Monday, May 2, 2011

Miscellaneous Musings – On the Wonderful Overconfidence of Youth

April 30, 2011

On the Wonderful (Over)confidence of Youth

Perhaps I should begin today by saying that I am not a fan of American Idol. I get no joy out of watching youngsters singing other people’s songs and then being told by judges that they haven’t found themselves yet as artists. No joke. And I find it cruel that some people are put through to the second round just so they can be embarrassed in front of millions of people in the name of ratings. Clearly though, I’m in the minority on this. Now in its tenth season, the show has proven to be a ratings bonanza, while simultaneously earning the wrath of some music fans perhaps too nostalgic for the days when record labels had ultimate power and hitting number one on Billboard’s charts meant selling many more CDs than it does now. These days a CD can hit the top spot by selling just 50,000 copies in its first week, a far cry from when Pearl Jam took just seven days to sell a million copies. However, those who blame Simon Cowell and American Idol for ruining music forget about the similar shows that preceded it in the eighties and nineties. Before Paula, Randy, and Simon were offering their opinions on live television, young people who felt they had what it took to make it in music were appearing on shows like Star Search and Showtime at the Apollo. We even had a television show that crowned the best lip-synchers in the country called Putting on the Hits.

For most of my early years, I too felt an urge to perform, and like many of my contemporaries, I had the notion that I would one day hit it big – I would have that #1 album, I would hear Rick Dees announce my new single as the number one song in the country. When both Debbie Gibson and Tiffany found success in their teens, I was even more convinced that I could make it. And so one day in 1988, I tried.

I remember the experience well. Just before the show began, there was an amazing sense of camaraderie backstage. Each of the performers talked and joked with their competitors, and even wished them luck. The first singer of the evening, a young woman with a magnificent deep voice, had won the week before, and for her second act, she had chosen to sing a capella. I remember hearing her voice reverberate all the way down to the waiting room where her competitors were. I can’t remember anyone being unimpressed, and it gave me the feeling that I was surrounded by excellence. However, a moment later, this angel with a golden voice appeared in front of us in tears, proclaiming that the audience was drunk. She had been booed off-stage. She quickly gathered her things and walked out the back exit into a cloudless Oakland night. I never saw her again.

The next part of the evening is a bit of a blur. I do remember that a comedian performed that night and that he got a few laughs from the crowd. Why they had him compete against singers, I’ll never know. He deserved to be on a show like “Last Comic Standing.” Later, a young man sung Lionel Richie’s “Lady” to thunderous applause and a mother of two had similar success with her rendition of Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita.” At some point, it was my turn. The two hosts introduced me as a very young kid who had written his own song. They called my name and out I went.

That night, I was performing a song called “Broken.” I had written it for a play I had been in earlier that year called Ceremonies. In the play, the song is sung by a character who is a bit of a class clown and who may not have much of a future. He’s a bit depressed, and later in the play he admits to having been suicidal in the past. The song reflects those sentiments and includes the line, “A cry for help goes unheeded, unheard.” In other words, I could not have chosen a worse song to sing. To make matters worse, I would be singing to a recording of a single guitar – no drums, not piano, no full orchestra. However, what I lacked in musical accompaniment, I more than made up for in confidence. I was going to dazzle the audience and win the day.

I stepped out onto the stage, and the music began. The house band’s drummer quickly sized up the situation and graciously began provide a soft, steady drum beat. I heard my cue and began to sing. I made it through the first chorus before the boos began. I turned to the host who motioned for me to keep going, to try and win them back, but it was no use. My voice was too soft, the song was too slow, and to be brutally honest, I really wasn’t much of a singer. Soon, the music stopped, the host gave me a high five, and I exited stage left. Thus ended my night at Oakland’s version of the Apollo.

Looking back, I had never had the strongest of voices. In high school, my range was at best a little more than an octave, and according to my music teachers, I sang from the wrong place. To this day, I still don’t understand what people mean when they say, “Sing from your diaphragm.” All I know is that I never did. A few years later, when I played the role of the Baker in Into the Woods, I would practically lose my voice every performance. By the time it came for me to sing “No One is Alone,” almost no one in the audience could hear me.

On my way home from my unsuccessful attempt at fame, my father tried his best to console me. As you can probably guess, I was pretty negative all the way home, and it took me some time to get over the experience. But get over it, I did, and I continued doing musical theatre throughout my high school years. 1991’s Into the Woods marked my final appearance on stage in a musical. Before I wrap this musing up, I should mention a rather humorous event. Back around 1990, I recorded a song for a young woman named Marissa, who I must admit I had a bit of a crush on back then. Compared to “Broken,” Marissa’s song was much more upbeat and cheerful, which is actually a pretty good description of Marissa herself. I don’t what she thought of the song, but I guess recording it shows I still thought I had something to offer vocally. Marissa continues to act to this day, and Fred, the man who provided a rather jazzy accompaniment to Marissa’s song, has made quite a name for himself on the piano. Both of them deserve their success. As for me, I gravitated toward teaching, which turned out to be the right decision.

And so when I hear people say that American Idol has killed music, I just have to grin. It has not. It has given people – those with talent and those without it - the chance to pursue their dreams, to be able to say, “I gave it a shot. It just wasn’t meant to be.” It feels pretty good to be able to say that.

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