Loath though I am to admit it, I kind of watched this season of American Idol (don’t click away, stay with me). But not really, because it was more like I was watching Didi Benami. I love this girl. Yes, some of it is due to The Smile, and the whole earthy, dangly-jewelry-and-flowing-dresses, singer-songwriter, nimbus-of-sweetness-and-light thing she has going on. I tend to dig that. But the girl’s got pipes too – check her out (in a great meta choice for the contest) absolutely killing Kara DioGuardi’s song right in front of her. And she’s vulnerable – peep her letting the inside out at her audition. And for me, talent combined with vulnerability is the winning recipe for higher-order art. Anything less just isn’t worth my time. Let me explain why.
Vulnerability lies at the heart of any substantive relationship – whether between family members or between artist and fan – because vulnerability is the foundation of intimacy. I reveal something personal to you, you respond in a way that makes me feel understood and accepted, I trust you more because you responded well, you trust me more because I confided in you, that trust hardens into a bond, and we become intimate. That’s how it works. That’s human connection.
And that’s ultimately what I’m looking for in art: a human connection with the artist, with myself, with everybody. Or, as DFW might have put it, I want to see reflected back at me “what it is to be a fucking human being in the world,” something to “become less alone inside.” But in order for the audience to feel that, the artist has to be willing to be vulnerable, to expose herself, to tap into her life experience and insecurities and questions about herself and the world and “go there.” That’s all craft is: a vehicle for “going there,” a conduit through which to let the churning inside out. That’s why craft alone – technical virtuosity in an emotional vacuum – can be interesting and even enthralling but rarely engaging on those deeper levels that make one come back to a work of art time and again over the years. Because craft without feeling is self-contained; it doesn’t take you anywhere; or, to borrow from Gertrude Stein, “there is no there there.” And art is all about going there.
And I’m not limiting my definition of art here. Any type of communication can be art: marketing, memo writing, and yes, blogging, can all be art. In marketing, the art is in finding the deeper need that a product speaks to and showcasing it to the world; the vulnerability comes in the marketer first acknowledging that need, that longing, within himself. In writing memos, the vulnerability comes in taking chances with word choices and sentence structures that let one express his personality in the work, even if only in hints.
And in blogging, the vulnerability is telling the world how you feel and what you’ve been through despite what fresh hell might await you in the comments section. For a perfect example of blogging as art, look no farther than Penelope Trunk’s blog. Nobody in any medium goes there like Penelope. And that’s why (in addition to her great writing) her blog is so popular and why I check it daily. Because she goes there and invites the reader along. And that makes reading her blog worth my time. Intimacy is digitally transferable, and I’ll give time to get some.
This last point brings us back full circle to Didi. When Didi puts out an album, I’ll buy it. When she tours, I’ll probably go see her. Because she did the necessary work up front to build that relationship with me; she opened up and I fell in. But Didi didn’t just try to sell herself by being weepy; she has genuine talent. This is an important point: an artist of any type can’t just coast on vulnerability. She has to be good too, above all else. Talent is the floor. It’s just that talent is necessary but insufficient to win over and keep fans. Fans come for the talent but stay for the intimacy.
Another point here is that the vulnerability has to be genuine. You can’t throw out a few faux-deep lyrics and get choked up in an interview about how your dog died when you were ten and expect fans to throw Kleenex and dollar bills at you. It has to come from a real place, and people can smell manufactured emotion a mile away (it smells like melodrama). When Didi cried on camera, and when she sang the songs that suited her, you could tell there was no calculation in it, that it was genuinely flowing from somewhere she couldn’t dam off. That’s the stuff that makes fans for life.
So the takeaway here is that, at least in one man’s opinion, if you’re going to make art of any sort, you need to first be good at whatever your medium is, but you also need to be willing to be exposed and authentically open up to your audience. If you can be and do those things, even if you never get rich, you’ll always have a devoted fan base, a tribe of your own to lead. Boiled down even more, we can just say talent + vulnerability = fans. And if you want it even shorter, call it the Benami Effect.
All of us blogging and creating for an audience, real or imagined, should be shooting for the Benami Effect every time we produce. Because if you’re blogging, or writing fiction, or singing, or acting, or whatever your thing is, and you’re not being vulnerable and revealing something tender and trying to wake people up and make them feel like they’re not the only ones who feel the way they do, then really, what’s the point?