Ugly Thoughts On Pretty Enya

While Enya is one of my favorite musicians, on the rare occasions when I see what she looks like, I find myself surprised that she is so pretty.   Why?   Perhaps her handlers have done a great job of making an ordinary woman look extraordinary, but I don’t think so.

We should expect a weak correlation between beauty and musical ability in general due to assortative mating, and we should expect music labels and customers to select for musicians who excel on both criteria, producing a stronger correlation for professional musicians.   And I think I do expect these things for the typical musician.  But …

But I fear that I succumbed to the temptation to idealize my favorite musicians, e.g., expecting them to be primarily people with exceptional musical ability mainly motivated by their love of music.  But of course there is little good reason to think better of the motivations of the best vs. the typical professional musician.  And relative to the pool of talented musicians, I should expect successful professional musicians to be prettier, more charismatic, harder working, more desirous of fame, and more willing to accommodate the demands of today’s music industry.   I should expect that there are people with even better musical ability out there than I never hear of, because they didn’t have as much of these other features.   But to admit this makes it harder to idealize my favorite musicians.

I should also admit that if I have had some success as an academic, it is probably because I am some combination of prettier, more charismatic, harder working, more desirous of fame, or more willing to accommodate the demands of today’s academic industry.   There are probably non-academics out there more able than I to generate interesting intellectual insights, but rating lower overall on these other criteria.

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  • nine

    Or there are many good musicians, but only the good looking ones get anywhere.

    • Sean C.

      Not True!

      Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Mick Jagger, Billy Joel

      Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt

      Although I won’t argue that looking good helps. But talent does at times win out.

      Also, where does this idea of sorting musicians by rank come from? Music is like dating. There’s no point in doing a global search for the optimal partner. You’re better off doing a local search for good enough.

      And music is even better suited to this idea; you can get involved with many different musicians at different levels of commitment.

      • mikem

        All your examples are radio stars from a bygone era. i.e. the pre-video era.

        I agree with you on the ranking situation, though rather than say ‘good enough’ I’d say ‘good enough for me;’ Each person has a personal ranking algorithm which they should try to satisfice.

  • q

    enya is an average musician whose music and image are a product of her producers more than herself. her producers and marketers are who have the real talent. the music and image are both highly processed and we never see the ‘raw enya’ for a reason. it just isn’t that good.

    they never would have put resources into the career of someone without model-like looks, and without overproduction enya’s music as such would not exist.

    so of course the ‘ugly enya’ wouldn’t have got anywhere.

    and the answer is, of course, if you care about the music, there are a lot of not particularly attractive musicians who are very good musically but whose careers suffer for it, and so you might not hear about them or they might not have the opportunity to make well-produced recordings (which cost a fair amount of money).

    this is completely to be expected. musicians are performers. they are in character. for most of the audience, physical appearance is part of the gig. wouldn’t you expect the same phenomenon for, say, actors / actresses? that’s a very similar job.

    • G. Negyesi

      q,
      I understand your thoughts on this topic, and I think it’s a good general picture about today’s popular music. If we were talking about well-known celebrity female entertainers I would totally agree. However in the case of Enya, many of your statements are not true. The music is composed and arranged by herself, instruments, vocals by herself not by her producer, Nicky Ryan. Of course Nicky also has a huge part in the music (arrangement as well, musical ideas, etc.).
      The image is defined by Enya. She said in an interview that she chooses carefully the photographer, the video clip director, the clothing designers, etc. so that the resulting image would be exactly what she wants.
      Anyway the image in her case is secondary, there are very few interviews, very few advertisements, no tours, most people can see her only on the CD cover, and the reason they buy it is not due to her image but the music.
      Yes, she has natural beauty (that differs from today’s beauty trends) but she benefited from this very very little. In her case it was a rare coincidence of musical talent, wonderful voice, new musical ideas and beauty.
      Anyway here is the “raw” Enya at 46:
      http://gallery.ulster.ac.uk/album905/Enya_3

  • q

    another comment (really a follow up from the lost charity thread)

    i agree that on balance we have too much academia and too much medicine, but i believe we have too few musicians..

    i’d rather mr glass have sponsored musicians with his vast horde of dollars.

