Although it may be tempting to believe that everything and anything done in 2017 is completely unique to our human existence here and now, history humbles us. One brilliant music essay on Jazz states that “the more history you read, the more you realize how unoriginal you are,” an expression that I believe applies aptly to our technology-soaked reality today. Yes, it may be true that YouTube is a phenomenon of the 21st century and that no other place and time has had this digital platform, but the idea of someone “going viral” due to their unique and larger than life personality and fame created by word of mouth, is not exclusive to this century. Indeed, many may think that a YouTube personality like MirandaSings is something that could only happen in our lifetime but history reveals a different story, as she often does.
Meryl Streep brilliantly brings to life the legendary New York high-society performer Florence Foster Jones in the quirky film adaption of this celebrity’s life. An incredibly wealthy woman, who in the 1940’s became famous for her acting and singing, Florence Foster Jones was one of America’s earliest viral sensations. Her elaborate costumes captured the imagination, her singing attracted only the most polished of musical connoisseurs, and her acting elicited only the most genuine of human emotion from her audience. And yet, she was not the most talented, or the most poised, or even the most beautiful. In fact, she was just the opposite. She was actually called the “worst singer in the world.” (An epithet I find hard to believe, who ever made this statement must have some crazy traveling creds to say that, I mean, has he really heard every voice in the world to say that? But I digress! The point is) Our friend Miss. Jenkins was not the bundle of talent most folks would flock to see. But this is where she was different. Although she did not show off mastery of the arts, she did show off mastery of the human spirit. And it is this virtue that mesmerized audiences. Of course it is said that even her most ardent fans had to crush their toes with their canes in order to hold back the laughter. And yes it is true that her audiences were hand picked and tickets were selectively distributed. Everyone indeed knew what they were signing up for. But to pay to see someone who is not very good, to spend your time exposing your eyes and ears to this, why do it? Because she created magic. She was bigger than life itself and she believed in herself more than anyone else. It was this belief in her art that propelled her on that night when for the first time she opened up her performance to the general public. Her show sold out quickly and about 2,000 were turned away on the night of the performance. Although there was laughter and she could no longer filter her viewers to ensure a positive reaction, she still went on and she finished the night giving it her all. What could have ever blinded her to continue to shine when no one wanted to see that light? What could have ever given her the courage to ignore the scoffers and believe in her dream of being a great performer?
True, some did theorize that she perhaps suffered from a mental illness. But she fired her former pianist for giving a “knowing smile” to the audience. She was well aware of what was happening around her and I don’t think mental illness alone could explain her commitment to a musical career, despite being deprived of any singing proficiency. Others attribute her difficulty to comprehend her lack of talent, to her syphilis, which she contracted on her wedding night with her first husband. There was no cure for this STI, and the only recommendation was to treat the symptoms with mercury and arsenic, not the healthiest cocktail of drugs. Moreover, these two treatment drugs are now known to worsen damage done to the central nervous system, in this case damage caused by Syphilis; this would further weaken the nervous system, most probably leading to a loss of hearing. But still, none of this completely explains away how Miss. Jenkins could stand tall, with toughened skin, and ignore the laughs, ridicule, and snickers; she was healthy enough to register all of this. Unless she chose not to. Was this her secret? Robbed of a promising career as a concert pianist due to her syphilis hampering the complete use of her hands, perhaps it was the burning desire to perform at whatever cost, that consumed her and lunged her forward. Perhaps it was this drive to own the stage no matter what, that actually gave her the necessary blinkers to trudge onward even when the nay-sayers swelled and their roar grew louder and louder. Our hero is often quoted as having said “They may say that I do not sing well, but they can never say that I did not sing.” A beautiful moving phrase, which I say, is the 1940’s equivalent to the 2017’s “haters back off.”
To be honest, I am not one to keep track of YouTube personalities. Most of what these big stars are doing have very low intellectual value and it just doesn’t strike much of a chord with me. But I do have time for MirandaSings. Now, I stumbled upon this personality because a friend of mine recommended her, and boy did she hit the nail on the head. I cracked up watching her from day one. Of course not all of her videos of funny, but when she gets it, she gets it. MirandaSings has taken off since then, and now she goes on tours, has a book, and has her own show on Netflix. And although Miranda is funny, what she really is, is fascinating. The way she exudes confidence in every video is quite remarkable, and to be honest, shames those who might be better off. How does this character making videos in her uncle’s garage have more zest for life than those who have blessed with much more obvious talent? Despite her lack of skill, Miranda seems to enjoy herself to the utmost. It is this attitude towards life that makes her such a hit and ultimately endearing. As you hear her sing off-key you see her come alive, something that folks with more talent can’t conjure for their own selves. But yet MirandaSings is not the first or the last of this type of character, our friend Miss.Jenkins has already beaten her to the punch and she has done so marvelously.
It seems that in our present wired world the Internet gifts us with viral sensations almost monthly if not weekly. But back in the day, to go viral, like Miss.Jenkins did, took work, took talent, and most importantly, took guts. Putting yourself out there in a world that recorded and wrote down everything and where the next big thing wouldn’t show up for another 6 months, was quite the feat. They did not have the modern convenience of being a sensation today and then being replaced quickly by a horse kissing a kitten video tomorrow. Once you were out in public, that was it. But our friend knew what she was doing and with her money, she financed one of the most fascinating careers NYC has ever seen. She did not need the help of “buying views” she did not need to “buy followers” and she never had to hire a “social media manager,” it was through the sheer strength of her personality that she caused a riot and provoked that her reputation spread like wild-fire. She was indeed one of the first to go viral. Gazettes, newspapers, and radios were all clamoring for her or about her. Hers was a cult following with devoted fans and her presence in NYC was ubiquitous.
