Monday 21 September 2020

Anxiously anxious for fame

This column first appeared in Malta Today

One of my guilty pleasures is watching YouTube videos which are a compilation of the best X Factor auditions from around the world. Among these there have often been cases where the most terrified, nervous singers end up having the best voices, belting out their tune with aplomb. This invariably leaves the judges stunned, forcing them to point out the discrepancy between the crippling shyness which grips the contestant before the audition, and the confident alter ego which takes over.  “You were like a different person” is an oft-repeated phrase.

It was therefore not that unusual for the same thing to happen in our local version. Unfortunately, the audition which caused a whole furore has been removed so I could not see it for myself, and I am relying on second-hand information. However, from what I have gathered, a young woman who suffers from extreme anxiety stood in front of the judges, visibly trembling, but then went on to perform excellently. In fact, she has made it through to the next phase.

Describing the episode one of the judges Howard Keith Debono said, “what we all honestly expected after the entrance of a contestant who seemed anxious was that she wouldn’t be able to sing or go through with her performance. To our massive surprise she was totally ok whilst singing, no jitter in the voice, no flaws. In the vast majority of cases normally the actual performance Is the part that always suffers.” 

However, during his assessment on air of her demeanour prior to the performance he used the phrase ‘overly dramatic’ and well, that is when all hell broke loose.  He was accused of being insensitive and unfeeling towards the contestant and her anxiety issue which caused her to experience extreme stage fright. But, as he later pointed out, was he expected to ignore what had happened before her performance?  To quote from his statement again, “Whilst telling the contestant she has nothing to worry about as her voice was solid, evidently seeing all this unfold ‘before & after’ her performance, we were also asking ourselves how will she cope prior to a stage performance in front of the public? Surely she must know this is required?” 

The controversy gathered so much public attention that the X Factor producers were also compelled to issue a statement drawing attention to the fact that all contestants are required to disclose any underlying condition to the judges and that they are also asked to sign a release which states, “I further warrant that I am in a good state of mental and physical health and capable of taking part in the competition.” 

This clause is not there by chance because X Factor, like all popular reality shows, has now become an enormous franchise and the bigger you get the more you open yourself up to possible liability and culpability.  It is there, frankly, to cover all their bases, as well as behinds, and you cannot blame them for that. 

Anxiety, of course is a very real condition which should never be dismissed and I can sympathise with those who were distressed and even appalled by what they saw as Howard’s blasé attitude towards this young woman’s state of mind.  But, as he explained, the judges were not privy to her background story as she had not disclosed that she suffers from extreme anxiety.  In this context, therefore, he was reacting to her as he would to anyone else who is a bit nervous before an auction.  

What many seem to forget is that, like all talent shows, the very essence of this programme relies on ordinary people coming out of nowhere who are thrust into the limelight often for the first time in their lives. It is not a gradual type of fame where one gets used to criticism and rejection over many years, giving you time to develop a thick skin.  (In fact, many loathe this format which can bring you instant fame for this precise reason). No, one minute you are Mary from next door and the next you are “Mary from X factor” who has been watched by practically the whole country which is sitting there comfortably on the sofa, munching on snacks while casually judging you from head to toe, and openly discussing your performance in real time on social media.  

Saying it takes guts to stand there in front of judges, the cameras and the judgemental public as you open your mouth to sing is surely the understatement of the year.  As I watch the sometimes tone deaf singers exposing themselves so vulnerably to the whole island, I often break out into a cold sweat and cringe with embarrassment on their behalf and wonder how no one from their family or close friends begged them not to do it.  Confidence is often an elusive thing, and it never fails to amaze me how those who really should stick to singing to their hairbrush in front of the mirror have it, while those who are genuinely talented are gripped by sheer terror until they start.  But that is one of the complexities of human nature; maybe those who suffer from real self-doubt and a million insecurities are those who have that hidden gift in the form of a pure, golden voice because it is music which has made them overcome their anxiety. 

There are also new singers, of course, who are born to perform, who ooze confidence from a young age and are fearless on stage. They are the lucky ones who go on to cope with fame or celebrity with ease because this is who they are.   But there are also many examples of performers who have never got over their paralysing stage fright, most famously the inimitable Barbara Streisand who has only performed live on a handful of occasions. It all started when she panicked before a live performance way back in 1967 and for decades after that she avoided doing live concerts. “I couldn’t come out of it. It was shocking to me to forget the words,” she said. “So, I didn’t have any sense of humour about it. I didn’t sing and charge people for 27 years because of that night. I was like, ‘God, I don’t know. What if I forget the words again?'”

Cary Simon is another famous artist who has been open about her struggle with stage fright, which at times has been particularly severe. In 1981, she reportedly passed out while performing. 

However, the most surprising example of stage fright I found is that of Andrea Bocelli. Asked if there is anything he can do to get over it he said. “I think I don’t want to use drugs or medicine, so nothing. The only way is to go on stage and to hope.”

The fear of failure, of disappointing others and of being humiliated are all tied up in anxiety issues. I think to a certain degree we all suffer from some form of anxious behaviour in certain stressful situations where we are expected to ‘perform’ in some way,  and it can range from mild anxiety to anxiety which is so extreme that we cannot sleep and we feel physically nauseous. The abject dread which grips some people before such stressful situations cannot be explained and it is useless for others to tell them that they are imagining things or that they are making too much of a fuss, or that it’s just nerves.  A lot depends on one’s psychological make-up and past experiences of that situation: whether it’s an exam, public speaking, a sports tournament or performing on stage. Some people can psych themselves up, despite their jitters and the nervousness actually helps to fuel their adrenaline so that they end up excelling in the situation. Others are simply rooted to the spot, their mind freezes until it is a complete blank and they cannot function.  

Is there a way out of this cycle of anxiety? According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “You must address and revise any negative perceptions, beliefs, thoughts, images, and predictions related to public speaking or performing. And it’s often helpful to uncover the deeper fears related to being seen and heard by others, showing vulnerability, and being considered less than perfect. Learning to accept yourself and not feeling that you have to prove yourself to others is at the root of healing.”

Despite the backlash towards the judge and the X Factor producers, in a way it is a positive thing that the issue of people who suffer from anxiety, which in this case manifested itself in the form of stage fright, came up during this programme. 

It is debatable whether taking part in such a programme when one suffers from anxiety is the best solution: there are those who believe that you have to face your worst fears in order to conquer them, while others maintain it just makes it worse for those who are psychologically frail and do not have the necessary coping skills.  

Whatever your opinion may be, it is important to be able to discuss such conditions openly in order to obtain a better understanding of those who are sufferers and who need support so that they may be able to develop their potential talents and can go on to lead fullfilling lives which are not hampered by a constant anxious state of mind. 

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