The Tough, Unanswered Questions About Backup Singers

The documentary 20 Feet From Stardom showcases an oft-ignored part of the music industry while still minimizing issues of race and gender.

Tremolo Productions

Backup singers are an essential part of pop music, supplying songs with depth, contrast, and commentary. But the world of backup singing is treacherous and exploitative, almost by definition. Backup singers are poorly paid, largely uncredited, and discarded when they are no longer needed. Listeners tend to pay attention only to the lead singer and maybe whoever writes or plays the songs.

20 Feet From Stardom, the well-reviewed documentary directed by Morgan Neville, tries to correct this by spotlighting the contributions of backing vocalists. It's fun to watch, but it's also too in love with its subjects—both the singers and their highly successful employers—to really capture the essence of the industry. It glosses over the race and gender inequalities that characterize backup singing, and its shortfalls reflect the larger problems of pop culture's obsession with solo stars.

The film focuses on four and a half singers, black women who mostly sang backup for famous pop and rock musicians in the '60s, '70s, and '80s: Darlene Love, Lisa Fisher, Claudia Lennear, Merry Clayton, and to a lesser extent, Judith Hill. It begins with the story of Darlene Love (though she actually doesn't quite fit as a backup singer, falling more into the category of an uncredited lead singer), whose vocal group sang on Phil Spector hits as the Wall Of Sound swept the U.S. in the early '60s. Neville weaves in the stories of Lennear, originally one of Ike Turner's Ikettes, Clayton, one of Ray Charles's Raelettes, and Lisa Fisher, who came up singing behind Luther Vandross. Judith Hill, a contemporary youngster trying to make it in the current pop environment (she recently got eliminated on the TV show The Voice), appears at the end.

Neville tells the story of his chosen singers with old performance footage, contemporary studio sessions where backing vocals are being recorded, and a bunch of talking heads. The performances mostly date from the mid-to-late '60s and '70s—the Raelettes cooing, Tina and the Ikettes dancing in minimal outfits with maximum movement. Allowing the audience to sit in on studio sessions illustrates the remarkable combination of power and precision required of backup singers. At one point, Mick Jagger suggests in his typical clod-headed fashion that he would get bored just singing "oohs" and "ahs" all the time, but the movie shows that nailing those oohs is not the breezy gig that Mick makes it out to be.

The sexual politics of backup singing are glaringly apparent, since all the big name musicians in the movie are men—Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder—and all the backup singers are women. But 20 Feet From Stardom doesn't do much besides point to this disparity. One commentator notes that women's liberation movements started during the '60s, so the backup singer outfits got progressively skimpier. Someone else says that Ike Turner saw himself as a "pimp" and the Ikettes as his "ho's." Were the women more liberated, were they being used, both? Did female backup singers who worked for female stars get the same treatment? Jagger tells us that he liked Lennear because she was the hottest Ikette (she's supposedly responsible for inspiring "Brown Sugar"), Lennear claims that she wanted to be more than eye candy, the interviewer points out a possible contradiction—she did a spread for Playboy in 1974. Then the subject is dropped.

The racial divide gets the same treatment. White boys who wanted to play the blues and R&B needed great black backing vocalists to give their music the right sound, so Jagger, Joe Cocker, and others offered employment and an entry into the music industry. Then the white boys took their sound to the bank, leaving the likes of Lennear and Clayton behind. When Clayton looks back at her gig singing on Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama," she suggests that singing extra vigorously on the track was payback for having to work for a band that unapologetically touted the Confederate flag. But the movie never explores this conflict—is her singing an assertion of her own power as a black woman depended on by white men, or just another instance of whites using and profiting from black culture? What sort of relationships existed between black singers and black backing vocalists? The movie offers a montage of black-power photos and a video of Clayton covering Neil Young's "Southern Man." That's as far is it goes.

The most startling thing about the movie? It's supposed to be giving credit to the barely credited, but it plays more like an homage to the celebrities, a classically American story of successful individualism, full of rhetoric that enables easy exploitation. This stuff spews out of the mouths of the stars who've hit it big. Springsteen talks about the huge gulf between a backup singer and a front-man and how it can be hard to overcome because it requires a "conceptual leap" and a big ego. All those black women are just stuck singing backup because they're too nice! Sting also endorses the status quo—always easy to do when you're on top—by pointing out that it's not a level playing field and that the best people just "deal with it." Another talking head says that some backup singers don't want to be the big name on the marquee, even though every one of the main singers in the movie tried to make it as a soloist, or, in the case of Judith Hill, is currently trying.

And it's not just the white stars who buy this bad dogma. Mable John, formerly a backup singer, now a preacher, says that female singers have to know their value, and that they shouldn't settle for less than their worth. This inspired clapping in the movie theater I was in. But it's the kind of subversive comment that masquerades as supportive while actually blaming the women for the position they were in. Nothing about the careers of the extremely talented women in the movie suggests that they settled—they were dominated by a money-making machine.

There are other important questions the movie doesn't take on. What about those backup singers who do hit it big, who pay their dues and then break out as solo stars? Their take on the profession might provide an interesting counterpoint. Except for Stevie Wonder, all the bigwigs in the movie who rely on backup singers are rock stars, but there's no information about backup singers in other genres of music, like country or R&B. And what about the present? The movie waves weakly at today's scene by bemoaning the use of auto-tune and briefly touching on the story of Judith Hill. Hill's trying to make it now, but the movie gives no sense of the current landscape, so it's hard to see how her story fits in.

Neville's intentions seem honorable. But putting together a documentary involves making choices, and these choices matter. Like a savvy politician, 20 Feet From Stardom gains points by talking about a subject that is rarely addressed and sympathizing with victims who are hardly ever noticed. But it often ends up affirming the entrenched system that created these problems in the first place. The audience gets a feel-good rendition of "Lean On Me," but it seems like these women were leaned on for long enough already.