Still, although there is much to admire of Miss. Jenkins, I must ask and slow down for a moment here. If we reflect on the character of Florence Foster Jenkins and think of her courage and bravery outside of the realm of the arts and entertainment, what then might our reaction be? What do you mean Ramon? Well, let’s say someone else, in (oh I don’t know) politics (as a purely random example) believes that they are indeed an amazing politician. They believe that they have all the answers and no one could ever do a better job. Do we still admire their tenacity? Should we consider them a hero or dangerous? Madame Jenkins had a massive following and fierce fans of high caliber that were drawn by her magnetism and charisma, whether they believed she had talent or not was not always important, but they were there for her and all the energy that she mustered and shared with them. How might we then treat a similar phenomena in a political realm? How do we look at such cult followings in an arena that is supposed to be professional, focused on serving communities across the nation, and not on mesmerizing the crowds? Does the conversation change when we talk about the highest office of the land? Would we be cheering a person on who believes they were pure genius when in reality they were complete novices without a clue of how a highly structured political office like the presidency works? It is one thing for Miss. Jenkins to rely on the charms of the theater and the splash of spectacle to make up for her lack of talent, but what if a politician were to solely rely on smoke machines, catch phrases, and TV crews that create, push, and concoct an image that overrides reason and transparency? In the end we must remember, Miss. Jenkins still anchored herself in the real world. She knew the scoffers were out there and she knew not everyone liked her. But she did not punish, belittle or hate those who did not appreciate her style on the night of the Carnegie Hall performance. Rather she focused on her mission, her goals, and her yearning to bring something delightful to the crowds.
Although I believe that the story of Miss. Jenkins is fabulous on several levels, as it surely sounds like something made up and straight out of a fable, her story is a bit troubling. On the one hand we see how a human can create their own universe (it of course helps when you have millions of dollars at hand). And if you intend to create your own world for the sake of making sure that justice and reform still have a champion, then this ability to ignore negative reviews might prove to be a great asset. But on the other hand, what do we do with this ability to ignore reality around you if your goals are not as noble as they could be? And more interestingly what happens when the most human of emotions takes over these folks? Miss. Jenkens still decided to marry again, Miranda in her Netflix show still cries out “Why is it so funny that someone would love me?” And even the most questionable of politicians is still married in present day USA. What happens to the capacity of love in these individuals? And even more intriguing, what of those who decide to love them back? Can we call them crazy too? Do we accuse them of being enablers? What is their role in helping these individuals create their own universes? Human beings are more powerful than we think. But it is this power to create our own worlds that make us dangerous as well.
So what is the point of all of this? Why bring up this idea of courage, politics, and Meryl Streep all in one blog post? Well, I think it is worthwhile to test the bounds of the idea “oh but they are so courageous ignoring the nay-sayers” unfortunately this justification can be co-opted by many sides and can feed into a dangerous sense of delusion. Humans can often trick themselves into ignoring certain realities in order to ensure survival. The expanse of the human spirit and imagination are wide but what are its limits? At what point do we say your self-belief is actually causing harm and your lack of roots in reality are damaging the environment around you. But then again, perhaps a person’s state of delusion might actually say more about the audience than it does of the performer. Perhaps this person sees reality as too hard and thus has opted for their own. Is this our fault then? As a society have we created a reality that has driven people into their caves to create their own imaginary worlds because the existing one does not or did not satisfy them enough for them to “stick around.”
I remember a conversation my colleagues had after work one day in which they were debating the merits of getting plastic surgery, and ultimately discussing the nature of those who decided to finally go through with it. Many argued that those folks were lazy, sad, and should just suck it up like the rest of us. But one very wise woman said that her rabbi once gave insight on the situation. The rabbi told a story of how a woman once heard a group of friends talking about a fellow congregant’s appearance after getting surgery. It might be normal to agree with these friends. But the rabbi asked us to think about how bad the woman must have felt to think that she needed to get the plastic surgery in the first place. Imagine what she was going through if she thought her only solution to her problems was to get surgery? This story has always stuck with me. What kind of reality have we shaped through history and our present actions that drives people away from reality?
I actually have no definitive answers or conclusions for this post; my sincerest apologies if you were waiting for that big drop of wisdom at the end! Whoops! However I do want to say at least, that although political winds may be blowing, and tension may seem to be everywhere, know that the words you are using could very well be flipped by the other side and used to buttress their own arguments. It is at this point when you realize it is not about political arguments, but personal beliefs and it this chord that needs to be struck. Might we be able to one day re-design the structure of the political landscape to reflect the diverse social realities on the ground? How can you feel your worldview is not being encroached upon and how can I live so that mine is not obliterated by the existence of yours? Although it may seem a trite question, I still think it needs to be answered. Perhaps Miss. Jenkins was years ahead of us. Not only was she a viral sensation before the word wide web even existed, but she was able to create her own world while still interacting constructively with the outside world in a way that was mutually advantageous. Perhaps this was her magic. She could live her fantasy while we could still experience our own humor, wonder, and amazement. Clearly the model is imperfect, but the results were fabulous. We got entertained, enthralled, and even challenged to chase our own dreams and accidentally, taught not to fear.