I’m a sucker for any kind of media history - art history, film history, literary history, you name it - and the history of western music is just so interesting to me. People often forget that media is so crucially intertwined with society’s sociopolitical dwellings and that the two truly inform one another. From the innocent sounds of the nuclear family 50’s to the grit and glam of the imploding 70’s, from the depressive and racially charged sounds of the tumultuous 90’s to the international and tech-infused bops of the now, music is SO IMPORTANT, DAMMIT!
So then, can we talk about my favorite documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom? It’s AWARD-WINNINGly, EYE-OPENINGly, PEARL-CLUTCHINGly good. I’m typically a true-crime kinda gal, but 20 Feet From Stardom, directed by Morgan Neville, combines my love for music and social history, classic rock, and somber feels. It follows the lives of a handful of black female backup singers, whose careers spanned from the 60s to now, and the film impeccably expands the world of classic rock as we know it to shed a light on who really deserves the credit for shaping today’s music.
For a majority of the folks featured in this documentary, the church was where the love for singing was sparked. Singing together in their communities, and often being the preacher's daughter, launched many a career in the field of backup singing. But, as quoted from the film, backup singing can "be a springboard, but easily become quicksand if that's not what you want to do."
We’re introduced to Judith Hill, who’s worked with Michael Jackson (even to his death) and Prince. In comparison to the older ladies featured in the doc, it is Hill’s career that we’re following in the present as she strives to walk the 20 feet from the background to centerstage. Can you imagine how sad it was to see her lose on The Voice?! We meet Darlene Love, who rose to anonymous prominence in the 60s while working with (and being duped by) Phil Spector (trash). Her illustrious career and perseverance led to her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. And if you’ve ever listened to ‘Gimme Shelter’ by The Rolling Stones, you know just how integral a backup voice is to expanding the mood of a song. And that’s why the fact that Merry Clayton never received any credit (or residuals!) for being the famous falsetto voice in that song will forever piss me off (and the fact that her miscarriage following that recording was likely a result of the song). On Stones tours now, it is typically Lisa Fischer who’ll take over Clayton’s backup vocals, but Fischer is truly a shining star in her own right, having peaked in 1991 with a Grammy-award winning hit, but providing countless backup vocals for Sting, Luther Vandross, and Tina Turner.
But I think the woman who stood out the most to me was actually Claudia Lennear, who, unlike her colleagues, has since left the music industry. In her heyday as a backup singer, on top of providing vocals for a million artists, she served as one of the famous Ikettes for Ike and Tina Turner and went on to work with (and even date) both Mick Jagger and David Bowie. Both of them wrote songs about her (‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ respectively)!
It becomes very apparent in viewing this documentary that it truly was not just these women but all the black backup singers who worked tirelessly in the 60s and 70s that shaped such a prominent age of popular music. With the coming of grunge and hip-hop in the 90s, the necessity for backup singers would begin to falter, and even more so with the techno-bops of bubble gum pop in the 2000s. I think that now, the shape of music styles and genres is shifting endlessly, and the use of backup vocals has started to come back but in different ways. It’s unfortunate that the women in 20 Feet From Stardom faced tremendous struggle in closing that 20 feet gap to centerstage but they’ve remained legacies in the history of music. And this documentary serves as a good reminder to give people credit where credit is due. See: Big Freedia.