For the majority of my life, I’ve identified myself as a singer, an artist. I started writing songs when I was in elementary school, started making money as a vocalist when I was in my late teens and I always, always thought that I’d be one of the few to Make It.
I was incorrect.
I’m 36 years old now, at least 20 years older than the average new artist. I don’t think it’s premature or needlessly pessimistic to say it’s definite that I am not going to be a rock star.
I’m grieving the dream even while I willingly let it go.
It seemed so possible for so long. I landed my first (ill-fated) production/management deal when I was 19, which led to my first meeting with a record executive at a major label. Afraid to speak up for myself at what could have been one of the most pivotal moments of my life, I sat mutely while the manager/producer team who’d known each other since childhood but barely knew me spoke on my behalf.
They talked about who I was as an artist, about what my look should be, about how my name should be spelled. Apparently my parents and I had been getting it wrong this whole time. At the end of the meeting, the executive shook my representatives’ hands and said it was great meeting them. Then he turned to me and in a voice that might as well have been addressing a 5-year-old he said:
“And you look very pretty today.”
I thanked him, humiliated that my silence had led him to conclude I had the intellect of a hamster. My 36-year-old self wants to smack that girl and say, “Open your mouth! It’s not anyone else’s job to tell people who you are and what you want!”
That was far from the last time I was in a similar situation and while I try not to be too hard on my younger self, there were so many similar moments when embarrassment or self-consciousness overrode my need to speak on my own behalf at professionally crucial moments.
I signed another production/management deal a few years later, with a different team. These guys were willing to let me spell my name how I saw fit and I got to co-write with some amazing songwriters. I got in front of some very prestigious industry people for the time and I thought for sure that it was going to happen this time.
I got as far as singing in front of a group of employees (some with signing power, some who were probably just killing time on the way to the fax machine) at RCA. I wasn’t wearing something that made me feel my best. My producer said my hairstyle made me look “wide.” He also felt I should lie about my age, which at the time was 22. Overall, I wasn’t feeling very confident when I walked into that conference room. I sang and I know I was not magical. Everyone clapped politely and I sat down, already certain of my defeat.
The most important man in the room, a vice-president named Bob, asked if I had any questions.
Obviously my only question was, “Do I get a record deal?”
Since I didn’t feel I could phrase it quite so baldly, I tried for a playful tone and said, “Yeah, what are you thinking right now?”
The executive responded, “I’m thinking I wish I were 20 years younger!” Ha, ha. Flirt, flirt. I walked right into that one. My team and I left shortly thereafter, knowing that I would not be an RCA artist. It was a hugely disappointing day that left me very angry with myself.
But these are common, even mundane, experiences when you’re aiming for stardom. And while it hurt a lot, I also felt like I’d gotten closer than ever. Like any gambler, I was sure I’d get ‘em next time.
I kept writing songs, booking shows, joining and starting bands, auditioning for extremely off-Broadway musicals, singing at weddings and bar mitzvahs, recording my own music -- and suddenly I was 30 years old.
But I was a spry 30, not at all ready to pack up and go home. I was ready for a change of scenery and maybe one last big push, so I relocated from my native New York to LA.
I found an apartment and a day job and a terrible boyfriend to inspire some new music. I recorded a second full-length album, the cost of which was taken care of by my good friends Visa and Mastercard. I leaned on those two buddies for a lot of things I shouldn’t have during this period. Sometimes our pals Discover and Capital One joined the fun, too.
Much like the previous decade, I always got just enough encouragement to think it could eventually “happen.” It doesn’t help that in LA, all kinds of crazy things actually do seem to happen when you need it most. But I was growing weary. I had now been in LA for more than four years and I started to wish secretly for permission to give up. I was at a mind-numbing but stable job, which I blamed for my continued failure.
If I didn’t have to answer their stupid phones, maybe I could work on my art!
The fact was, the job was cushy enough that I could have stayed there forever, which was kind of my worst nightmare. I’d moved to LA to be a star and instead I’d be an 85-year-old receptionist. I finally quit because I just couldn’t see another way to force myself onto a different path. My hope was that removing my safety net would force me to fly. Instead I went splat.
I made a big, ugly stain on the sidewalk and everyone saw. I struggled like never before, finally ran out resources of the emotional and financial variety and ended up moving to Florida to live with my dad for a while, “to regroup.”
Last night, I finally articulated the truth to myself: I came to Florida because I failed. I tried to do something that I really wanted to do and I didn’t succeed and now it doesn’t make sense to try doing that anymore.
I have other dreams, after all. I want to get married and be a mom. I just assumed (wildly overestimating my luck, abilities or both) that I would first get to have the exciting, sexy life on the road before transitioning to a quieter existence with a family of my own.
I really do feel finished trying for that pop star thing. I guess I just wish I had a little more to show for my efforts.
Now that I’m embarking on “book two” of my life, with no college degree, no savings, and more credit card debt than I care to admit to, I kind of feel like kicking myself in the ass for all that work and time (and money) I put into my music dreams.
What if I had just finished college? What if I had just stayed with any one of my office jobs in the last 20 years for long enough to put away a little nest egg? What if I’d just given up a long time ago?
This is where I stop mentally kicking my own ass because I remember that I did do some good work. I probably didn’t work hard enough, or believe hard enough, but I love what I created.
It’s hard not to be a little embarrassed to have failed but I’m quite proud that I tried. It’s like handing your heart to someone and having them reject it. It doesn’t exactly feel good, but at least you tried!
And even if I never don another sequined halter top or coquettishly twirl another light-up hula hoop onstage, my songs could yet be my legacy. I do still have friends in LA who are not quitters like me -- maybe their dreams will come true and then I can ride their coattails by making them use my music in their movies. There I go, dreaming and scheming again.