As part of our recuperation from a long road trip to and from San Antonio this past week (and driving the freeways of that fair city alone was a battle of epic proportions), my Lovely Wife and I crashed on the sofa Sunday afternoon and watched a documentary about backup singers from the glory days of rock and roll. I thought it might be interesting, but it exceeded my expectations. If you have the chance, you should see it. It’s called 20 Feet From Stardom, and it won the 2014 Academy Award for Best Documentary.
At its heart, this film celebrated the power of sublimating personal ambition in the service of a greater goal. Backup vocals, performed mostly by people nobody ever heard of, have transformed good music into great music, and popular songs into chart-busting hits. Think about it—how many times when we’re humming along with the chorus of a song on the radio are we following the backup singers, not the star? Backup singing is a particular sort of talent, and its community is small and tight-knit. The same voices can be heard in the background of our most iconic pop music, over and over again. Many of these great singers are well into their golden years, and their voices are still mesmerizing.
Backup singers with all the right tools to launch solo careers often founder in the transition, and I thought it was interesting that most interviewees identified the root cause as a lack of ego. That “20 feet from stardom” is a very long walk indeed for people whose life has been devoted to a supporting role rather than the spotlight. Sometimes it’s the difference between being a brilliant musician and being a charismatic entertainer. One does not necessarily imply the other.
I was struck by the wealth of innovation and spiritual passion that flowed from Christian culture into rock and pop music during its most dynamic stage of development. The influence of musical patterns and themes from the black church community, in particular, was immense during the 1950’s and the two decades that followed. Early in the documentary, there’s a sort of roll call, asking the vocalists where they got their start: “…pastor’s daughter…church…pastor’s daughter…church choir…pastor’s daughter…” Soul and R&B often followed the “call and reply” pattern of a revival meeting, with the lead singer acting as the preacher, the backup singers as the choir, and the audience as the congregation. The only real difference, as someone said about one marquee performer, was that “…instead of singing about Jesus, ______ was singing about sex.” It was more than just adopting an arresting style and a catchy rhythm, though. The religious influence soaked deep into rock and roll and pop music and provided much of its vitality, and several stars acknowledged its importance: “If you try to bypass spirituality,” one said, “you’ve got nothing.”
The film portrayed a secular community eager to adopt elements of Christian musical culture that were exciting, creative and fresh, even if it failed to fully appreciate or understand their meaning and ultimate source. There was something genuine, powerful, and enduring about the sound wafting skyward from the churches and choirs of the inner cities and rural South, and the rock musicians wanted a piece of it.
Ironically, the roles are reversed now. We have a strange state of affairs where the Church has abandoned its historic role as a patron and wellspring of artistic creativity to become a consumer and mimic of the popular culture it disdains—all in a desperate effort to stay “relevant.” It’s like a talented backup singer who wants to be a headliner but isn’t suited for the job. The glitter of the spotlight, of what appears to be leadership, obscures the quiet yet profound power and long-term influence of the supporting role.
And that was the final lesson of 20 Feet From Stardom. The road to fulfillment is found, in part, by embracing who you are and the gifts God has given you, not by trying to conform to someone else’s picture of success.
20 Feet From Stardom is currently available on Netflix and iTunes, or via a variety of outlets on DVD.