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James Brown, Joan Rivers, and Acts of Service

Updated: Dec 22, 2019

I love Terry Gross. For those of you who don’t know who she is, she has a radio show (+ podcast) that is the best interview show you’ll hear. By that I mean that

A) she asks really good questions that are relevant to the person rather than simply the persons latest movie/book/show/award, and

B) she listens when they speak.

Terry replays interviews of famous people when they die. In a couple of these recent interviews, both Joan Rivers and James Brown inspired me from the great beyond.

James Brown was, aside from being a ground-breaking musician, known for a number of

personality traits. He was hyper-focused, committed, self-centered, uncompromising, and larger-than-life. It turns out there was a reason for that.

James Brown was a service-oriented performer.

Sounds strange, I know. And frankly I was surprised. But in the interview it was clear that James Brown was someone who was passionate about giving his audience the show they had come to see. He over-prepared and held himself and everyone on his team to extremely high standards because he was always cognizant of his audience.

He talked about what he considered his duty and privilege to entertain and uplift his audience. He believed in the transformational power of music and knew that his music and performance could reach people at a level that nothing else could. His costuming and choreography, his super-tight band, even his set list, were created and delivered from a commitment to service. Not from a place of self-indulgence or self-importance. Surprise.

In the interview I recently heard, another supposed egomaniac, Joan Rivers, said the same thing. She seemed to us like a driven, neurotic, self-absorbed entertainer. Hilariously funny, of course. But some people are just naturally funny, right? Turns out she prepared for her shows almost compulsively. She said she felt a deep obligation to her audience. To paraphrase, “They’ve made time and spent money and hired sitters and come a long way to see me. I owe them a good time. It’s the most important thing to me that everyone there has a good time”.

Two entertainers who were internationally and inter-generationally successful. Two people who were so innovative and talented and experienced that they surpassed fame to become legends. And they were both service-oriented. Both motivated by their obligation to their audience. Both able to see themselves from a chair in the theater.

Lest you miss my point, hear this:

Being meticulous about your stage persona is not self-centered unless you make it that way. Planning your music, your movement, your presentation, your pacing, your costumes, etc. can and should be an act of service. Preparing your presentation can be about your audience and their experience – you may find yourself more energized to put more time and care into your work if you think of it that way.

If you’re afraid to practice your singing in front of a mirror then you may want to take a moment to question your motivation. Take a moment to figure yourself out. Give yourself more than one way to think of your performance.

When your performance is about your audience you may find you’re truly set free to do your best job. You may find yourself set free from the “should’s” and the various versions of “who do you think you are” that swim around in your head. You may see how the things you’re hard on yourself about - perhaps your height or weight or age or gender or background - are completely irrelevant. At least to your audience.

When you get out of your insecurities you’ll deliver the goods.

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