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The professionalization of gifted children in the performing industry: Who cares?

The issue of respecting the rights of gifted children in the performing arts is complex, current, and unresolved.

a black and white picture of a little girl singint to a microphone, dark background
Steven Pisano2, Flickr

“Toto, I have a feeling we are not in Kansas anymore”. Who can forget these magic-infused words by the timeless character Dorothy to her clever dog in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz? (1) In this case, Dorothy was interpreted by singer and actress Judy Garland, who many consider(ed) a child prodigy in the performing industry. If you have not watched this film, perhaps now is the time to do so: not only does Judy shine as the brightest, most mesmerizing star in her acting role, but she also sings the infectious song “Over the Rainbow” (2) like an angel. However, sometimes, singing like an angel might bring you trouble…

Somewhere Over the Rainbow – The Wizard of Oz (1939) HD

Judy auditioned for the film at age 16, after already having achieved a relatively established career in the industry. Most people would agree that her remarkable performance makes the film a classic that generations to come will love and enjoy. However, not all know what Judy endured to make the film possible while still being underage (e.g., Clarke, 2009; Petersen, 2014). She had been submitting to dangerous drug regimens since the age of 12, and lived in a deeply damaging image-blaming environment of abuse instigated by MGM studio boss Louis B Mayer, who was obsessed with keeping Judy looking like a child when she was going through the natural process of becoming a woman—hiding her breasts with tight clothing and dictating extreme low-calory diets. Plenty of daily black coffee cups to keep Judy awake to cope with the heavy workloads on set (paired with sleeping pills at night to balance the caffeine and drug intake during the day). And a hungry mother who knew. You cannot enjoy the film in the same way once you know the nasty truth behind it.

Do you think that this is a question of long-past practices from the bygone 1930s? Think twice… This kind of abuse is, unfortunately, not foreign to other children and teenagers who were extremely talented in different roles within the music industry, then and now. Another example is pop singer Britney Spears, who was introduced by her parents at a young age to TV talent shows oriented towards finding the youngest kids who would delight our hungry audiences.

Little Britney Spears at Star Search – Love Can Build a Bridge

At age 39, last year, Britney still couldn’t decide by herself whether she could have more children, as up to this year this decision remained her hungry father’s, who had assumed a conservatorship over his daughter’s rights (and generated income…) for well over a decade—giving raise to the #FreeBritney movement (e.g., Daros, 2021; Hopkins, 2022). An unscrupulous father who had no problem in advertising Britney’s virginity to sell performances connected to a purity image that would fit our sexist culture (while filling his pockets with plenty of cash).

Being a full adult who has toured around the world, having millions of fans, having sold an insane number of records, having won major awards—all without needing autotune and accompanied by breathtaking dance moves that I would personally break my bones attempting—and yet, Britney has only now started having ownership of her own body and financial/professional autonomy. How must that feel? Well, how she feels does not really matter: hungry paparazzies have tried their very best for decades to catch Britney going on errands when clearly affected by substances, so that hungry readers could buy the make-me-feel-better-syndrome yellow magazines.

Unfortunately, these are not the only women who have suffered such treatment because of their giftedness in music. In the classical music industry, we could also think of pianist Ruth Slenczynska, whose autobiography “Forbidden Childhood” (i.e., Slenczynska & Biancolli, 1957) is a true testament of trauma and abuse by a similarly oppressive father. And although the industry and society hit women—gifted or not—harder and more often (e.g., Bull, 2019), men do not escape a variety of abuse types. Such cases include Ludwig van Beethoven (and his alcoholic father), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (and his exploitation through interminable European tours while being a child), or Nicolo Paganini and Michael Jackson who, sadly, showed us what the journey from abused to abuser looks like.

This blog post does not want to build an exhaustive list of all of the cases that link early-years giftedness in the performing arts with sustained abuse by different stakeholders in our modern societies. Of course, the stakeholders include hungry teachers and hungry nations and educational institutions, which, more often than not, pride themselves on collecting young competition winners—in the arts and beyond; let’s not forget the parallel world of sports championships (e.g., Korpi & Nurminen, 2022). I am sure that you can think of many more examples—some pretty recent, including the sexual abuse of the gifted in well-known music educational institutions. And yet, we must also understand that all of the examples we could come up with together would only represent a small percentage of what really goes on in the upbringing of children gifted in the performing arts—and what happens when their novelty wears off as they enter adulthood and the childhood abuse starts to hit them as part of the reality of their daily lives (e.g., Freeman, 2010).

