Some Thoughts on Talent (and Such)


Posted by justinemusk | Posted in Entertainment | Posted on 20-07-2008

I am a sucker for dance shows.  Not  Dancing With The Stars kind of thing – I think I was one of the few people actually not watching that – but competitions featuring trained, talented dancers.   And because you don’t exactly need to catch every word of dialogue, they are excellent to watch from the perspective of a rapidly moving treadmill amid the sound of pounding feet (and gasping).

So of course I watched every episode of Step It Up and Dance  and what struck me was the way the show handled the ‘character’ of the eventual winner.  (So please don’t read any further if you don’t want to know who won, but I am assuming, perhaps mistakenly, that most types who read this won’t care.)   There is this kid named Cody, 27, who was the favorite right from the beginning – so much so that at one point early in the season, a fellow dancer/contestant sniffed something like, “Cody could blow his nose onstage and he would win [that particular challenge]. The judges love him.”

Except then things took a turn.  It seemed that Cody might be a little…too good.   The very thing that lifted him above the other dancers – his amazing technique and athleticism (not to mention he’s a tall goodlooking guy who dances, as judge Nigel likes to say on So You Think You Can Dance, “like a man”) began to work against him, at least according to the comments that suddenly started emerging from the judges’ panel.  Cody lacked emotion and personality in his dancing, said they.  When you watched him, marveling at his amazing technique,  the problem was…his amazing technique. You didn’t see the soul pulsing behind it: you didn’t see…Cody…even though you were staring right at him thinking, God, what an incredible dancer and cute guy besides.

The judges started using words like “prim”. Another judge even used the word – repeatedly – “snobbish”.As the dancers were eliminated one by one and the show wound down to the final four, its focus moved among the other three (very talented) dancers and highlighted their strengths while Cody seemed not quite able to break through his perfection and lose himself in the dance the way the judges wanted. I began thinking maybe Michelle would win. Maybe Nick. In his interview segments Cody looked humble and troubled and anything but cocksure.  He mentioned the recent deaths of two women close to him and the fact that his house had burned down.  Then the final challenge, each dancer performing a three-minute solo!  Who would win…?

In an online interview afterwards, one of the judges mentioned how, when Cody walked into the LA audition for the show, he turned to the other judges and predicted that Cody would take the whole thing.  

Which of course he did.  

What lingered with me afterwards about this show – which I very much enjoyed, and when I ran into Elizabeth Berkeley in the elevator at the Brentwood gym where we both work out I wanted to say, “I loved your show!” but of course did not, because that kind of naked enthusiasm is just not what we locals do– was the way the producers and editors, those responsible for taking all this reality footage and carving out a compelling storyline of conflict, uncertainty and drama, handled the problem of:  How do you build suspense around the show’s ultimate outcome when that outcome is kind of obvious from day one?  How do you introduce much more doubt than actually exists?

Maybe, just maybe, you play into this idea that talent and technique fall by the wayside if you don’t have enough heart.  You play into the idea of the teacher’s pet – not a character the audience tends to like, and who often gets some kind of comeuppance in the end (or walks away/steps down) while the prize goes to the underdog who might lack real natural talent but has all the heart in the world.  (Come to think of it, this was the storyline that played out in that wonderful cheesy dance movie Center Stage.)  In a culture – or at least a pop culture – that often equates ‘art’ with ‘self-expression’ – to the point where the one can become synonymous with the other – this kind of story arc plays extremely well, bolstering the American belief that anyone can be anything they want so long as they want it bad enough and put their heart into it.  It’s an idea that’s beautiful in theory but as anyone who has suffered through the audition episodes of American Idol can tell you, doesn’t always translate into practice.  

Talent – excessive talent, true giftedness –is something with which we have an uneasy relationship.  I remember a line from a TV movie I saw about a figure skater, how people “love the gift, but hate the gifted”.   I think of Christina Aguilera at her high school prom: when the DJ put on her first hit single, all the kids she’d gone to school with booed and walked off the floor.  I think of Wayne Gretzky: when, as a child, he engendered hostility and resentment not just from the other kids he played hockey with…but their parents.  Because one thing a gifted child does is point up the lack of giftedness in those around them.  Talent undercuts the dream of a democratic, egalitarian culture:  everything else being equal, genetics simply isn’t.  Some kids are just born with more.   A gifted person is a walking, talking, sometimes brutal reminder that life is innately unfair, so even as people love (or try to make money off) the gift in question, there’s an impulse to tear down the person who bears it.

And I’m reminded of a writing instructor who remarked that after twenty years of teaching the craft of fiction, he’d given up trying to predict who would succeed: so often the most seemingly talented would disappear and never be heard from again. Just as money doesn’t guarantee happiness, talent by itself doesn’t guarantee success. Talent, in fact, is probably overrated, because potential comes to nothing if it’s not backed up by a host of other qualities, like self-knowledge and discipline and the ability to navigate the stress of expectation, the isolation of long hours of practice (and, perhaps, the social stigma that comes with being different in any way), as well as near-constant rejection and criticism. And when success doesn’t happen, for whatever cocktail of reasons – including the fact that success in any artistic or intellectual field is a ruly, unpredictable and difficult thing – the gifted kid now grown into an ‘ordinary’ adult has the rest of his life to ponder all the great potential that never materialized. Which means no matter what else he does he might always, on some level, regard himself and believe that others regard him as a failure.

In a way I was rooting for Cody to win precisely because he was expected to win, and maybe he knew what he was out there to prove – that he was just as good as he was supposed to be.   For me, watching him do his solo – which he did indeed perform with heart and emotion — was a lot like reading an amazing piece of writing, when you don’t just see but feel through body and mind the talent for the art and the discipline for the craft come together.  I’ll never be that good, you think, and who knows, maybe you’re right. Because, in the end, the magic of talent and the heart of the underdog and the circumstances that nurture both need to merge in a way that is rare.  When they do, and we are witness to it, we should maybe take it as a gift, so that we might be inspired to unearth those secret gifts of our own.


– Justine Musk



Comments (3)

This reminds me of the realizations we all came to at my home over “American Idol.” You get the distinct sensation halfway or so through the season that if you have a front runner, he gets played down by the judges and others played up just to even the field. You also begin to get the feeling that no matter what voters out in TV Land vote, they have already decided their final group before the show hits the air, and probably (at least possibly) know who they intend to win. For instance, anyone who listened the year Daughtry was on the show knows full well they haven’t seen a male vocalist of that level of talent since the beginning of the show…but he didn’t win. Politics? Maybe he refused to be molded into the form they tried to hang on Taylor Hicks, who was delightful in his own world, and horrible in the world of an “idol”?

Probably we’ll never know, but the point is…they definitely “write” the dramatic side of the show to appeal to the widest audience, and to paint the picture they want painted and presented. I’m sure it’s the same on the dance show. We used to watch “So You Think You Can Dance,” and you’d see it there as well…

And yes, talent is a two-edged sword that too many fall upon with the mistaken notion that others will appreciate them for it. Intriguing essay…


A most interesting and nonobvious perspective on talent’s nonpositive side and a sage observation that talent is but potential, a fortunate base upon which to build. Your piece explains what often seems contradictory in the artistic, business and private worlds. Excellent essay, Justine.

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