In 2013, the excellent documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom was released. It’s a highly interesting look at the music industry’s extraordinarily talented back-up singers.
It’s worth repeating again that those twenty feet from stardom are extraordinarily talented. That they are speaks to what was arguably the most interesting aspect of the documentary: those who perform behind the lead are frequently as talented, or more talented than those they’re singing for. Yet they perform away from the center because they lack the essential charisma required to be the front man or woman.
This is worth thinking about with movie star and entrepreneur Gwyneth Paltrow top of mind. As most know, Paltrow is the daughter of the late, great television producer Bruce Paltrow (The White Shadow, St. Elsewhere, etc.) and actress Blythe Danner. For her parents alone Paltrow is entertainment royalty, at which point her ex-husband with whom she had two children is Coldplay frontman Chris Martin.
In a recent interview, Paltrow contended that the “nepo baby” characterization that some might apply to her, and perhaps eventually her kids, is an “ugly moniker.” She’s right. Paltrow makes the point that few criticize the offspring of investment bankers, lawyers or doctors for following in the footsteps of their parents, but if you’re the child of artists (as Paltrow is, and her kids are), somehow your migration into entertainment rates a raised eyebrow.
While there’s no arguing with Paltrow’s retort, it seems an even better one can first be found in the aforementioned documentary about back-up singers. Though it’s certainly true (and Paltrow certainly wouldn’t deny it) that the children of stars have access to entertainment decision makers that the typical wannabe actor or actress initially does not, it’s no insight to say that Hollywood is an incredibly cutthroat industry defined by a relentless pursuit of profits. Applied to Paltrow, if she lacked that certain something in the charisma sense that actors and actresses must have, her parents’ professional successes and connections born of those successes wouldn’t have meant anything.
Put another way, Gwyneth Paltrow was already a star only for her successful acting career to confirm it. Indeed, her stardom brings to mind a long ago quip from Will Smith. One of his friends teased him that he did well with females because he was a star. The criticism was backwards. Smith responded that he’s a star because he does well with females. Get it? It’s no insight to say that cameras are harsh critics, after which movie critics are the most brutal of all. Arguably because of Paltrow’s lineage, her attempt to make it as an actress was extra challenging given the sharp critical knives that come out every time the son or daughter of a big name or names in any field enters that field. In Paltrow’s case, she not only overcame the skepticism, but thrived. “Nepo baby” is much more than an insult for its underlying presumption that an industry defined by quantitative dynamism could and would prop up those who are better conceived than talented.
Furthermore, “Nepo baby” is the stuff of spoiled Americans. Think about it. As Americans we’re born on second base as is for being born into the world’s language. The language we come to naturally is what the ambitious the world over work feverishly to learn in order to fulfill their ambition.
After that, when you’re born in the United States you’re the inheritor of the staggering fruits of wealth created by those before you. Walk any university or business to see why. As Americans we all stand on the large shoulders of giants whose enormous productivity has been inherited by all of us in the form of the best instructors, equipment and financial capital to build on.
In short, we’re all “Nepo babies” for having been born American. Yet as evidenced by how many of us don’t live up to the endless opportunity that’s ours, being born on 2nd or 3rd base only gets those who lack ambition so far. This should be kept well in mind the next time some unwittingly fortunate critic chooses to shrink the achievements of those whose only fault might be that talented people chose to have kids.