    • gwern

      Why do you think we have too few musicians? Unless you’re assigning some extremely large value to live performances, the cost of distributing music has fallen to ~0 and so we only need a few really good musicians, not hordes of mediocrities. (As one observation on the CD market I read went, why buy one of the CDs produced by world-ranked violinists 99-2, when #1 is right there?)

      I have the definite impression that most real musicians are very poorly paid and only live a musical lifestyle for social reasons or love of the art; low salaries for a profession demanding technical mastery and extensive training would suggest that there’s a large *over*supply of musicians, not under.

      • q

        yes, i think we have enough music training, so in that sense there are enough musicians. i wouldn’t open an academy for musicians.

      • Constant

        Why do you think we have too few musicians? …why buy one of the CDs produced by world-ranked violinists 99-2, when #1 is right there?

        Enya is not just a musician in the sense of a technical master of an instrument, but a composer, as are many who are called “musicians”. While perhaps your parenthetical paraphrase is somewhat correct in that if you have a given piece performed by the #1 musician there is little reason to get the same piece performed by the #2 musician (though, frankly, I love my multiple recordings of the same stuff but set that aside), nevertheless it applies much less well to musicians as composers. For instance, if you’re a classical fan, would you only want to listen to the music of your single favorite composer? Or might you want also to hear the music of your second-favorite composer fairly often? And your third and fourth and fifth and so on.

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    “There are more important people than there are important jobs for them.”

    On the first pass, that looked like a snark at people who think they’re important, but really aren’t.

    On second thought, it’s very plausible that there are many more people capable of filling high-status niches than there are niches for them, and I’m cynical enough to believe that a big chunk of human society is being dismissive of people for no good reason.

    • Constant

      Yes, but moreover the process by which the high-status jobs are filled does not necessarily guarantee – no, let me be frank, seems not at all that likely to pick the top candidate, or even close to the top candidate. Granted, one can define “top candidate” and “capable of filling” in a way which makes the actually existent process of selection correct by definition, but if one wants to assess the actually existent process, one cannot make such a circular assumption.

  • Alan

    “There are more important people than there are important jobs for them.”

    Equally there are (generally) more members of a species than there are (reproductive) niches for them (or, more correctly, their children) – this is the very essence of Darwinian selection, which of course is rooted deeply in the work of Adam Smith. I’m not sure that the beneficial consequences of additional slight advantages of looks, drive, etc to success in an apparently unrelated filed are surprising.

  • tgrass

    As Robin offers no reason to presume the Music industry and Academia are comparable environments, he may not be correct in assuming there are those who can generate more interesting intellectual insights than he, but surely he would be correct in assuming there are those who can generate more rigorous ones.

    An alternate conclusion could be that Robin merely had more patience to withstand the tedium of academia, thus outwaiting his cohorts as success ultimately and, perhaps inevitably, arrived, like getting to dance with a girl only because no one else has asked her.

    At the very least, I have never known charisma to self congratulate as Robin just did (“some combination of prettier, more charismatic…”), so let us reasonably conclude it was not charisma that led to his academic success.

    I find it interesting that as Krugman writes of the demise of rational Economics, Tyler Cowen and Robin seem to be racing to the exit with Tyler claiming it is all ceremony and Robin declaring it was never about intelligence, but merely about a chiseled jaw and bedroom eyes (the attributes which surely exclusively contributed to my success!).

  • Russ

    “While Enya is one of my favorite musicians, on the rare occasions when I see what she looks like, I find myself surprised that she is so pretty. Why? Perhaps her handlers have done a great job of making an ordinary woman look extraordinary, but I don’t think so.”

    Unless you have personally met Enya its unclear to me if you can make a determination of her attractiveness. On what basis do you say she is pretty Robin?

