While I was watching American Idol last week, it suddenly hit me—so much of what we see happening on that show serves as a perfect metaphor for Hollywood. I watched as contestant after contestant took their place before the microphone and presented their gift to the world. Then watched again as the judges gave their opinions. Each contestant listened (or not) and then moved on so the next could have their turn.
Early in the show this season, one young man, Andrew Garcia, performed a slow guitar rendition of Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” that blew my mind, the judges’ minds and the rest of America’s minds.[HD] Andrew Garcia – Straight Up Acoustic Version American Idol Hollywood Round2 It was clear he was in a class all by himself. His performance was far beyond anything anyone sang to that point (and many believe since). It did not appear that any of the other contestants had even a glimmer of a hope of winning the contest. Other performers sang decent enough, but nothing of that caliber.
Then something happened… The next performance. Andrew did his style—the style everyone loved—but he did it with a more obscure and modern song that not everyone knew, Fall Out Boy’s “Sugar We’re Going Down.” Here’s the vid: Andrew Garcia Performance Sugar, We’re Going Down Fall Out Boy @ American Idol S09E142. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the performance itself. It was excellent. The audience loved it. The only problem was that Simon didn’t realize that Andrew did an original performance of the song (Here’s the original song video. So Simon, who commented first, canned it. He compared it to Straight Up and said this performance was so inferior. Kara realized it was an original arrangement, and gave Andrew credit for the risk, but she also agreed with Simon about wanting Andrew to do more songs like Straight Up. The rest of the judges followed suite.
What the judges all meant was that they wanted songs that were very popular, which would be understood by everyone to be rearranged and done in Andrew’s style. But Andrew didn’t get that. What he got was… confused.
The next week Andrew completely changed his style Where he had demonstrated so clearly that he knew exactly who he was as an artist in his previous performances he now seemed lost and confused about not only what to sing, but how. Gone was his guitar. Gone was his style. Gone was his melodic and powerful riffs. There he was singing Marvin Gaye’s “Heard It Through the Grapevine” and looking nothing like the powerhouse he was at the beginning. Check it out here. In fact, he looked like he had no idea what he was doing. How did he go from sure winner in to just another contestant?
How is an artist’s journey on American Idol a microcosm of life in Hollywood? First off, as I mentioned in my book, What I Wish I Knew Before I Moved to Hollywood, no one comes to Hollywood unless someone told them they had talent. Unless the contestant is just looking to be a clown on national television, he sincerely believes he has talent. One thing most contestants have in common is that someone somewhere encouraged them to pursue their gifts. It’s apparent in the early season try out shows that not everyone tells their friends the truth, but most of the singers who try out do have talent. So it is with any person who comes to Hollywood looking for a career in the entertainment industry. It is a rarity for someone to come here without a number of assurances that they have a special talent that should be in movies, or on records or that could make them rich.
In Andrew’s case, he had been singing and performing with friends, posting videos on You Tube and doing original arrangements and covers of popular songs for years. Check out some of his videos:
Sunday Morning beatbox cover (I’d like to see him and this girl do this exact version on the show.)
Michael Jackson Medley
During that time, he developed his style and he got used to performing. So when Andrew came to Hollywood, he had a sense of who he was. One of things that’s important for any artist looking for success here is that they have a real sense of who they are as an artist. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs and articles, such as “How to Get An Agent,” Hollywood is a marketing machine above all else. Hollywood markets human talent packaged in movies, music, television, books, and art.
The more clearly you know who you are, what your market is, and where you fit in, the more likely your chances of finding your place and finding representation (agent, producer, contract, label, manager) to help sell your talent.
Most of the comments contestants hear from the judges have to do with whether or not the judge “gets it” or knows how to market the artist. The artist who clearly performs a certain style with consistency is the artist that will most likely walk away with an album deal whether or not they win the contest. In fact, the highest compliment a judge can pay a singer on the show is to say, “I can see your album already.” That means they know which radio stations will play it. They know which producers to bring in to work with the singer. They have an idea of which established stars might want the singer on tour with them. They may even know how many records they can sell to the audience. Such an artist will also have a larger fan base as well because fans of a particular style will gravitate towards an artist that shows he belongs in that style.
But the artist who is inconsistent or lacking a unique style, or has a variety of styles will be viewed as “not ready,” “unprofessional,” “confusing,” “all over the place.” Even if a song is well sung, if their style is inconsistent, the judges will often complain of “not knowing what to do” with that singer.
