the conflict to myself, and wearing blue-sequins. By then, I’d totally committed to trying it my producer’s way – actually, I didn’t think I had a choice – I’d bought the idea that performing the way I actually perform was not only certain to fail — but was actually against the rules. And I was only vaguely aware of my original purpose, which was to go through this as research for my musical. I had totally bought in to the game.
So, I walked out on stage and launched into my James Brown routine, which started intentionally bland and underwhelming, and which would build over 90 seconds to a spectacular climax.
Only I never got beyond the first 10 seconds. All 3 judges buzzed me almost simultaneously, which meant, that the power to my harp was also cut. “Woah, that was fast,” I thought.
But it wasn’t over, because now the judges had the microphone. “Well, first of all,” one of them said – and I can’t remember who — “first of all, you’re not a singer.”
“Right,” I said, wondering why anyone would think I was, not realizing that right there was a huge disconnect.
Then Howie Mandel leaned up to the mic. “You say,” he said, “that you want to show the world what this instrument can do. But what you’re doing is just a gimmick.”
And the second he said that, all the chatter in my head stopped and the whole struggle became clear. Every bit of it, from the reason I was playing this piece to the way I was playing it. “That’s it!!!” I thought. “That is the WORD! This approach IS a gimmick!!”
And the next second I was flooded with relief. “My god,” I thought “My god! I just got saved from a year of going down the wrong road!!!”
So I floated off the stage, and into a bank of cameras, with interviewers asking, “Is there anything you regret? What do you wish you’d done differently out there?” And all I could think was, “‘America’s Got Talent’ just saved my life!!”
So anyone who thinks that I felt bad being rejected on National TV, has it completely wrong. That moment was transcendent.
Later, when I started realizing how caught up I’d become in my own self-doubt, and that I’d still have to explain to my producer-friend that the Classic Rock Orchestra Harp show wasn’t really me; and when I knew I’d be on national TV in a way that was less-than-impressive – OK, that didn’t feel so great. But the moment of revelation was exquisite.
I wanted to write about it. I wanted to talk about it. But of course, I couldn’t. We all had to keep completely mum until the show aired, which was last week.
When it did air, I kind of hoped my entire performance would be cut – but it wasn’t – there was still enough there to disappoint the people who love what I do — and it hurt to know that they were disappointed. But now that it has aired, and I can finally write about the experience, it’s a huge relief. And I realize that that moment of clarity, that was so strong when Howie Mandel laid it on the line, that clarity has blurred a little in the past months, and writing about it brings it back into focus.
So … as a research project for my ‘ultimate game show musical’ (see blog #1) my experience on “America’s Got Talent” went beyond my wildest hopes. And in the next few blogs I’ll talk about the amazing, committed people I met on the show.
I also know now that this experience will become part of my own shows. But there won’t be any judges in that audience, just a whole lot of human beings who have all, at some point or other, opened themselves up to ridicule by reaching imperfectly for who they are.
And you know what I’m going to do? You guessed it – pull out my harp and play my 90-second version of James Brown “I Feel Good.”
We lose ourselves and we find ourselves in the most unexpected ways. And it does feel good.
Stay tuned for next AGT blog: Standing in Stark Contrast (or whatever I end up calling it) – The Authenticity of Marylee Hause.
Wow – just the expression on your face in that screenshot is so unlike you when performing that by itself it would have told me you had gotten into a wrong situation…
Deborah, I have been seeing your shows for the greater part of 20 years (and am a budding harpist myself). I’ve brought friends, family, tagalongs, … you name it — and I can most assuredly say, your live performances exceed expectations… again and again whether I’m bringing someone new or someone I’ve brought before… whether it’s a traditional piece, jazz, blues or channeling Jimi Hendrix/James Brown. (It’s almost as if the recordings cannot capture the energy… almost, for there’s much energy there.) I just want to say, ‘kudos’ for carrying on with your art and your music — that is why I’ve been a fan for 2 decades plus.
It’s been a great adventure — and, for that, I thank you. I look forward to future performances, experiments, experiences with your music. So, rock on — it DOES feel good.
The idea that a no-talent, neurotic, piss-ant like Howie Mandel would pass judgment on you is laughable in the extreme. You learned a painful but necessary lesson my old friend, one that I knew decades ago – the mainstream culture exists for one reason only: to elevate the mediocre and bland for the entertainment and opiation of the masses who are merely sheeplike consumers sucking at the tit of the corporate state; yes, the same people who actually believe that American Idol winners are chosen by their “votes.” (The notion that the producers of this particular piece of nonsense would actually put the fate of their season in the hands of the unsophisticated public is absurd. Yet try and convince the show’s watchers that they are being shucked and they will rip off your limbs.)
Experiement: sit in your car for two minutes and put the radio on scan. You will discover, in an almost immediate assault of sound, that all of the “music” sounds the exact same and all of it sucks. This is by design. The day your music is played on the air is the day you will regret ever having picked up the harp for you will know that you have devolved into the morass of chatter and static that passes for musical communication.
