What makes an embarrassing performance?

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embarrassedWe’ve all been present at performances that made us squirm. We describe them as cringingly bad, as awkward, as embarrassing. Mostly we don’t think about them more than we have to – rather we get irritated at how the memory of them sticks around in our heads like a nasty taste or funny smell. But if we do stop to think about them at all, we usually put our response down to lack of skill on the performers’ part.

But we’ve also all been to performances that weren’t very skilled but that were nonetheless not embarrassing. We might be slightly patronising about them – calling them sweet, or heartfelt, or well-meaning – but we don’t resent the experience. Embarrassing performances are not just about lack of skill.

What I think is going on is based in the structure of empathy between performer and audience.

When people perform, they are inviting their watchers/listeners to experience the musical (or dramatic, or choreographic) content of their performance along with them, to travel down the same imaginative road, to identify with them.

So, when we witness a performer being just like we would like to be, but better – more skilled, more vibrant, more sensitive – we feel inspired. When we see a performer attempting something that can we identify with, but falling short in some way, we are still happy to honour the attempt.

When we witness a performer being less than they could be, or being less than we would aspire to be, we resist this identification. No, we think, I do not want to travel down that road with you; I feel humiliated to be seen being like that myself; and I can’t believe you have volunteered to put yourself in that position. Have you no idea?

As well as skill, of course, there are all sorts of issues about taste (and associated notions such as snobbery and vulgarity) implicated in our willingness or unwillingness to empathise with a particular performer’s way of being in the world. The outrage we feel at a truly embarrassing performance is thus quite a complex response. It is not merely that we don’t want to be like those performers, it is that we feel insulted that someone might think we are so déclassé, or snooty, or small-time, or up ourselves (or whatever) that we could possibly want to align ourselves with them.

Indeed, we find ourselves cringing on behalf of the performers because we perceive them to be exposing themselves inappropriately and apparently unaware of the fact. That is, an embarrassing performance is one in which our empathy leads us to experience the emotions that we think the performers should be experiencing, instead of the ones that they are actually asking us to share.

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