Any creative type with a modicum of ambition knows what it’s like to yearn for career stardom. What writer hasn’t dreamed of becoming the next Jonathan Franzen or Joan Didion? What aspiring director wouldn’t love to be David Fincher’s contemporary? How many midlevel executives see themselves as eventual CEOs? The hard truth, though, is there’s only so much room in the world for superstars and CEOs. If this thought is depressing, you might find solace in the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, which opens June 14.
Directed by Morgan Neville, the delightful film pays tribute to backup singers—artists whose work you’ve heard hundreds of times without ever knowing their names. The film has struck a chord not only with music lovers but also with people in the workforce who see themselves as the equivalent of backup singers in their field. Neville recalls a recent Q&A in which a man declared, “I’m a middle manager at a company. I’ve been there for 20 years. We make a great product. I’m proud of what we do, but I don’t always get all the attention in the world for it. I realized today I’m a backup singer. And we’re all backup singers.”
What’s it like to be so close to the spotlight and yet so far away? How do background singers devote their energy to making other singers sound better when many of them long to be solo artists themselves? We spoke to Neville and renowned backup artist Lisa Fischer for insights on how to make peace with being a supporting player instead of the star.
Many people think individuality is a precursor to creativity, but that’s not always the case. When you’re in a business as collaborative as music, you’ll probably spend much of your career servicing another musician’s vision. “I’ve heard people ask these ladies if they’re depressed or sad when they have to sing behind somebody who’s obviously less talented than they are,” Neville says. “The answer every time is absolutely not. The job is to make somebody shine—and maybe if they’re not that good, you’re helping to support them. You’re not sitting there stewing because they’re not that great of a singer and you’re a better singer than they are. You’re there to try and help them.”
When background singers work with a lead singer, they offer their input and perspective—that’s partly why they were hired. But they see their job as assisting rather than steering the show. “We help lead singers focus on what it is they want,” Fischer says. “You feel where you’re needed and stay out of where you’re not needed.” When Neville assembles his filmmaking teams, he looks for colleagues who understand what it means to support his vision. “When I hire people to work for me, I don’t need an auteur,” Neville says. “I need an editor. I need somebody to help support me.”
Some singers thrive better behind the scenes rather than in the spotlight—not because they lack the talent but because their temperament or skill set doesn’t match the job description of a lead singer. Neville cites a story from legendary backup singer Darlene Love. “She was always giving Sonny Bono a hard time because he couldn’t sing,” he says. But what Bono lacked in talent he made up for in other ways. “He was able to get people to like him. He had this incredible likability—and that’s a talent, too. It’s not like, ‘Gee, I’m technically a better singer and therefore everybody else get out of the way.’ "
There’s a lot of self-promotion, team management, stress, and drama that comes with being a lead—burdens that some singers may not want to take on. That goes for being lead singer and CEO. Fischer, who’s been singing backup for the Rolling Stones since 1989 and distributed a solo album in 1991, is the first to admit that she’s better built for background than lead vocals. “It’s just too much heartbreak,” she says. “There’s too much angst. It was just too much for me and I was way too sensitive.”
Maybe you’re always playing second fiddle, or maybe people don’t take your job seriously—there was a time when backup singers were seen primarily as eye candy and sex symbols, despite their powerhouse vocals. Don’t let this give you an inferiority complex. “I’ve always felt great about doing background,” Fischer says. “Luther Vandross used to say to me, singing background is not like being a second-class citizen. It’s really important work and he drilled that in my head.”
One might assume that background singers don’t get to be as creative as solo artists, but Fischer says the opposite is true. Backup singing offers plenty of opportunities to grow. “Every time you get to sing with different people, it’s brand-new,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to find a new part of yourself.”
Don’t waste all your energy trying to angle your way to the top. The best background singers give the job their all and let industry reputation follow. “I am a believer that doing whatever you’re doing as best as you can possibly do it will open the door to the next thing,” Neville says. “When I talk to young editors or cinematographers, I say to them, If you get the reputation for being the best editor around, you’re going to open all kinds of doors to other things.”