What It Is And How To Get It!

By Kenny Kerner

Of all the articles I've written for TAXI over the past 15 years, this one on charisma seems to strike a note in the hearts of all aspiring performers. It's about being real. About being YOU. About making you stand out regardless of who you happens to be. Well, you'll see. Read on and feel free to e-mail me with your comments.


A special magnetic charm or appeal

Throughout the history of Rock 'n' Roll, we have witnessed the rise (and in many instances, the demise) of icons—performers who were bigger than the music; bigger than life itself. Names like Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Gene Simmons, Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison, Michael Jackson, David Lee Roth, Elton John, Gwen Stefani, Marilyn Manson, and Bruce Springsteen, come to mind most immediately, because of the fact that each and every one of these performers had a special, intangible, god-given attribute called charisma.

Charisma is that special magical, magnetic charm or appeal that you cannot learn or buy. You can't take charisma lessons the way you take guitar lessons. You can read all the books you like on the subject, but the bottom line with charisma is—you either have it or you don't! Confused? Well, just keep reading.

Charisma is what enables an artist to take his talents—whether minimal or exceptional—and make them personal and unique. It's a stamp of identity that immediately conjures up images of that artist in your mind's eye. It is what forever endears you to that artist. It is a trait the artist possesses both on stage and off.

Buddy Holly had a very strong yet subtle charisma about him. He was Everyman on stage. His appeal—with those thick, nerd-like glasses—was to the common teenager. Not especially handsome or well-built, Holly made the best of his physical appearance by just being himself and not hiding or trying to change who he was.

What can you say about Little Richard? An innovator from Day One, Richard was always outgoing, regardless of the consequences. His songs, controversial for the time because of the sexual innuendo in many of the lyrics, were a direct reflection of his life and his personality. Like Holly, this performer was also true to himself on stage and went with the assets he was given. Well, maybe he added just a little bit of theatrics and costuming.

They didn't call Elvis "The King" for nothing. I have a feeling his middle name really was Charisma. That shy smile, the devilishly handsome looks, the blatantly sexy performances and the respect he showed for others during television appearances and interviews were part and parcel of who Elvis really was. He knew he had sex appeal, but more importantly, found a way to channel it to his advantage.

John Lennon is an interesting study. On stage, he was pretty laid-back. No running around or stage diving here. Bent at the knees and always chewing gum, Lennon exuded a natural charisma never before seen in the Rock world. It was sort of a snide, intelligent, literate charm that he developed during his adolescence. His sarcastic smile said it all. He was smart as a whip and always one step ahead of the pack—and he knew it. He just glowed. In the early '70s, I had the pleasure of befriending Lennon just after he and Yoko moved to New York. In a nutshell, he was charisma personified!

Jagger possesses a real unrefined street charm that few others have. Whereas Lennon and McCartney would sing, "In my life, I love you more..." Jagger would shout out, "Let's spend the night together..." It was always down to basics for Mick. And that was his appeal. He got right to the point with no reading between the lines. Add this to his intense live performance and it's easy to understand why this guy is a legend.

Jim Morrison took a page out of Lennon but brought it up a couple of notches. Sporting leather suits, a costume similar to Lennon's when John was in the Silver Beatles, Morrison combined blatant sexuality with drugs and poetry to capture an international audience. Jimbo was charisma—in every sense of the word. Tall, dark, handsome, poetic, sexy, controversial—duh! He just stood still on stage, both hands wrapped around the mic stand, and that was enough. His personal life was no different.

Boy George had one of the most incredible Pop voices ever. He combined that with his real personality and the results were spectacular. Not a flamboyant performer by any means, George's persona just drew you to him. You needed to see him up close. Other than some makeup and colorful clothes, there was no flash at all when the curtain went up—just a young English Pop singer, dripping charisma.

David Lee Roth and Elton John were both over the top when it came to performing, yet, each performer used his show as an extension of his personal life. Roth honed his craft in the streets of Los Angeles (Pasadena, to be exact), so he was a bit crude and aggressive—even as a person. Possessed with a raspy Louie Prima-type voice and a very limited vocal range, Diamond Dave let his real life animal magnetism do the talking for him.

Wearing outrageous costumes was nothing new for Elton John. Much of this performer's charm was in the way he sang his songs. The quality of the voice and the emotion-charged sentiment of the actual performance gave John a rare blend of talent and charisma. The costuming was the gravy here; the extra bonus for coming to see him live.

Bruce Springsteen is a throwback to Buddy Holly—no stage outfit, a basic Everyman appeal—but The Boss is for real. His simple boy-next-door charm works. He'll sweat, he'll party, he'll play all night long, if you let him. Kinda like what we would do, given the chance.

And what is there left to be said about KISS or Michael Jackson? Fashion. Music. Stage show. Put it all together and throw it in your face and it spells Charisma ten times over!

But do not make the mistake of assuming that because someone is successful if follows that he has charisma. No, not true. Remember just a few years back when Alternative music was the Flavor of the Month? Well, where are these bands now? Have any of these Alternative acts made any kind of lasting impression on you or on music, for that matter? Are these guys future Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inductees? I think not.

So, how does this story help you? What can you do to become more charismatic, more appealing, more magical, more magnetic?

I know this will sound stupid and obvious, but nobody else is you. Nobody else has what you have. Hey, that makes you unique, right? You bet! So why not use it? How can you be charming and magical if you're always trying to be something or someone else?

Take advantage of them; flaunt them. Buddy Holly's glasses, Jon Popper's girth, Mel Tillis' speech impediment, are all unique features that make these performers immediately recognizable and add to their charisma and charm. What you see is what you get!

This will make you less self-conscious and more at ease. It is not easy to come to terms with the fact that you are fat—especially in the Rock world. But once you can admit that even though you are fat, you're still a kick-ass performer and songwriter, you can get to the job of being real.

Most of the Rock icons mentioned in this story were ridiculed. People laughed when Elvis gyrated his pelvis. They insulted Boy George for his homosexuality and his outlandish costumes. They burned John Lennon's records because of his appeal to the youth of the world and his sharp, snappy wit. Today, we still get a chuckle from watching performance footage of Little Richard.

Many of today's newer performers are exciting to watch. Nobody will argue that Limp Bizkit doesn't put on an awesome, action-packed live show. Or that Korn doesn't tear the house down in concert. But are these charismatic performers or merely performers putting on an exciting show? There's a world of difference. Garth Brooks' charisma transcends his live performances. His magnetic, magical personality is apparent whether playing live or at a quaint, dinner spot. You do not turn charisma on and off. I wonder if the same can be said of Fred Durst, for example?

As you traverse the waters of the music business over the next few years, remember that musical styles will come and go. Radio formats will change. People's tastes will vary from one week to the next. Talent will always remain but a single element of success, and charisma, a very essential part of that mix.

From the forthcoming book, Get Smart!: Essential Tips for Success in the Music Industry by Kenny Kerner. His current book Going Pro, is available at all bookstores and at Amazon.com.

About Kenny Kerner:
Discovered and produced KISS. Also produced albums for Gladys Knight, Jose Feliciano and Badfinger. As a publicist, he represented Michael J. Fox and Jay Leno. Was the former Senior Editor at Music Connection Magazine and wrote a best-selling music education book called "Going Pro" Kerner is currently the Director of the Music Business Program at Musicians Institute in Hollywood. Specialties include Personal Management, Artist Development and Music Business.

Kenny Kerner
Musicians Institute
Director / Music Business Program
(323) 860-1122
Fax: (323) 462-6508