What Can You Learn From Usher the Überperformer?

It’s all in the abs

Most of us forget that Usher is a bit of a weirdo. These days he’s glossy and grown up, a famous hot dad playing Sugar Ray Leonard in a movie this fall. But watch the video for My Way (1997), the title track from his first platinum album: It’s a psychedelic Clockwork Orange-meets West Side Story/Grease showdown that starts in a sexy bounce house and ends in Los Angeles’ Sixth Street Viaduct, Tyrese the dapper Kenickie to Usher’s Danny Zuko In A Technicolor Dreamcoat. In the final dance-fight sequence, the dreamcoat Comes Off to reveal a lime green silk shirt and a number of sexual! dance! moves! The abs haven’t become a thing yet, but it’s pure Usher, dapper and smooth and nasty and quirky, smirking at the end of each tightly wound tiptoe-spin. You can imagine him in a planning meeting saying, “here are some movies I like. I want to do all of them but with cooler dance moves and a bounce house that is inexplicably set up in a used car lot.”

You’d hope we would get a little bit of this in “Usher Teaches The Art of Performance,” a sixteen-video series produced and sold by MasterClass, a company that hopes to teach you anything you might want by using the voice and experience and likeness famous person you want to emulate. Who better to teach you how to be on stage, then, than a triple threat with glossy abs and five platinum albums who has given us such bangers as “Nice & Slow,” “Yeah!”, “Love in This Club,” and the subtle masterpiece that is “Climax”? You pay $90 to pop the hood, and you hope to understand a little bit of the weird and the way that Usher got to the sleek sunglass-wearing place he is now. What you mostly get, though, is the gloss.

After clearing his throat through the issues of why we’re here and what we’re going to do, Usher begins with what proves to be some of the most useful material in all sixteen video snippets, between 10 and 15 minutes each, that compose this “class.” He talks about gleaning inspiration, of studying your idols and then studying theirs. In class number four, a title card flashes on the screen: A THIEF STEALS, A GENIUS BORROWS. Interlude: Usher tells us to “take the inspiration from greatness, and create something that gives you an identity.” Next title card: GO FROM IMITATION TO INSPIRATION.

Usher tells us to “take the inspiration from greatness, and create something that gives you an identity.”

It feels silly and obvious on one hand; on the other, this bit is the purest little nugget that Usher gives us in all of sixteen “classes,” even the one called “Creating Your Personal Brand.” I’d been feeling creatively sluggish, and this felt like a little yank out of something, a reminder of all the things I’m supposed to remind myself of when I think my brain might not work anymore.

In the message board that lives below each video, Usher is nowhere to be found (even though I’ve been promised “feedback” from him), but an out-of-touch moderator does chime in to pose prompts or respond to questions. By reading my classmates’ comments, I learn that most of them are aspiring singers and dancers and most of them are enormous Usher fans. (I’m a former stage performer who is now a writer and mostly performs in the way that she Is Performative Online but sometimes does karaoke and sings Gilbert and Sullivan songs in her bedroom; I don’t have any Usher-like aspirations but I do enjoy a well-executed dance move.) One thing we all have in common is an understanding that we are all Here, and we want to get There.

Most of what Usher gives us are platitudes, interspersed with encouragement and weird interjections about his abs and the way women liked to be talked to and how it’s actually possible for a dude to have sex appeal in the absence of a six-pack. (On sex appeal: “It started when I decided to make my abs a part of the conversation…. Women love a man who can make them smile, so use that….On the other hand, you’ve got chicks who love when you talk to them crazy…. Sensuality isn’t the only way to go; you can actually be smart. You can actually have a brain. And that’s sexy!”) His objective — teaching us the Art of Performance — is murky, and you get the sense that he hasn’t defined it himself. He’s mostly just talking about How To Be Usher. How does a natural performer explain the magic of what he does?

Creative study can be broken down into a venn diagram of studying a craft (e.g., taking classes in singing or dancing or acting or writing); studying work you admire (reading, watching, listening, then analyzing and emulating); and then learning how to access and process and project your own creativity. MasterClass and Usher are attempting to dip a toe into the middle section of this and come out with something gold-plated; it’s a near-impossible feat in such a short span of time.

Usher isn’t going to actually teach us how to sing or dance here; he can only encourage practice. (Christina Aguilera on the other hand hosts a class on singing, which seems ostensibly more useful, if also potentially hilarious.) His encouragement to study works we admire is a valuable one. And while he briefly gets to the question of accessing your own creativity, he’s not able to teach that essential concept in meaningful ways. He mostly just advises us to make things our own, a very vague way to suggest a very essential process.

