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In the 1800s, The Artists Invented Showmanship... Did We Go Too Far?
It's 1825, and Franz Liszt is having an epiphany.
Liszt is a pianist. One of the best. His pedigree of training includes names like "Beethoven" and "Salieri." He's been performing since age 9, thrilling crowds in his hometown of modern-day Slovakia, and dropping jaws in Paris.
The prodigy’s future is secure. He can ride out his reputation, play for kings and queens, tour through Europe, and plod through a quiet but lucrative life before dying fantastically rich.
Liszt, however, is a different kind of artist.
On a whim (or, possibly, a meticulously premeditated evil plan), Liszt shows up one day to a performance and makes the insane choice NOT to play the music note by note.
He decides to just "go with it."
Liszt starts swaying back and forth to the music. Already, the audience is suspicious. Piano players don't sway. They sit upright, prim and proper. Fingers curved in the correct position. Back straight.
Liszt is doing the opposite.
His fingers fly across the piano while his shoulder-length hair flips wildly, accompanying him up and down the scales. It's a hurricane of notes, pummeling one another in a wild scramble for attention. Liszt is Poseidon, smashing together swells of sound, shooting shockwaves through the audience.
The crowd starts to realize — this musician cannot be a man. Men have rules. Men have conventions. Men follow the expectations of society. Men certainly don't assault innocent instruments, wailing at expensive ivory keys like a lunatic.
In an attempt to resolve the opposing characteristics of a person who moves like a demon, but plays like an angel, the audience reaches a conclusion:
Liszt is not a just piano player.
Liszt is a genius.
Whether intuitively or consciously, Liszt’s understands that his audience isn't just cheering for the music. They are cheering for The Show.
This is the start of the Romantic Era.
During the next century, entire reputations will be built following Liszt’s blueprint. Musicians will show up late, wiggle their toes while playing, flail their arms like windmills, shatter ivory keys, and put on performances that range from a bit sloppy to downright awful.
In other words, the artist began to claim as much attention as the art. And to consume art meant to consume the artist, who spoke not just of notes and rhythms, but of mysteries allegedly beyond his control. Muses. Madness. Genius.
The Romantics discovered what we now take as fact, thanks to two centuries of recorded art, commerce, and advertising: “The Show" is just as important as the craft.
You don't need to look any further than Elvis Presley and Justin Timberlake — two artists from my home state — to see evidence for this. A well-written chorus may move an audience to tears, but a well-timed hip thrust can send them into hysterics.
These days, the pendulum has swung a bit too far.
In the age of personal branding, it's tempting to believe “The Show” is all that matters. We obsess over performance and our audience’s reaction to it.
We watch country artist Walker Hayes blow up on TikTok with his song "Fancy Like," and we think: "How can I go viral like that?" (As opposed to: "How can I write better songs"). We see Mr. Beast cross 100 million subscribers on YouTube and wonder: "How can I get that many views?" (As opposed to "How can I improve my editing techniques?"). We see James Clear spend an entire year on the New York Times Bestseller list and think "How can I sell that many copies?" (As opposed to "How can I write more concisely?")
We've followed the example of the Romantics to its extreme end, and the consequences are clear. The crippling mistake of our generation is that we have been trained to chase the audience instead of the art. The crowd, not the craft.
This is borderline tragic.
Fame for fame's sake is a hollow goal. Best-case scenario, you gain fans who eventually discover you have nothing real to offer them. Worst case, you wind up trapped in a prison of your own mind, swamped with the guilt of being a fraud.
We talk about Imposter Syndrome a lot in the world of art, as if it can be overcome only by mediation and positive thinking. However, the surest escape from Imposter Syndrome is not being an imposter.
It isn't enough to put on The Show.
You must also do your art.
I wrote this piece as a foreword to my client’s new book: Do Your ARt!
It’s a tactical but inspiring guide for any create who wants to do real, meaningful work… even in today’s world full of noise.