It may be the most legendary back-up vocal in rock music history — the searing wail of Merry Clayton in Gimme Shelter by The Rolling Stones.
For those who heard it for the first time in 1969 or its reprises over the years, what makes your head snap back is the splintering crack of her voice in two places, eliciting an admiring “Whoa!” from Mick Jagger in the studio as she recorded it in the dawn hours.
The vocal fractures were faults in one sense, but they revealed an intensity, a pain and a passion that brought the song to a new level. If she had sung it straight – on pitch, in control, in a safe range – she would have perhaps just been just another back-up singer, and Gimme Shelter would have just been just another song, rather than an anthem to one of the most turbulent periods in American history.
There is something about allowing those cracks to show in our lives that has a powerful impact on our ability to lead and influence others. It also can transform our relationships with one another.
I recall a business awards banquet where the top honoree for the evening – a hugely successful, admired leader – ruminated that he was not good at public speaking and that talking off-the-cuff might not serve anyone well. He then rummaged a piece of paper out of his pocket and read his acceptance speech, perhaps written by a trusted aide. However, in what was perhaps an unguarded moment, he went “off-script” and said a few things that were funny, warm, genuine. You could almost feel the whole audience lean in, saying, “There you are!” I don’t doubt his stock went up a few more points in those precious moments.
The inside work changes the outside view
So often in both our business and personal lives we armor ourselves with practiced behaviors and fashion a veneer of invincibility, leaving our more genuine self in the shadows. While opening up to our vulnerability is hardly license for indulgence, having the courage to allow those layers to be seen and experienced by others is what connects us as people. We remember those times – in business, in politics, in our public and personal lives – when someone’s voice choked back just a bit, when they clearly were moved by something they were saying, when you sensed some truth in the humor, a quieter place in the pause. It is that crackle of spontaneity with no rehearsal. It levels us. They are more approachable, more real. The connection is visceral, enduring. Pretensions fade and trust takes its place.There is a time and a place for reserve, for distance, for unwavering resolve, but not as often as we prefer. It’s fair that some may feel that to offer up that part of themselves – especially when the return is uncertain – leaves them reduced. It becomes, then, a test of whether our sense of self comes from within or without.
If anything, when we embrace our humanness in front of others, we are stronger. When we prevail amid tragedy, when we demonstrate courage amid our anxieties, when we show there is a heart not just a head, we accept our place in the human condition, rather than pretend to be something transcendent of that.
It doesn’t lower us; it lifts others up.