In her essay on embarrassment from A Director Prepares, Anne Bogart argues that “embarrassment is a partner in the creative act — a key collaborator. If your work does not sufficiently embarrass you, then very likely no one will be touched by it.” Teaching creative work requires teaching vulnerability; it’s a hard thing to do while trying to maintain an air of polish. In this sparse theater, Usher is both acting and trying to teach us how: acting as The Performer and The Teacher, with shiny threads pulled from his own life as examples to educate us. The platitudes fall flat; after class eleven or so, it gets objectively boring. And while Usher recognizes the value of failure and the necessity of weakness — he harps on how bad he once was at dancing, it almost wasn’t part of his repertoire, can you believe it! — he treats it as something to overcome, not to integrate.

Teaching creative work requires teaching vulnerability; it’s a hard thing to do while trying to maintain an air of polish.

On our screens, Usher is prerecorded and untouchable; we students, then, are the only ones who risk true embarrassment here. (Unless you count the fact that Usher is doing this embarrassing in the first place, but that is up to you!) And the act of taking a MasterClass — of sitting alone on a couch or a bed, sweatpants and all, trying to ingest some inspiration — is a little embarrassing too, in a Waiting For Guffman sort of way. When asked to upload a video of myself performing, I get the same queasy pit in my stomach as when I think about the prospect of taking an improv class. Is taking a MasterClass something that a true performer would do? Probably not. Is it something that a superfan would do? As Usher would say, “Yeah!”

The “alternate-reality classroom” format, essentially a black-box theater with a spotlight on the Talent, is the value proposition that differentiates this from, say, an interview or a DVD extra. You get the sense of being in an episode of Glee, where one of the teens — let’s say it’s Rachel — who went off to Tisch comes back and sits in a chair while their younger cohorts all sit on the floor around her, legs crossed and eyes wide, as she spews out platitudes about creative work and “making strong choices” and “inhabiting a character.” All of which gives the impression that the real audience for this class isn’t an aspiring performer — that person should really be spending $90 on dance classes or books or theater tickets if you ask me! — but the Usher superfan looking for some exclusive content. He even implies this, switching between “my fans” and “you” as if we’re all the same thirsty mass.

When you love an artist deeply, they can spew out the most vanilla sort of bullshit and it will land like poetry in your gooey little brain. You hang on to every word and anecdote the way you do with a crush, calling mundane details of their life “so cute” and “inspiring.” If a writer I loved — I’ll use John Jeremiah Sullivan, because all of Usher’s talk of Michael Jackson got me thinking of JJS’s brilliant GQ profile from 2009 — spewed 90% bullshit and 10% gems for a few hours, I would surely shell out ninety bucks for that, particularly if this person wasn’t often interviewed. I would suck the life out of every word and story they told, and I would tell myself it was worth it. This is basically the premise of, say, the Longform podcast or Inside the Actors’ Studio, only it’s free, and usually the bullshit comes in at well under 90%.

When you love an artist deeply, they can spew out the most vanilla sort of bullshit and it will land like poetry in your gooey little brain.

And, okay: We don’t even get to see Usher dance! We see old footage of his tours, of the time he sang at Michael Jackson’s funeral (we get it, you’re famous!), footage of him looking at a mural in a foreign country (“if you have the ability to travel…..definitely do that.”) There’s a sweet little clip of him remaking Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain performance, after which he explains how it inspired the final rain-dance scene in U Got It Bad. A beautiful little anecdote! But I would have much preferred, say, a Song Exploder-style breakdown of one of his great music videos or performances — to understand the stories behind each bit, to hear how all the components lincoln logged together to become a piece of work. (I might not pay $90, but I’d probably pay $40 for a Song Exploder episode about Frank Ocean’s “Ivy.”)

A class on performance by a celebrated performer is trying to be too many things at once. The idea of mastery here is a joke, just like the “worksheets” that read like poorly written Sparknotes intermingled with the things Usher’s PR person mutters in their sleep. (One of them links to a webpage that doesn’t exist; it’s supposed to clue you in on more ways to develop your personal brand.) And treating performance as something that can be taught on the surface level does a disservice to everyone, to art, to performers, to people watching Usher in a bounce house. In explaining the utility of personal experience and embarrassment in art, Bogart says that “revelation is necessary to warrant attention.” There are no revelations in this class, only catchy sentences and weak encouragements and a few cute moments when we catch Usher being Usher.

A class on performance by a celebrated performer is trying to be too many things at once.

As I write this there’s a girl standing in the coffee shop looking very slim and tidy and holding a copy of 101 Things I Learned in Film School. Turns out it’s part of a series — “For Dummies” for Millennials, maybe — and includes such gems as a paragraph on a page teaching you to “Show Don’t Tell,” with an accompanying illustration across the fold. This is showing; this is telling; don’t do the former. In a different medium, this is what the MasterClass format gives us: a condensed crash course masquerading as bite-size genius.

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