Following her buzzworthy appearance on SNL over the weekend, newly minted pop star Jessie J appeared on Jezebel in a video that I made a few weeks ago (below). Jezebel's Dodai Stewart used the video, which features an impromptu performance in the Times Square subway station, as evidence that Jessie J could in fact sing. Stewart wanted to emphasize that, as Jessie J continues her quick ascent to the top of the Top 40, she is somehow deserving of her newfound success--she has Talent. But why does it matter?
I don't ask this in a cynical, pop-music-is-manufactured-garbage sort of way. Honestly, why do we always end up judging a creative professional's popularity and success against a perceived level of Talent?
This week marks the start of March Madness, as college basketball teams from around the country are hoping to be this year's Cinderella Story--a team that is able to upset an opponent possessing a great deal more talent. In the NCAA college basketball tournament, as with every other team sport competition, the public celebrates teams that overcome an apparent lack of raw talent to succeed. It's what American sports culture is built on.
A significant part of what makes the NFL the country's most popular sports institution is that many of its successful players do not possess bona fide talent. Tom Brady, currently the highest paid player in the league and a certain Hall of Famer, was the 199th pick in the draft. Brady's favorite receiver last season was 5'9" Wes Welker (left), who went undrafted out of college. The success of Brady and Welker, and others like them, is prized exactly because it occurs in spite of an overt level of Talent. When Brady and Welker celebrate a touchdown, sports fans don't mumble, "Sure they're successful but Brady isn't nearly as talented as Courtney Brown" (the player selected #1 in Brady's draft class, who was cut from the league in 2007).
Now I know that comparing creative pursuits with sports is a little apples-and-oranges, but the very reason that it is apples-and-oranges is instructive: success in sports is achieved without the public's involvement while success in personal expression requires public involvement. A football player can quiet critics with a successful performance; an artist will never be able to silence doubters because they are active participants in the game--they buy albums, watch movies, and download books.
The question of Talent persists for artists because we are all purveyors and consumers of culture. An artist's legacy is not judged on execution--as an athlete's is--but rather on how we all feel about that execution. Personal expression demands appraisal. But what often gets lost in our constant evaluation (and valuation) of creative achievements is an appreciation for the accomplishment itself. The criticism of art scholars, record store shoppers, and culture bloggers often fails to take into consideration that the ability to do something, anything, on a grand scale requires its own kind of talent. We celebrate Tom Brady's ability to competently perform under intense pressure so why do we scrutinize Jessie J when she does the same? Why can't we celebrate artists for achieving success through that most prized element of American sports: hustle?
I would say that the attention should be less on those that can do and more on those that just do.
Or to put it a different way: as Jay-Z once asked, "Would you rather be underpaid or overrated?"