Friday, December 23, 2022

In Defense of Nepo

It's not necessarily related to the holidays, but it is related to family, so maybe it'll provoke a couple of good dinner-table conversations.

I've just learned from BBC Newshour what a "nepo baby" is.  They say it's been a commonly-discussed term on TikTok since last February.  In the past few days it's been all over the mainstream news sites.  For those who missed it, "nepo" is short for "nepotism," and we're talking about the famous directors and actors and such whose parents are famous directors and actors and such.  A piece in the Guardian says Gen Z is now discovering that TV and film is not a meritocratic industry. 

Whether or not this is generally a new discovery for most of Gen Z or anyone else, it's slightly refreshing to read about all the rich and famous stars who are the children of rich and famous stars.  I've been talking about this phenomenon for a while now, but in the past couple years the general narrative has had more to do with race reductionism rather than nepotism -- endless stories in the liberal press lamenting the overwhelming whiteness of the rich and famous actors and directors.  While there are a whole lot of white people who are rich and famous, along with their children, the whiteness narrative tends to miss the fact that if being white could make you rich and famous, there would be a lot more rich and famous white people -- instead, the overwhelming majority of white people are neither rich nor famous, like every other racialized grouping of humanity.  The nepotism narrative gets us far, far closer to reality.  Most of these folks may be white, but the fact of being rich and famous is the main determining factor here in whether their kids follow in those footsteps.

It has been observed by many astute people that there is much less social mobility in the United States than there is in Europe, overall.  There are reasons for this, which have little to do with race, and everything to do with support for the arts and other professions by governments, and access to things like free or inexpensive higher education by a much bigger percentage of the population.  

While the notion of European levels of support for the arts and other professions is a wonderful idea, the nepo baby narrative -- that a rich and famous actor or director being the child of a rich and famous actor or director is evidence that Hollywood is not a meritocracy -- has limitations.  

While it's no doubt the case that becoming a famous actor or director tends to require much more than mere talent, if we look at the arts more generally, along with so many other professions, I don't know if anyone has the exact percentages, but over many decades of being in certain circles -- namely artistic and academic ones -- my observation has been that a disproportionately large number of the best musicians, actors, visual artists, as well as intellectuals, are the children of parents with similar professions or passions.

People don't talk about this as nepotism, generally, because we're not talking about either wealth or connections here.  If, for example, you made a career out of touring and playing in small venues for a few dozen people each time, and then your kid ends up doing the same kind of thing, this is inevitably because your kid has managed to develop their own audience.  A handful of people at each gig, at best, might be there because they know your parents, and no one will be there because you had a hit, because if you (or your parents) had a hit, none of you would be playing in small venues like that.

But there is a disproportionate likelihood that the kid ends up being a performer like the parent, nonetheless, and this is because that's the way real education tends to work.

Studies have found that regardless of what's going on in school, if a small child has parents who read to them most nights, this is the biggest factor in determining how quickly and how well they learn to read.  It's not a popular notion in conventional schools still today, but researchers like John Holt and many others long ago demonstrated how children tend to learn through modeling behavior of adults, through example, rather than by being "taught."

Even without wealth, fame, or Hollywood connections, just surviving as an artist in the modern world, perhaps particularly in the US, is a very tricky thing to pull off.  From my personal experience as the child of a composer and a pianist, it would be impossible to list all the advantages I had from just growing up in their household, listening to them practice music, watching my father get into the head space for writing music, and perhaps especially seeing and being involved with some of the logistics involved with trying to promote concerts and workshops, helping my dad maintain his mailing list, putting postage stamps on envelopes, learning about how you're unlikely to get more than 5% of the people you send stuff to coming to your events, learning that this is totally normal.

Since being raised by musicians and becoming a professional musician myself, I've met so many more musicians, not just contemporaries of my parents, but my own contemporaries.  I didn't set out with the expectation that other musicians I'd meet would also be the children of musicians, but my informal observation over time has been that while this phenomenon is by no means universal, it is disproportionately the case that the best musicians I meet were raised by musicians, or by artists of some other variety.

The vast majority of musicians, actors, writers, etc., that I know are working other jobs to make ends meet.  The vast majority of artists I know who are surviving solely from their artistic endeavors are just barely managing to do so.  But the fact that they've managed to have anything that we might call a career in the arts, for many of them, has so much to do with the fact that they have been learning from a very early age that this career path even exists.  

So, I may just be being provocative by titling this piece "In Defense of Nepo."  Really, I'm writing in defense of apprenticeship, of mentoring, of real education, rather than the kind most of us get in most schools.  

Schools here in the US do not prepare many people for a career in the arts.  Sweden, on the other hand, incorporates the arts into public education very well and has an amazing system for helping people launch artistic careers after they're done with school, which are the main reasons why Swedish songwriters produce more hits per capita in the English-language pop charts than anyone else.  

But without that kind of backup from the state, more traditional forms of learning will inevitably be dominant.  This will be true for artists who were born into wealth and fame, and those who weren't, but the same principle applies either way, whether you grew up among the jet set in a mansion in LA with John Williams, or puttering around in an old Volvo and making music beneath the staircase in a dank basement in the suburbs of Connecticut with Howard Rovics.

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