A million years ago, I saw Cat Power for the first time at Schubas. At the time, I was deep in the throes of 90s indie rock—probably because it was the 90s. I was fresh out of college, armed with my unrealistic dreams and the whole world sprawled out before me . . . unveiling a fascinating, shimmering cloud of doom full of twentysomething disappointments. My roommate and I shared a tiny apartment that we cleaned every other . . . never, and we basically existed on top of each other as we haphazardly navigated our freshman year of life. The only thing that held any shred of certainty was that a dirty, fingerprinted, scratched-as-fuck copy of Cat Power’s Moon Pix was on constant rotation in the CD player.
My roommate and I were excited when we found out that this obscure artist whom we adored was coming through Chicago. We had heard inklings that her shows weren’t going so well, but we had no idea what exactly that meant. This predated the viral rumors (now common knowledge) that her onstage performance was often a crumbling mess. As it turned out, the Schubas show was a miniature disaster. Marshall didn’t make it through a single song. She’d start playing but stop to complain to the sound engineer that her guitar didn’t sound right; she asked for all of the lights in the venue to be turned off, then she asked us to sit on the floor. At one point, she mentioned that earlier that day, she had played a song repeatedly while at the airport and wondered why she couldn’t play it anymore. Everyone there was ready to love her, the audience shouted words of encouragement through the dark; it got to a point where we would have been overjoyed to hear just one song from start to finish. But that never happened.
Several people left that show wanting their money back. I left with deep empathy—I had spent a lifetime lugging a pile of humiliation off of various stages due to performance anxiety.
My stage fright is different than Marshall’s—the psychology that plays into her challenge is vastly intricate and complex—but the basics are all too familiar to me. I grew up doing gymnastics so I was competing and performing at an early age. Coaches were baffled by my ability to perform routines flawlessly in practice but then choke when it actually mattered. When it was time to compete, I transformed into a shaking, sweating ball of raw nerves, and all the discipline my body had learned was thrown to the wolves. I had no control over my limbs, which became quite dangerous: I had some frightening falls onto the balance beam, inciting car-crash-horror gasps from the crowd; in one instance, I landed directly on my head during a floor routine. My parents and I became well versed in trips to the hospital. Eventually, I had an injury devastating enough to call it quits for a few years. I cautiously re-entered the gymnastics world in high school, but met the same fate during competitions, and my family and I were back to spending quality time in the ER waiting room.
I had a similar experience when I started playing rock shows, though the danger levels were significantly lower. The moment I got on stage, my throat would dry out so I couldn’t sing, my hands would sweat so profusely that I couldn’t keep a finger on a guitar string without it sliding off, my legs would shake uncontrollably. My instrument suddenly became a foreign object that I had never seen in all of my life. Stage fright turned any potential fear (I’ll mess up, I won’t sing well, I won’t play it right, I’m going to suck) into a catastrophic self-fulfilling prophecy.
Surprisingly, tons of performers deal with this all the time. Donnie Osmond has said that in the moment before he performs he would choose death over going on stage if given the option. Beyoncé can’t make eye contact with anyone. I’ve seen bandmates straight-up barf before going on stage, or completely blank at sound check and have to run home to listen to the record and relearn their parts.
The thing about stage fright that is so incredibly frustrating is that it doesn’t matter how prepared you are, how hard you’ve practiced, or how many times you’ve played your parts perfectly when you’re alone in your bedroom. When stage fright descends upon you, it trumps all of that hard work. Stage fright is an asshole.
Overcoming performance anxiety was somewhat of a miracle for me. In fact, I can’t even say I “overcame” it because I didn’t—it was removed from me. I happened to be at an acupuncture session on the day of a show and jokingly asked my acupuncturist if there was anything he could do for performance anxiety. Apparently, there was. He stuck some pins in me and that was that. Seriously. I haven’t had the debilitating effects of performance anxiety since, and I don’t know if I willed it away or if he actually put magic on me that day. I still get a reasonable amount of nerves before performing, but “reasonable” is the operative word here. It's not irrational and paralyzing. For whatever reason, acupuncture worked for me. I know performers who swear by beta blockers. Another coping strategy: if you consciously try to make yourself shake more, you’ll stop shaking. Go figure.
You know what else helps? When you don’t give a shit. Like, when you truly, in your heart of hearts, stop giving a shit, surrender your doubts, and trust yourself to do what you do.
Anyway. Fingers crossed that Cat Power will kill it tomorrow night. But if anything goes awry on stage, go easy on her.