The difference between ‘entertaining’ and being an ‘entertainer’


One of the unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on where you are coming from as a practitioner) side effect of the performing and creative arts sectors is that what we do is often lumped together in the broad categorization of “arts & entertainment”.

Why this is unfortunate from my observation is that the arts through this misleading category is passed off as fluff or escapist with little depth or any ability for critical thought, at least from the public’s perspective. However, I am also a firm believer that the arts also has a duty to move you or at least incite strong emotions (which may include being “entertained”) for it to really mean anything to a willing and eager audience.

Playfulness is an important part of the arts but the word “play” again, like “entertainment”, has a somewhat unproductive subtext to it in the industrialised world. Play is an important part of childhood brain and skill development but we should stop thinking that the idea of “playing” is just for kids. Ever noticed in music, musicians “play” an instrument, not “operate” it? Playfulness doesn’t have to be in just a physical manifestation – it can also be in language and how playfully you use words or turns of phrase.

One of the ways to address yourself as a practitioner is to ask this simple question: am I an “entertainer” or am I “entertaining" as an artist?

The difference of these two can be surmised from these basic questions:

To whom is this work addressed?

While this is an obvious question, most artists tend to go on autopilot when they get into “the zone”: that fifth gear where time and space cease to matter when we are in the intense depth of creation. It is important to not address this question when you are in the zone but reflect on it when you’ve taken the first break or exit from it.

Ponder the question. There might not be an answer to this and that’s exactly the point – the questioning is part of the process so let this question linger throughout the process.
I, for example, tend to imagine that this song is addressed to my past self, how I wish I could have comforted my younger self in moments of despair – through this I come to
realise that I’m not wearing my entertainer hat but the act of me eventually explaining the song in banter and performing it may be an entertaining moment for it may connect with audiences who might relate or empathize with my thoughts.

Photo by Diane Picchiottino/Unsplash

Where will this work be displayed or performed?

Location, location, location… so says the real estate agent. Similarly, as a performer, one must also consider this seriously. For example, if I wrote a heartfelt ballad that required the audience to listen in, then it would in the best interest of the song for it not to be performed at a bar on a Friday night (well, at least in pre-pandemic times) when everybody really wants to listen, dance and sing along to a familiar song or backbeat. An indie or underground music gig with six bands on the bill at a grungy venue is very different from a 45-minute solo set at a cafe. For example, I chuckle when I see young inexperienced musicians address the crowd like addressing a gig while busking because they are very different circumstances – as a busker, you are expected to be an “entertainer” because the contact point and time between you and the random audience is brief so you have very little to leverage on to grab their attention. At a gig, you have a captive audience (although they may decide to leave at their free will) whose attention is focused solely on you onstage. The technicalities may be similar (amps, microphones, instruments) but change the location, and everything changes. The context will determine whether you should put on your “entertainer” hat on or just allow the entire performance to be an “entertaining” experience.

Do you have anything interesting to say?

This is the main difference that defines an “entertainer” and a performer who is “entertaining”. Entertainers often play by the book, follow the script (“It’s wonderful to be here tonight!” yadda yadda), and really just repeat cliches without providing any new insight or even being interesting aside from showing off their talents or artistic prowess – their ability to sing or show off their skills on an instrument. They are very “safe” and to me, that’s “boring”. Entertainers are the ones who get the bulk of emceeing jobs and dinner performances since they, unfortunately, are just the sideshow or light entertainment at these events and really mute the real power of the creative arts: to “say something” about the current world we live in now. That’s why stand up comedians (as opposed to plain ol’ comedians who tell jokes and do skits) make great and better emcees – they say things that we, the audience, are always thinking but don’t articulate in our daily lives: they don’t tell jokes, they tell realities. They are “entertaining”. Musicians tend to fall more under the “entertainer” category in Malaysia because, well, we are accustomed to censorship and certain ways of presenting ourselves to the public. In other words, we are not authentic to ourselves in public. Someone who is entertaining occupies that same realm as standup comedians and this is a rarity in Malaysia. Do you want to have an edge? Well, occupy this vacant space. Audiences sometimes desire to see themselves in the artist, not necessarily as separate superhuman beings who do things they are unable to.

Next: Break down the walls between words

Azmyl Yunor is a bi-lingual singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, gig organiser and published academic in the field of cultural studies and popular music studies. With prolific output (both solo and with his various band projects) ranging from folk to punk to noise rock since the late 1990s, Azmyl's articulate observations on the cultural politics of contemporary Malaysia set him apart from his peers in the Malaysian music scene. He tours the region regularly and is also active as a freelance columnist, speaker and radio host. Azmyl also sits on CENDANA’s Industry Advisory Panel.

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