I watched that Nina Simone documentary on Netfiix that everybody said was so good, and it was NOT good. Seriously, I’ve got no idea what documentary you all were watching, but the one I saw was pretty mediocre. I mean, the footage was beautiful, and I loved the music (wasn’t really familiar with her work before), but the documentary didn’t shape its material at all. Everything was very bald-faced, very little commentary on her emotional life. As a result, there was, quite literally, no story. After watching the documentary, I don’t think I really know anything about Nina Simone. Where did her fire and passion come from? What was the struggle that animated her life? How did it feel to be her? Nothing.
She did, though, have a very difficult life. She trained to be a classical pianist, and, apparently, found that to be alienating: both the white community and the black community weren’t right for her. In the white community, her blackness was a barrier, and in the black community her interests were too alien. Then she couldn’t take up her chosen career because the music school rejected her for being black, so she had to take up singing in nightclubs simply in order to have the money to survive.
It’s a tough story, and I’ve no doubt it was tough to live.
Many successful artists have had very tough stories. Stories that would be heartbreaking and would provoke a lot of sympathy for me…if they didn’t belong to successful artists.
I think this is entirely a deficiency within myself. There is no reason that a person’s success should mean that I can’t empathize with them. However, whenever I hear of an artist who struggled–a Herman Melville who died in obscurity or a Nina Simone who came from rough circumstances–I think…well, sure, but there’s probably a hundred other Herman Melvilles who were never rediscovered. There were probably a hundred other black girls who wanted to be classical pianists and were rejected and then had to get married and expend their lives on stitching clothes or cleaning floors.
These artist narratives are lies, and each time we watch one, we imbibe the message that if you want something enough, then you’ll get it. But that’s not true. There was a Nina Simone who was just as full of passion and fire and every other good quality…who didn’t make it. I don’t know her name. Nobody does. But I know, given the law of large numbers, that she existed. And that’s the person who always ends up getting my pity.