So hold your head up. Being rejected by these bozos is a badge of honor similar to my being fired by Disney World three times in eight years. Going to the streets all those years ago was the smartest thing I ever did, and I will always regret having to kowtow to the world of corporate “entertainment,” for as long as I did. The only way to stay true to yourself is to remain outside the commonweal. And don’t let anyone suggest your response was “sour grapes.” You were saved from your producer’s worst instincts by a guardian angel. Keep playing and continue to rise above the crap.
Al … I love you, I love your spirit, I’ve always loved watching you perform you – and I think I’m one of the lucky people who really HAS gotten to see you do you. And, honestly, I disagree — at least about what I experienced on AGT. I chose to go on this show and put myself in this position. I didn’t have to. And I felt that what Howie Mandel said to me was not only true, but more importantly, was CLEAR. If I’d been really showing ‘myself’ I might have felt differently — or not.
For all I know, they may have decided to bump me before I ever got on stage. But that doesn’t matter to me. Maybe it’s selfish, but I’m really most interested in what I got out of this, what I experienced, what I saw about myself and other people, what I learned about the passion of non-professional artists, how it helped me see the ways in which I’m NOT standing up for myself artistically. I’m embarrassed to say this, but Howie Mandel totally liberated me in that moment. Gazillions of people pass judgment on me, but … I mean … so what? I don’t have to listen to it. In this case, it was deeply illuminating — it gave me an insight I was desperate for. I just got lucky.
It’s great to hear your passion here – as always. YOU blew me away 25 years ago when I saw you turn a walkway in Faneuil Hall into instant theater – I’ve never forgotten that, and it inspires me to this day.
But you know what I most love about what you wrote? It reminds me of the piece we wrote called “Evangelist of Entertainment” — I GOTTA get that piece recorded and on line!!
Deborah, I don’t think you need to worry that any of us that enjoy your art were disappointed with you. Speaking for myself, my disappointment was that AGT’s large audience didn’t get to see and hear more than a few seconds of your performance. I am disappointed for them, not with you. I am really enjoying reading about the whole experience and so happy you made such important self-discoveries in the process.
I say to the judges “No.” You’re best.
This post is a real surprise for me! because I have the SAME experience with me… in a argentine tv program called “El Casting de la tele” (The Television Casting)… and… I played the electric harp in this program years ago… I played your Baroque Flamenco, on the semifinal stage… and the people of the jury say “ok ok… you play really well the harp! but… I dont like your piercings… I dont like your t-shirt… and I think that you just pretend to be different!”…
I have the same problem with a stupid productor of Argentina also… This year he contacted me for promove my art… he was think that my music is magic… loved… and blablabla!!!… But… he say “Athy… you need to look like a very romantic and Armani or Christian Dior model with a harp! you are not freak!”… ok ok ok… and what happen with the PERSONALITY of the harper?!!! my GOD!!!! You have a loooooooooooooonggggggg road on the art!! you are the best harpist that I ever listened! (and I play the harp for 13 years…. and… YOU are the unique harpist that touched my heart and soul and… you have the energy for promove a NEW style of harpists… I hate the classical style of harpist… the harp… is a very ambiguos instrument… and… I hate teh idea that the people put the harp on the stupid place of classical… angelical… and new age faces!!… YOU CHANGED THE HISTORY of this “mytical” instrument… and this people dont KNOW NOTHING!!…
Is incredible but Im really touched by this history… because I have the same problem here in Argentina… and… this last weeks Im really sad for this producer… for his words… really… BUT NOW… I know… that YOU are a pionner!!! like Madonna… like Michael Jackson BUT on the harp… and seriusly Deborah… this people of the jury… dont know nothink about THE HARP!!…
With you forever!… on the same road…
And… for me… for this young artist from Argentina… you are 100!! not 10! 10000! 🙂 Congratulations for this big artistic road. You are the best.
P.D: So sorry for my english… I hope that you understand the all words… 🙂
I’m sorry you had this experience, Athy — but it sounds like, for you, it made you more strong in yourself, which is what it did for me, and that is worth so much! I know you know who you are, and the ‘you’ of you will win, no matter what!
“They told me to expect a lot of pressure from AGT producers to “game” the show by playing familiar music (subtext: DON’T play your originals) – ”
They say the same for me!!!! and I played the Canon of Pachelbel on the first round because they want a “familiar” harp sound!!!! see this video Deborah:
My experience is in ARGENTINA! And your experience is in USA!!!
This world… is terrible… my God… the same history… on different parts of the world!!!
Yes, but for me, it was a very good experience. Like dragons at the gate of myself, you know. It’s just an experience. They are making television the way they envision it, they have no personal feelings against artists. It is for us to find a way for that experience to help lead us closer to ourselves. In that way, it is a very, very good situation — just painful, like a lot of growing.