Mistakes Make Perfect

As a perfectionist, I’m always trying to eliminate mistakes, especially major public gaffes.  That’s why I was so impressed with P!nk’s show at the Austin City Limits Music Festival this past Saturday.  Yes, she’s an amazing performer.  Energy, confidence, and happiness radiate from her as she struts, dances, and literally flies through her show. But, what really impressed me was that she handled unexpected errors seamlessly.  I argue that the errors actually improved the show.

For example, mid-song, in front of 30,000 dancing fans, P!nk halted the concert. She was hearing static in her earpiece, although it was unnoticeable to us in the audience.  Touching her earpiece and talking to the sound guys, she asked, “Can you fix this?”. Then, turning to us, she said, “What should we do while they fix it?  Should we sing a cappella?”  She and her backup singers proceeded to sing unscripted,  no lightshow, just three beautiful voices harmonizing. I loved that unexpected moment. 

Besides the sound problem, there were other mistakes in the same show. She tripped twice over the guitar pedals. After the second fall, she said we should make it a drinking game. Each time she falls down, we drink.  “We’ll see which of us are left standing at the end of the show,” she quipped.  Later in the show, she sang a song with her guitarist. As he played a chord to start the song, instead of singing, she reached out and stopped him from continuing, saying,  “Play that again, I wasn’t paying attention”.  

While the poor sound, imperfect choreography and restarts may have ruined the experience for some, for me, the mistakes in P!nk’s show made her more relatable.  

It’s not just P!nk having these imperfect moments.  I’ve seen several shows this summer and it’s notable how many mistakes there have been in these performances.  Maybe everyone’s rusty after the pandemic induced hiatus. Maybe everyone is so happy to be performing live again they’re just letting it rip free and loose.  

Mistakes literally keep the perfectionist me up at night. Mistakes I’ve made in the past and, though it sounds silly, mistakes I haven’t even made yet.  LOL! Catastrophize much?  If mistakes chew me up so much, why do I think they add to the experience at these live shows? Here are my thoughts.

Mistakes are humanizing

At the Imagine Dragons concert in mid-September, Dan Reynolds missed singing a couple lines of Radioactive.  I’m not sure if he forgot the words (seemingly impossible given he must have sung it thousands of times), or if he was distracted by the crowd.  I believe he was actually overcome by emotion and couldn’t sing for a moment.  Whatever the reason, the music wasn’t perfect.  He later told the audience that this was a special night for him.  He was returning to his hometown of Las Vegas, playing for a full crowd in the football stadium, when a decade ago the band was playing in the bars with the cheapest beer.  His family was there that night and thanked them for the years of support. His show of emotion helped us feel his excitement and gratitude for how far the band had come.  It was a reminder that even superstars are regular guys.

Imperfections are signs of reality

In the studio, you can get the song perfect.  You can slice together a bunch of takes. You can programmatically auto-tune and enforce strict time.  That’s why I like it when there are imperfections in live music. When the artist forgets the words, or gets a little breathless, you know it’s real.  If their voice cracks, they’re not lip synching.

In this age of computer assisted precision, it may be hard to accept less than perfection.  But when you go to a show, do you really want to hear the recorded version?  I saw a wonderful show by Alison Krauss a few years ago.  The audience sat in their seats and listened to her play song after song, recording-perfect.  I’m sure she and the band were playing live and not lip synching. However, despite her amazing voice and the virtuosity of their playing, at the end of the evening I was a little disappointed.  I could have had the same experience in my living room listening to a CD with headphones. 

I like lopsided artisanal breads and clothing with labels that say imperfections are due to hand dying.  Don’t get me wrong, computers are great tools for making music. However, when I see a live show, I don’t want the sterility of a studio. I like live music to be alive, bubbling like a home brew kombucha.

Mistakes make it special

Mistakes give us something to talk about. There’s the excitement of the unexpected.  Mistakes differentiate the show I saw from the show someone else saw earlier in the tour. One recent memorable moment was at Macklemore’s concert in September. His backup singer was literally somersaulting down the stage extension when he dropped the microphone.  It flew out twenty feet ahead of him and he had to chase it down. Had that been me, I would be kicking myself for years for doing something so silly.  However, I hope that he has the good sense to chalk it up as an amusing moment for the audience and promptly forget about it.  

Imperfections let us laugh together

Jewel performed in Austin earlier this summer at an outdoor amphitheater.  Instead of playing her setlist exactly as planned, she was willing to invite the unknown into her show.  She chatted with her audience, inviting them to move closer to the stage to fill empty seats (It was 104F that night so there were lots of no-shows.)  She asked a trio of fans what song they wanted her to play. They asked for one of her songs, but she couldn’t remember the lyrics.  You could see her thinking about the chords, recalling little pieces of lyrics but not the whole thing.  Finally, she gave up and said, “Could you Google the lyrics?”  On one hand, I found it hysterical that she was asking someone to google the lyrics to her own songs at her own concert, but on the other hand, I found it totally relatable.  I can’t remember a song I wrote a month ago. How can she remember hundreds of songs she’s written over the years?  Someone finally supplied the lyrics and they played the first verse and chorus of the song.  Going off script added to the fun.

Jewel had no problem sharing her other imperfections with us either.  She pointed out that she was wearing the wrong boots, brown instead of white cowboy boots that matched her skirt.  Although no one would have noticed the wardrobe malfunction, she changed her boots later so we could see the proper outfit.

Achieving perfection is not critical

So, for perfectionists out there, should you never worry about errors?  If mistakes are so great, why plan, prepare and practice? Yes, it is important to prepare. Someone could probably calculate a threshold at which mistakes stop being endearing and transition into “sloppy”.  For instance, the entire first song of the Red Hot Chili Peppers at ACL was inaudible except for the bass and drums because of a sound system malfunction.  Although I don’t think anyone needs to be publicly flogged for that error, it was impossible to enjoy that part of the show.

Preparing for perfection is critical. Achieving perfection is not.  Do your best to prepare your concert, play, speech, etc to be as perfect as possible.  If you’re exceedingly lucky, it will go perfect as planned. However, remember that the odds of perfection are low with any live endeavor.  Accidents happen. Miscommunications occur. Technology fails.  God Acts.   

But also remember, 99% of the mistakes you make will not even be noticeable, and the 1% that are noticed will likely make you more human and relatable. At the very least, they’ll make a good story for your audience.

I’ll close with a toast to live music.  Macklemore said he thought his career was over when COVID shut down all touring.  His plan was to become a bus driver for his school-aged kids.  He was ecstatic to be playing live again.  There is an energy that can only come from a live performance, when people are singing and dancing together. To perform live is to risk mistakes, but mistakes are where the magic happens. Roll with them. Embrace them. Cheers to live music!

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