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Five Things We've Learned from Four Seasons of Unsung

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UNSUNG
TV One

1. Fame is a bull hellbent on bucking you.

Every act profiled on TV One's hit docu-series, Unsung, was chosen because their hopes for superstardom were somehow dashed and/or their immense talent has been under-heralded. But after four seasons of watching tale after tragic tale of love, loss, betrayal, and dirty politics, a crystal clear moral has emerged. If you want fame, it's gonna cost you. Dearly. And even if you let it bleed you dry, it may never yield you dividends. Instead it may leave you paralyzed (Johnnie Wilder of Heatwave, Teddy Pendergrass); abused (Tammi Terrell); drug-addled (Miki Howard, Mary Wells, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, any member of the Debarge family); imprisoned (Billy Preston, Foster Sylvers); or dead at your own hand or your brother's (Donny Hathaway, Phyllis Hyman, Roger Troutman).

2. Karma is a mother.

Look, we can all agree that if your brother is writing your hit song lyrics and you vote to kick him out of your singing group, you have to know that your subsequent singles are gon' end up in the 99 cent bin, right? Right? Likewise, if you're married to one brother, with children, then leave him and have kids with his brother, all will not bode well in the love department thereafter. In like fashion, if you're abused as a child, then you grow up and become an abuser, your life ain't gon' be no crystal stair. And if you sell out your group members for a solo career, your solo career's not very likely to thrive (exceptions to the rule, notwithstanding).

3. Read the fine print.

Mismanagement leads to the demise of far too many acts on Unsung. From Melba Moore to Miki Howard to George Clinton, we know that reading the fine print on a contract, owning your masters, and not letting people -- especially jealous spouses -- screw you out of what's rightfully yours are imperative rules for success in the recording industry. Though it's the most obvious of causes, it's still hard to hear that time in and time out, an infinitely talented person fell for that contract okeydoke and signed away all their residuals and profits.

4. Talent is no panacea.

Mental illness crops up in more than a few episodes of this series. From depression to bipolar disorder to schizophrenia, these artists really suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. If there's one takeaway from the entire run of Unsung, one lesson more valuable than any other you'll ever learn from a cautionary tale, it's that you must always seek the help you need. There's no singing your way through it, no pouring your pain cathartically into your albums, no propping an artist up -- regardless of how loose his grip on reality has become -- to record just one last hit record. People should always be more valuable than profit and if you're into siphoning their talent off like so much gas from a car, you're being incredibly short-sighted. A healthy person is a productive one, and we can only imagine how much richer the world would be if business managers, agents, and other hangers-on truly believed that.

5. Arrogance will get you nowhere./Patience is a virtue.

It's great to know that you're a valuable commodity. You should always be aware of your worth. But when you start swaggering around thinking you're God's gift to your record label, you're in big trouble. Huge. It's one thing to have your own artistic vision, but unless you're producing and bankrolling your own work, it's pretty presumptuous to try calling your label's bluff after a few hits. This one's a tough lesson, because it's always so gray. In the episodes where Mary Wells, Teena Marie, and Miki Howard are profiled, each has very legitimate concerns with her record label. But when you're up against a juggernaut like Motown or Atlantic, you may have to swallow your pride for a chance at long-term career success. After all, if your contract says that leaving will cost you use or your name and likeness, as well as rights to everything you've recorded with that company, it makes more sense to wait till your contract's up for renewal than to break it outright.

Unsung wrapped its most recent season last month. What's the most haunting or memorable episode you've watched?

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