Talent is not what separates the lead singer from the back-up singers. The fabulous documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom makes that case over and over again. In fact, it makes a strong case for the conclusion that the most talent on any stage may be found in that line of unnamed women to the side of or behind the superstar everyone paid their money to see. If talent doesn't decide who stands where on the stage, what does? Personality type, luck, connections, and the desire to be the lead, meaning the willingness to promote yourself, to lose your privacy, to do what it takes. The film also suggests that the dedication to music as art is perhaps greatest in that back-up line as well.
It’s not a huge leap from thinking about the work of back-up singing to thinking about work in general, all kinds of jobs and all kinds of workers, including the professional superstars who’ve worked their career magic and found their places at the top, and those people who are to the side and beneath.
If you haven’t seen the documentary, I really recommend you do so. You can watch it streaming on Netflix. The video I’ve embedded in this post is a five-minute featurette about the documentary. In this video, director Morgan Neville has this to say about how viewers relate to the stories of these back-up singers:
"I was at the Minneapolis Film Festival and afterwards a guy stood up and said, 'I’m a middle manager at a software company here. I’ve been working for twenty years, I work with a team of people, I’m proud of the people I work with, I’m proud of our product. I don’t get all the title of the money in the world, and I just realized, I’m a back-up singer.'"
"We all feel to some extent that we live in that gulf between our childhood dreams and the reality of our real life.” Even though these women had incredible talent, and you keep thinking, Isn’t it a shame that they’re not a star?, what you realize is they’ve found their own way to be happy and that’s way more important than being famous."