The unknown cases remain unknown because some hungry industry leaders hide their stories. However, sometimes we do know (as with the cases presented in this post), and yet the abuse continues in many and nuanced ways across the performing industry. For instance, not all cases are so outlandish and terrifying as the ones presented here; sometimes it can stem from an apparently naïve exposition in social media (through videos and photos) on how perfect the life of a performing gifted kid is, how wonderfully supportive their parents/teachers are, or how many competitions they win early on—ultimately, disregarding their right to privacy.

One might wonder: are such gifted children completely free to choose whether their life should be publicly exposed to the digital and non-digital world? Or, have they been seduced in some way to accept it (either by offering rewards or punishments, or even by telling half-truths about the potential consequences of such exposure in the long term…)? And, even if these issues have been explained, to what degree are they understood—and, after all, who can resist being a rising star or a glorified apprentice? (3) Be that as it may, the issue of respecting the rights of gifted children in the performing arts is complex, current, and unresolved.

Considering this reality, I can’t help but simply ask you, dear reader: who cares about the gifted? About the people, and not their products. The answer to this question cannot be “many people”, because if many cared, this would have stopped a long time ago. And yet, it hasn’t. This is based, to a large extent, on systemically hungry societies that continue to fail gifted and talented children and teenagers up to this day—either through neglect of their individual existence by not providing the support they need, or through exploitation of their gifts at whatever cost—disregarding socio-emotional aspects of their persona and maximizing talent development. This is the very reason I decided to research why so few really care for these human beings’ childhood rights and wellbeing. I want to learn what our educational systems and societies could do better to offer more caring futures for children gifted in music, so that they could become healthy talented adults and enjoy a normal, safe childhood (in line with López-Íñiguez & Westerlund, 2023). Stay tuned!

About this blogpost

This blog post has been written to mark UNICEF’s World Children’s Day, which is celebrated annually on November 20. #WorldChildrensDay is a global day of action to mark the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). This post begins a blog post series related to the author’s Academy of Finland 5-years research project “The Politics of Care in the Professional Education of Children Gifted for Music”.

Read more about the rights of the child

Read more about the project “Caring for musically gifted children

Writer

Dr. Guadalupe López-Íñiguez, University Researcher, Academy Research Fellow, and Docent at Uniarts Helsinki.

Footnotes

  1. Adapted from L. Frank Baum’s bestseller novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).
  2. Song by composer Harold Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg (1939).
  3. It is worth remembering the adage that ”the best prisoner is a prisoner who believes in the punishment”. In other words, we should not assume that the damage is always (directly) imposed, but rather much of it can come from the (indirect) effect of convincing someone that this is the best life, the best path, and that the sacrifices are worth it all.

References

  • Bull, A. (2019). Class, control, and classical music. Oxford University Press.
  • Clarke, G. (2009). Get happy: The life of Judy Garland. Delta.
  • Daros, O. (2021). Deconstructing Britney Spears: Stardom, meltdown and conservatorship. Journal for Cultural Research, 25(4), 377-392.
  • López-Íñiguez, G., & Westerlund, H. (2023). The politics of care in the education of children gifted for music: A systems view. In K. S. Hendricks (Ed.), Oxford handbook of care in music education (pp. 115-129). Oxford University Press.
  • Freeman, J. (2010). Gifted lives. What happens when gifted children grow up. Routledge.
  • Hopkins, S. (2022). Free Britney, b**ch!: Femininity, fandom and #FreeBritney activism. Celebrity Studies, 13(3), 475-478.
  • Korpi, K., & Nurminen, J. (2022). Surviving the ruthless world of championship figure skating. McFarland.
  • Petersen, A. H. (2014). Scandals of classic Hollywood: Sex, deviance, and drama from the golden age of American cinema. Plume.
  • Slenczynska, R., & Biancolli, L. (1957). Forbidden childhood: The frank account of a girl’s struggle to free herself from the strangle hold of her tyrannical father. Doubleday.

Emerging Perspectives on Instrumental Pedagogy

This blog offers new approaches and viewpoints to instrumental pedagogy at all educational levels, from music schools to higher education. The particular focus of this blog is on student-centered pedagogies that prioritize the physical and psychological health of music students, support their socio-emotional development, and challenge overused power hierarchies in the music studio. The blog is written by Dr. Guadalupe López-Íñiguez, University Researcher, Academy Research Fellow, and Docent at Uniarts Helsinki.

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