Some say the phrase “face the music” originated within the British military. If an officer were court-martialed, the charges against him would be read publicly, with the condemned man standing before the military band, the drummers tapping woefully on their drums. Incidentally, this is also the origin of the phrase, “drumming out” or “drubbing out,” and also gave rise to the expression of “drummed up” charges.
Others say “face the music” came into recognized use when describing a musical soloist, particularly a soloist in an orchestra pit. At the moment of the solo, the performer would have to turn and face the audience, revealing either his or her talent or faults. But one of the longest traditions of this phrase goes back to ancient China.
A Chinese emperor, so we are told, had assembled the most talented musicians he could find from across all of Asia. Regularly they would play as a troupe, for the emperor’s private entertainment and enjoyment. But one of the musicians was a fraud. He could play only poorly, and hid his failures in the notes of the accomplished music of others.
In time, however, the emperor demanded individual performances from all his musicians. This particular “musician,” charlatan that he was, balked. He offered excuses, feigned sickness, allowed others to go ahead of him in the schedule, and delayed for as long as he possibly could.
Then, on the morning of his scheduled recital, when it became clear that he couldn’t manufacture any more excuses, he poisoned himself in his room rather than be publicly revealed as a fraud. He simply could not “face the music.” Yet, that he was a poor musician was not his actual problem.
That he could not tell the truth, that he could not confess his falsehood was his real trouble. The counterfeit persona he had created kept him always cautious not to slip, kept him always painfully conscious of others, kept him always on guard against the truth, always making excuses. Thus, he was a man trapped in a prison of his own making, a prison whose door could only be opened by the key of honesty.
He is hardly alone. Little boys who hide the broken pieces of grandma’s cookie jar; a teenage girl who skillfully keeps her failing grades from her parents for an entire semester; men with mistresses; CEO candidates with false resumes; reporters spreading fake news; politicians defrauding constituents for the sake of accruing power: None of these stumbles, failures, or corner-cuttings are a surprise, for we are all painfully human.
But to keep covering up, to keep hanging on to and propping up the lies, to keep painting over the cracks in our facade – this is the real crime – for a time will come when our dishonesty will be seen for what it really is. We will have to “face the music,” and when that time comes, it will be better to play poorly and honestly than to be revealed as a fraud.