Stardom’s Most Integral Member

“20 Feet from Stardom” by Morgan Neville

I found this documentary to be really inspiring. I had no idea what to expect before watching Morgan Neville’s film. I thought it was so interesting how they pointed out an often overlooked sector in the music industry. The emphasis of a band is always on the lead singer, and the remaining members are not rated at the same importance. This singles out the main singer from its backup singers and instrumental members.

This film sheds a light on this grayed out area of backup singers in the rock era. It’s remarkable how several of these backup singers careers changed upon recognition from a famous band. From the film I realized how influential backup singers are to a band. I believe they are an integral part of the band’s structure. Yes, the lead singer can have talent, but for a song to come across as ‘complete’, backup singers are needed.

What I also noticed is the lack of control in the careers and decisions of many backup singers in this era. They often had no control over when their next paycheck would come from, and how they would even get that opportunity. Once they were granted a specific gig, they often had little say in what they would be doing, or even wearing. If a backup singer wanted that opportunity, they would have to give up a piece of themselves, and essentially place their decisions in the hands of another. Several backup singers gave into this because there were so many talented singers just waiting for their chance of stardom.

One backup singer was particularly interesting: Judith Hill, who is often known to be Michael Jackson’s lead backup singer. After having so much fame and press from this contract with Michael, her name became circulated among many other artists. She was contacted for other backup opportunities, but desperately wanted to transition her career path to becoming a solo artist. She knew that by taking another backup singer job, she kept lowering her chances of succeeding as a solo artist. She turned down all of these jobs and focused on her goal, her dream. It’s very rare to hear of a backup singer becoming a successful solo artist, which leads to an interesting observation of the strong separation between a lead and a backup singer.

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