I Am Not Freddie Mercury

My singing voice is a bit rusty these days. I used to sing more often, and have even appeared in a few musicals. Plus the occasional karaoke night. I’ve been told that with practice and work, I would have a “very good” singing voice.

When in top form, I can even hit a few high notes. (For a guy, anyway.) I remember once during a break in rehearsing some play or another at a theater, a few actors were goofing off on stage, singing Bohemian Rhapsody. I chimed in, (in appropriate pitch if I may say so) with the part that goes, “…if I’m not back again this time tomorrow, carry on, carry on.” I nailed it, given the informal nature of the sing along. Compliments and laughing followed.

A few minutes later one of the women in the cast came up to me, and of my section of the Rhapsody said, “You’ve got a nice voice.” Before I had a chance to thank her, she added quickly, “It’s not as good ad Freddie Mercury, though.”

Imagine being on say, a third date with someone you are really connecting with. It’s been a great evening, and you both stop and rest on a park bench to take in the warm, orange twilight of a waning summer’s day. A small fountain burbles nearby, birds tweeting here and there. Not the most profound moment of your lives, but quite pleasant. Then a stranger with a dog approaches, greets you with a warm, “Hello. Nice evening, isn’t it?” Before you say, “Why yes, it is,” he lets his dog squat right in front of the bench to take a big shit. Then he and the dog walk off without a word, leaving the steaming gift right in front of you and your date.

That’s pretty much how it felt to be told I had a nice voice, yet also reminded I was not Freddie Mercury all in one breath.

Honestly, why harsh someone’s mellow like this? Why qualify a nice compliment about a fun, informal and impromptu display of musical talent with a reminder that I am not, in fact, one of the most unique, talented, and celebrated vocalists the world has ever known? I mean, Freddie Mercury, think what you want of the man and his music, but by any objective metric he almost single-handedly rewrote the very concept of rock showmanship. And that’s setting aside his stupefying vocal range and clarity. And he did it for years in fronts of crowds of one hundred thousand people or more. And yet you find it necessary to let me know, just in case I was unaware, that my rendition of a few bars of Bohemian Rhapsody in front of seven people in a mostly empty community theater in West Virginia can’t possibly measure up to that?

Thanks, woman who is pretty, but who will never have a body or face like Scarlett Johansson. (I did not really say this, relax.)

No, I am not Freddie Mercury. And I don’t just mean that literally; I also do not have talent equaling that of Freddie Mercury. I have no problem saying this. I don’t feel my entire musical ability should be judged by that goofy sing along that night, and with some time to get back into peak condition, I feel confident that I would be a good singer again. Yet I could practice all day and night and never, ever be Freddie Mercury level in my vocal prowess. Got it.

But I never said that I wanted to be, or that I thought I could be. I was a dude singing with some people one night, and I did it well. I wasn’t trying to blow anybody away, only to have fun and sound good. I think I achieved that.

There’s an old expression, “Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.” In other words, don’t dismiss something of decent quality or effectiveness by concentrating on the fact that it is not the best possible outcome. Forgive the redundancy of this statement but, being good is, well, good. Being great is wonderful when it happens, and each of us probably has some greatness inside that we will bring to fruition in our lifetime. But being good in the meantime is not falling short of greatness; rather greatness is exceeding that which is admirable and well done and appreciated by a few yards or more.

Not a statue of  Ty Unglebower.

Not a statue of
Ty Unglebower.

I feel this about reading and writing. As readers, we often want a novel to transport us to another state of consciousness, to be so engrossing, so transcendent in nature that we are no longer reading but experiencing a work of fiction. The result not only entertains us, but moves us, and changes our lives. I don’t know about you, but most novels I read do not attain this stature in my life.

Yet I have read some fine novels! I have enjoyed, laughed at, thought about and been inspired by all kinds of fiction over the years. Yes, once in a while, I have had the transcendent feeling, but mostly I experience pleasure. Simple, uncomplicated pleasure, when I find a book I enjoy. That needs to be enough most of the time, because if I go into every novel hoping for and even expecting a life changing absorption into the author’s world, I’m going to spend much of my time as a reader let down.

Yet this expectation of greatness, this “chasing Freddie Mercury” if you will can be even more dangerous for writers. If we write our stories with the ultimate goal of changing society, or being immortalized, we’re not going to get much done, other than perhaps driving ourselves crazy. It’s okay in the back of our minds to hope that something we write will one day touch millions, or be seen as some kind of definitive work, but it mustn’t be our constant driving force. Greatness cannot usually be predicted or manufactured. And even some forms of greatness are temporary, lasting for a few years, and then fading away from collective memory. It takes the greats of the great, (or the luckys of the lucky) to have the greatness live on for decades or more.

By the way, it’s also okay to just write what you think and hope will be a good work. Maybe you don’t set out to alter society with your novel. Maybe “all” you want is to produce a work that will entertain, make people think, laugh or cry for a while. Maybe you just want to write a novel that the reader loves to consume in the moment. Maybe you just want to be thought of as a “good writer.” That’s acceptable, and indeed is probably the wise way to approach our craft. Greatness will come to whom it comes. Just write your story. Sing your song. Play your part. “Consider it a challenge before the whole human race,” that you ain’t gonna lose.

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