A Tale of Two Singers: How Familiarity Breeds Contempt
Two professional singers live on my street. One is an emerging star named Mae who both critics and fans praise for her soulful and passionate vocals. The other is Sheryl Crow.
While there’s no accounting for taste — which is another way of excusing America for preferring Janet Jackson to Tierney Sutton — it must be said that when both the singers on my street are put on equal repertory footing, when they both sing what’s known as “jazz standards” from the Great American Songbook, Mae is clearly the superior vocalist. If you’ve seen the Cole Porter biopic “Delovely,” in which Ms. Crow had the misfortune of singing alongside people like Natalie Cole, you know what I mean. For further proof that Ms. Crow’s management team is more powerful than its client’s vocal chops, check out the Tony Bennett duet album, “Playing with My Friends,” in which Crow’s presence in a group that includes Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Diana Krall, B.B. King, and K.D. Lang is a mystery.
Setting aside their relative artistic merits, one circumstance about the two singers cannot be ignored: Sheryl Crow is very famous. Mae is not. Sheryl lives at the end of the block on a double lot surrounded by high walls and protected by a vast gate. Mae lives on the other end of the road in a modest house whose door faces the street. Sheryl doesn’t fraternize with the neighbors. Mae does, often in her sweatpants. Sheryl doesn’t know the names of her neighbors’ children or dogs. Mae frequently pets them. (The dogs.) Sheryl is a cipher who is glimpsed most often in the pages of slick magazines chronicling the lives of our society’s court jesters. Mae is no mystery; she’s another regular person living on our street who happens to possess an extraordinary talent.
No one around here knows Sheryl Crow. Everyone knows Mae.
This scenario begets a strange correlation: Not a single person on our street (besides me) owns Mae latest album. Many own Sheryl’s.
Notwithstanding the pernicious power of marketing, etc., my theory is that familiarity breeds a low-grade contempt. When our artists are as accessible as the postman who visits our stoop every day, we treat them as we would the morning newspaper or the gardener who cuts our lawn. When our artists hide behind a veil of inscrutability, when we don’t see them parallel parking their car or bringing in the groceries, we impute to them a brilliance and desirability their artistry doesn’t actually merit.
It’s been said that most men desire that which they cannot have. In the case of Mae and Sheryl, the only way to get the superstar’s new CD is to buy it in the store. One could probably get Mae’s simply by asking her for it. But who wants an autograph from someone who you see picking up dog poo on her morning walk?
I’m confident that I’ll probably remain the only person on my block to actually own Mae’s, and not just because my ears are somehow superior to my neighbors. It’s because I’m able to see past the facade of excellence that unfamiliarity encourages. Ms. Mae told me recently that many members of her own family don’t even bother buying her CDs. They figure they know her well enough as it is.