Why Aspiring to Be a Teen Idol is a Really Bad IdeaJul 14, 2021
If you knew there was at least a 75% of chance that the plane you were scheduled to fly on would crash, would you take the risk? I thought not.
So, why are so many teenagers so heck-bent on becoming teen music superstars when they’ve seen so many of their heroes crash and burn? Could it be that no one thinks it will happen to them?
I can name on one finger a former teen artist who seems to have survived superstardom relatively unscathed: Taylor Swift.
But the list of those who’ve struggled through depression, self-harm, and addiction is alarming, to say the least: Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, Zac Efron, Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, Aaron Carter, Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, and Demi Lovato, to name just a few.
As 19-year-old megastar Billie Eilish reflected in a recent Rolling Stone Magazine cover story (July/August 2021), “I was a kid and wanted to do kid *hit. I didn’t want to not be able to *ucking go to the store or to the mall. I was very angry and not very grateful about it.” Growing up is hard enough without doing it in front of millions of people who track your every triumph and tragedy in real-time via social media.
Here’s my point: it’s too dangerous to push teenagers into the national spotlight before they have the maturity and team around them to help them grow up while they’re growing famous.
You can stop reading now or go on for some practical advice…
Let’s face it, large entertainment companies sign and develop young talent because they want to appeal to the buying power of the youth demographic (and their parents). Young girls idolize young female stars and young boys (and inappropriately older ones as well) fantasize about them. For proof, look no further than the video of Britney Spears’ debut single of “Hit Me Baby One More Time” which was filled with suggestively sadomasochistic lyrics and Catholic school-girl uniform sexual fantasies. Even though she’d done the kiddie pageant circuit, off-Broadway shows, and TV talent competitions, could 17-year-old Britney really understand how her body would be objectified and exploited for the next three decades? By most accounts, she was all-in on weaponizing her sexuality as the means to fame and fortune. But here she is now, almost 40 years old, with a court-appointed conservator because a judge isn’t convinced she’s competent enough to manage her own affairs. Make no mistake, success is sometimes the worst thing that can happen to a young person.
A year or so ago, I sat down with a beautiful and talented teenage girl who had been successful on the pageant circuit out West. She and her parents were moving to Nashville to pursue her dreams of music stardom and wanted some career/legal advice. I could tell they weren’t interested in what I had to say, because, within a matter of months, she had cut a song and video with content that was inappropriate for someone who wasn’t an adult. Even this week, she’s regularly posting Instagram shorts where she’s writhing around suggestively in a tank top. Yes, she has thousands of followers, but what are they following? I’ve read this book before. It doesn’t end well.
These days, our culture has substituted popularity for excellence and being notorious for being noteworthy. But I can understand why she thinks this is the path to success. When you look at the music charts, they’re often dominated by scantily dressed women who know their way around a pole dance. In a real sense, we’re prostituting our children when we allow them to create highly suggestive content before they’re really adults. Though it’s hard to ask our kids to delay their dreams, it’s even harder to live with the nightmares that regularly accompany fame at a young age.
Another problem with being a super-talented teen is that the bar is lower when you’re younger.
We’ve all heard people say things like, “She’s an amazing singer for a 14-year-old” or “he’s an amazing musician for a 15-year-old.” The problem is that 14 and 15-year-olds very quickly turn into 24 and 25-year-olds where good vocalists and players are a dime a dozen. No one ever says, “She’s an amazing singer for a 34-year-old.”
If you want to make a living in the music business, it’s better to do so over the long run rather than to burn brightly as a teen star and then burn out when you hit twenty. Teens and their parents would be wiser to work on a long-term career plan than impulsively jump into the deep end of the pool when success beckons.
So, what would I tell a teenager who’s interested in pursuing teen stardom? First, I would tell them that their dream might be good, but the chances of actually making a long-term living in music will go up as they gain more maturity, knowledge, and experience.
In the meantime, here’s a list of 5 C’s that parents and their aspiring offspring can pursue:
First, I encourage parents to help their children see that they are more than their talent, career, or popularity by giving them a strong sense of unconditional acceptance that’s distinct from what they do. This needs to start early so that a child’s self-esteem is defined by more enduring things than the number of social media “likes” or Facebook “friends.” The yearning for approval by peers and the marketplace is highly addictive and virtually irresistible. Shaping a self-image that isn’t based on external validation may be one of the best gifts you ever give your child.