Hollywood draws marketing lines very clearly. If you are a comedy writer, you must write comedy after comedy—not thrillers, comedies, actions, and dramas, which only confuses agents, producers, and show runners. As well, the stories you write must fit the genre and must have some uniqueness that is your signature as a writer. If you are an actor, you must know what type you fit and how people see you. You must present a consistent image to Hollywood in order for you to stay on the radar of casting agents. Your image must both fit in the genre you wish to work as well as be unique to yourself. The same holds true of directors—you must know which genre you do best and you must have a certain style that adds something to that genre.
Finally, Andrew discovered three truths that, despite his obvious and amazing talent, also affect nearly every artist in Hollywood: 1. Trying to please people can and will wreck your art. 2. What you have done in the past will not carry you forever in the future. 3. You will face rejection and criticism.
If Andrew is able to get back to his original style, he will have a chance at winning this season (update–he didn’t). But what has happened to Andrew is simple—he lost sight of his own unique style because he was trying to fit in with what he thought the judges wanted. If an artist does not yet have a style, it might work to push one on him (or actually—help him find a style that suites him), but generally an artist attempting to conform to anyone’s ideal beside his own usually kills his art. A person’s art is a psychological part of their being—much like their personality. Altering one’s artistic style generally kills creativity. In the end, the artist won’t be happy and neither will the producers or executives. Each time Andrew performed a slightly different style than his own, he felt uncomfortable, the audience felt uncomfortable and the judges criticized him harshly.
It is a fact that people in Hollywood, in attempt to figure out how to market you, may try to change you—be it an agent, producer, casting director or executive. Often an artist has a portion of something Hollywood wants to market—such as a look or idea, but the artist doesn’t have the full package. Hollywood wants to make money, so forcing you into a niche that may have a pool of customers hungry for product isn’t outside their purview. But generally, even if you succeed at faking it, your audience will sense you are disingenuous and you won’t last. But usually, it simply fails out the gate. When it fails, you fail, but Hollywood just moves on to the next artist. Much like American Idol, even though they told you it would work, when you fail, it’s not their fault—it’s yours.
Initial success in Hollywood can be both a blessing and curse—just ask Macaulay Culkin . If studios have made a lot of money from your talent in the past, they will want you to continue to provide that talent. Generally it does mean stereotyping or limiting an artist’s output. But it can also make you a victim of trends. If you “go out of style” your career will be dead for a generation—until your style returns. Jason Bateman, M.C. Hammer, and Neil Patrick Harris all caught the second wave of their careers.
Lastly, what’s most unfair about rejection and criticism in Hollywood is just how vague or opaque it can be. In Andrew’s case, the judges weren’t really clear about the problem in his performance. All they really meant to say was that they wanted him redoing more successful hits. “Straight Up” was a number one hit for Abdul, known by nearly everyone—and it was old. Andrew made it modern and cool and did what Hip Hop artist have done for years—repackaged already popular songs into something new. “Sugar We’re Going Down” was not a huge hit. No one could tell what Andrew was doing with the song because it wasn’t popular enough. And, because it is a current radio song, it isn’t ripe for remaking anyway. A simple comment to Andrew to “Stick with remaking older hits into modern songs,” would have given him all he needed, but that might have also shown Simon’s hand a little too much.
Hollywood doesn’t like to admit how much they’d rather repackage something than create something completely new. But marketing dictates that old brands with loyal customers sell easier (and cheaper) than new ones.
Andrew did, however, get advice that was fairly close to the target. Usually advice from Hollywood is much more cryptic if it exists at all. Rejections are rarely followed by explanations. You may well have been a contender for the role up to the last minute, but you won’t always know it. Or you may have been very close to representation or a greenlight but the fax machine broke or a new President of Production was hired. The point is that you must understand rejection is part of the game and that it will come. The next company you submit to may love you. So keep submitting.
As you watch American Idol, notice how one week the judges are in love with a contestant and the next week they may well turn their noses. Stick around because who knows what will happen the week after that—in that show or in your career.
Update 3/7/2013: (The 2nd edition of What I Wish I Knew Before I Moved to Hollywood available now exclusively on Kindle for only $4.99. Get yours now. Click here. Kindle e-books can be read on I-phone, I-pod, I-pad, Android, Mac and PC with the free Kindle App.)