    In this digital age its possible to easily improve peoples’s appearances in practically all media, most notably photographs. Maybe you have been hoodwinked and are searching for an elaborate explanation for whats painfully obvious … record labels manipulate artists images because attractive artists sell more records.

    if you do a search on google images for Enya, for example … there are several images that have been digitally modified and in those images yes, she there is no doubt that does look super attractive, no surprise. But in the raw unmodified photo’s, she is certainly not unattractive, but homely and average … certainly not a head turning stunner you would expect.

    Check it out and see for yourself.

  • Norman

    q,

    de gustibus non est disputandum. Is there really a point to explaining how mediocre Enya when the OP explicitly says “Enya is one of my favorite musicians”? I mean, other than signaling that you are a member of a group that values musical snobbery?

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  • Jonathan Graehl

    I wonder if the author’s claim of charisma incited some of his respondents to respond in put-down mode.

  • tgrass

    Jonathan,
    Guilty.

  • http://osteele.com Oliver Steele

    “We should expect a weak correlation between beauty and musical ability in general due to assortative mating” – only if one assumes beauty is purely genetic; whereas it’s subject to environmental conditions (from the fetal environment onwards) – including the environment that the individual’s choices create for her body. It’s easier for a smart, wealthy, or determined person to appear beautiful (think: having the time and inclination to exercise or sun protection and the competence to do so effectively, for example; as well as to employ more ephemeral tactics such as makeup or photoshop). These same attributes contribute to success in music and other fields too.

  • http://lesswrong.com/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    How very odd. I remember seeing an Enya music video just once, and thinking that she looked surprisingly normal and middle-aged for a woman in a music video, and applauding her or whoever decided to have the real person in the video instead of some stand-in.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Clearly tastes in music and beauty vary.

      • http://lesswrong.com/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

        (Note: Girlfriend spontaneously made roughly the same comment as I did when she saw the post title.)

  • Bill

    We should expect a weak correlation between beauty and musical ability in general due to assortative mating, and we should expect music labels and customers to select for musicians who excel on both criteria, producing a stronger correlation for professional musicians.

    If by “stronger” you mean more positive, this seems to be wrong. If people value both musical talent and looks, then, among professional musicians, those things will tend to be negatively correlated — just because of the way efficiency frontiers between two positively valued things have to slope — regardless of how those characteristics correlate in the overall population.

    Professional musicians will be higher on both looks and talent than musicians generally, for obvious reasons. But the correlation between looks and talent among the subset of professional musicians ought to be negative.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      I mean stronger correlation relative to others, not within the group..

  • http://pojatitkee.blogspot.com Paavo
  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Are the successful academics who are relatively ugly, boring, lazy etc more brilliant? We might expect that to be the case in order to compensate for their other deficiencies.

    I had also noticed a pattern of liking a song, and then when seeing the gal who sang it considering her pretty. I concluded that positive association or “the halo effect” were likely playing a role. Now I’m not so sure. The most salient example is “Give Me” by The Human Value. It sounded sexy on Pandora, and then I watched the video…not bad but nothing special. That Eva von Slut looked like Meatloaf wasn’t a surprise at all though, since she sounds like Danzig. One more example of a band I can think of whose singer has a pretty voice but not face is Unshine.

  • Greg Conen

    Perhaps you’re idealizing your favorite musicians in a different way, letting the appeal of their music make them more appealing in other ways. Do you think she is particularly pretty by the standards of modern celebrities?
    To my eyes, Enya is reasonably attractive, but not especially so, based on the pictures on the web. Considering, as others have noted, the enormous effects a good make-up artist, fashion consultant, lighting technician, photographer, and digital editor have, her apparent beauty is not surprising even before you take sorting effects into consideration.

  • cupcake

    Enya is, in fact, stunning. She has begun to show her age, certainly, in some of the recent photos, which I think is what some of the commenters are talking about. But Enya is 48 years old, and for that, she looks fantastic. She’s been in the music business for over 20 years and the photos on the internet are from all different periods in her career. If you look at photos from her earlier albums (Watermark, Shepherd Moons, etc.) she is generally not airbrushed but still looks absolutely gorgeous.