If you’re a young artist, consider how powerful these external factors are in your life. Though social media can be helpful in building and keeping relationships, it can also be toxic and life-sucking. Understand that your internal life is more important than the image that others see on social media. What can you do to become the person you want to be rather than the person you think others want you to be? Are you growing more mature or just more independent?
Whenever our artist management company signed an artist who didn’t have a clear identity or direction, we usually failed. We learned to look for artists who knew who they were rather than those who were looking to become whatever what happened to be hot in the marketplace. In my experience, maturity and character ARE the defining attributes of an enduring artist. Talent without character results in chaos for everyone involved.
If someone’s interested in making a living in the music business, it’s vital they understand this vocational path as a calling rather than just as a career. Make no mistake: a calling infers a Caller. From my perspective, the Creator of the universe was pleased to create us in His creative image. Furthermore, He calls us to use the gifts He’s given us (talents if you will) to create things for ourselves and others. For some, this means art.
Understanding art as a sacramental act rather than as a self-centered one can radically transform us as we pursue our calling in the world. We ask ourselves what talents we’ve been given, who would benefit from them, and how we should use them in their service. Then we commit ourselves to the discipline of refining, rehearsing, and presenting our work to the world in a way that inspires and transforms it.
Music is a team sport. To be successful, artists must not only be surrounded by people committed to their vocational success but more importantly to their health and wellness. Isolation is the enemy of wholeness. No one is immune from anxiety, depression, or addiction—and the pressures of stardom make artists particularly vulnerable. Even young artists can work toward developing a “community of connection” that can support them as they make the perilous journey toward artistic success. This community includes:
- An inner circle of trusted family and friends who aren’t preoccupied with their celebrity and around whom artists can drop their on-stage persona.
- A professional team (manager, attorney, and business manager) who are more concerned with the artist’s health and well-being than short-term income opportunities.
- An ongoing therapeutic relationship with a professional practitioner (counselor, clergy, etc.) charactered by non-judgmental rapport and honest communication.
Having folks who know and love you—regardless of your fame—creates a healthy, safe place where you don’t have to “perform” to be accepted.
In my experience working at labels, in artist management, and as an entertainment attorney, I can say that talent is not the only thing that defines success—but it’s a critical thing.
Audiences have literally millions of options for their time, money, and attention. No artist is owed an audience. Rather, we earn our platform a song and performance at a time by giving listeners something they value. In music, that typically means a great recorded or live performance of compelling material. This doesn’t happen by accident. Rather, successful artists spend the proverbial 10,000 hours refining their craft, working on their chops, and practicing before small audiences before taking the stage for larger ones. American Idol and The Voice are unrealistic fairy tales where we see a nationally televised ascent to superstardom that rarely happens in real life.
10,000 hours is roughly five years—or the average time it takes for a student to finish college. A college degree is obviously valuable for the credentials it confers, but its deeper value comes from what happens over those years. While in college, a young person typically leaves home and lives independently for the first time. The college student must make commitments and fulfill educational requirements without parents checking to see that they’ve done their homework. College students typically make the transition from adolescence to young adulthood, internalizing their own values and learning to be responsible for their day-to-day lives. And ideally, they come away with a body of knowledge that’s applicable to their lives and their vocations, all the while forming relationships that can last a lifetime.
College isn’t for everyone, and I would never recommend that anyone drown in debt for a college degree. That said, many music and music business careers can benefit greatly from the general and specialized knowledge that comes from college. And because most beginning musicians usually can’t meet their monthly income needs through gigging, college may provide the vocational skills for a job that pays more than minimum wage to help support them and their families as they pursue their dreams.
I would advise aspiring artists to consider doing what Country superstars like Tim McGraw and Trisha Yearwood did: find a great college that will help you develop both your art and business acumen and use those years to grow creatively and personally. Investing in yourself is the best investment you can make.
Pursuing the above 5 C’s will take years. During that time, a young artist can grow and mature into a responsible adult who has dramatically improved his or her chances of success in music.
In closing, I realize I probably won’t be able to dissuade every teenager (or their parents) from pursuing stardom at a young age, but perhaps something I said might keep at least one of you from getting on a flight that statistically doesn’t end well.
Consider yourself warned.
If you’d like more information about how the music business works, go to MusicBusinessBasics.com and sign up for Vince’s free monthly newsletter and check out his new book and online course, How to Make a Living in the Music Business.
If you’re interested in learning more about a degree in music, go to Trevecca.edu and check out both the commercial music program and the music business program. Vince is director of the music business program at Trevecca Nazarene University’s Skinner School of Business & Technology.
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