I sit in the stands of the arena at the University of Minnesota, up in the cheap seats. It’s noisy here, even this high up. Below me, on the basketball floor, the producers have just set up eight long tables along the length of the floor, cloth partitions between them. The guy with the bullhorn is making almost constant announcements but he’s hard to hear for all around me kids are warming up ~ guitars strumming and pitch pipes humming, a young man vocalizing by the women’s restroom, mi mi mi mi mi. He’s very good. The bullhorn just called for Group One, her group, so down she goes toward the hard floor, toward the partitioned tables, her turn to audition for American Idol.
It’s been on her bucket list. If the auditions ever came close to her home, she would try out, just for fun. So when the auditions indeed did come within a few hours of her, she called her mother.
Mom, do you want to go with me to the American Idol auditions?
Of course I do. I like living life with you. You always make everything more fun.
We arrive at 4:30 in the morning, dark still, early enough to be at the start of the line. Being close to the front has advantages – for her, clear and close proximity to Ryan Seacrest during the countless promo-shots, surely one of these shots will make it to TV, right?! – for me, getting to go into the arena a bit sooner, a real plus as it has started to sprinkle and my umbrella is, as always, back at the hotel.
We are not the only mother-daughter duo – in fact, I would guess that this is the most likely combo in this line. Molly and her mother stand beside us and quick become our companions for the day, a bit like seeing old friends at a reunion. Molly is one of six children from a pastor’s family, and her mother and I have much in common. We talk church while the girls warm their voices up with the organic sing-a-long that begins behind us, the Monkey’s “I’m a Believer,” a song I actually know the words to. Molly’s mother is filming. I fetch bagels and coffee and waters from the shop around the corner. Everyone is scoping out the competition.
I heartily recommend a day of standing in line with one’s daughter.
There are scads of kooks in a place like this, and the cameras love them. Local news is swarming, interviewing talent and crazies alike. They particularly like the guy dressed completely in yellow – suit, shoes, shirt, top hat, all bright canary-yellow. The AI director with the bullhorn beckons him in particular when filming begins, “Where’s that guy in the yellow suit? You sir, could you come up here, close to the boom camera?”
And there’s the guy who wanders throughout the line all morning, screeching his songs and banging on his guitar and bumping people with his weird little dance steps. Indefatigable, he gets on camera at least twice.
We will see these guys again.
I’m particularly fond of the production disclaimer posted everywhere, on easels that continually blow down in the cool Minnesota breezes. The production may use any sound or gesture one makes, good or bad, any weird face, any rude comments (which, for the record, they try painstakingly to obtain), anything and everything one does on camera belongs to the production and – it really says this – may be used and viewed anywhere in the universe, in perpetuity.
This is not their first rodeo – the disclaimer covers, literally, everything in the universe. They are acutely aware that there are kooks here.
And possibly stars.
The bullhorn calls and there they go, Rainey, Molly, all of them, this lot of hopeful singing folk, down long stairs toward the basketball floor to tables where producers sit. They go to sing their songs and to be judged. That’s the way it works.
All I can do is watch.
Rainey tells me later it’s not scary at all until you step onto the floor, then it changes, it becomes quite real, a reality show. It gets quiet down there, she says, no more warming up or happy group sing-a-longs. Maybe for the first time everyone becomes fully aware of what this is – a competition, an elimination competition – and everyone in line is now a competitor – even Molly. Only one will win, everyone else will be eliminated. With every step one must muster a little more courage.
It’s brutal out there.
In this first round contestants audition in groups of eight. Group after group stands vulnerable before the elimination tables, one by one they sing – and so far no one has received the Golden Ticket, the first passage on the road to stardom. Not one. Not yet.
It feels ancient in here, rather gladiatorial.
As Rainey and Molly inch closer to the tables, a first shriek pierces the busy air – someone has finally gotten a ticket. Molly takes Rainey’s hand and whispers her hard epiphany, “We really may not get through,” for the first time grasping the fact that of the thousands of people lined up to sing their well-rehearsed thirty-second snippets, so very few would actually move on.
“No, we really may not,” Rainey affirms. They wait, quiet.
When your turn comes, you stand before the judges in a line of four, the other four of your group behind you. The producers quick-read your bio and take a look at your clothes, maybe they glance at your face. You’ve got thirty seconds. Someone says, “Sing,” and you sing. Then someone says, “Yes, go through,” or, “No, good-by.” Then it’s finished, simple as that.
It’s brutal out there.
Molly’s mother and I sit high in the nosebleed section of the arena. We cannot hear anything but singers in other groups not yet called, still congregating by the bathroom, warming up, laughing, not yet nervous. The bullhorn squawks. The hot dog stand is open for business. We see our girls from this distance, but just barely. Molly steps forward to sing, and her gentle mother leans forward in her seat. We cannot hear it. Molly done, Rainey steps up and extends her genteel, Southern-bred hand to the woman producer, who does not shake it. That can’t be good.
Rainey steps back to her place in the line and sings. She throws her head back, clenches her fists, and offers her sweet song to this savage universe.
The group has done its best and now it is finished.
No one gets through.
I have disliked reality TV since its inception, convinced that it brings out the worst in everyone and that it is, in no way, real. Certainly we as a culture are nearing some new low when we sit to watch people speak their own mother-tongue so poorly that subtitles are required, gathering on our couches to laugh and mock them. We cheer on young women to sleep with any number of men in hopes of finding, within a tight six-week production schedule, their “soul mate.” It’s all so fake and ugly. I cringe.
I still think these things.
But something real happens to me this day, watching those girls walk out onto the hard floor to stand before the judgment seat, watching that woman producer not shake eager hands, watching so very few get what they hope for.
I am seeing a microcosm of this process called real life.
And it’s often brutal out there. It takes courage to simply go out sometimes.
Molly’s sweet, naïve whisper, “We might not get through” is right. Sometimes we don’t get what we want or even what we need. Not everyone makes it through. That is the reality of it.
Sometimes forgiveness isn’t sought, and sometimes it is sought but not given. That’s real.
I wish it were not so, but enemies exist in real life and sometimes things are not reconciled. In this life, we get the thunder and the sunshine.
When push comes to shove, many people shove. They root not for us because they are rooting for themselves, and we are simply in the way. When the pressure starts, life is not always a happy sing-a-long.
And there are, indeed, a lot of kooks out there.
We have a text thread going throughout the day, keeping husbands and grandmothers and a few friends updated on all the developments in the pseudo-world of American Idol. All a little melancholy when she doesn’t go through, Nanny says it best in her text:
“How many people would love to audition, but let their fear stop them? It is better to have sung and lost than never to have sung at all.”
Amen, Nanny. That’s right.
We only have this one wild and messy life.
And it can be brutal.
It takes courage to try to live it fully, and we only have today, for who knows what tomorrow may bring? It takes courage to face an old fear, to scare ancient skeletons from closets, to try to leave childhood terrors behind and embrace life today.
It takes courage to try a new thing, something messy and unpredictable, knowing full well it’s a long-shot, enough to know you really tried.
It takes courage to pursue a dream, whole-hearted, tight-fisted, clench-jawed.
It takes courage to sing your unique song to the indifferent universe, come what may.
For what it’s worth, here’s my advice – what I am trying to do.
Measure my life in courage. Find the courage to risk again, to laugh again, to forgive again, to believe again, to try again.
The cup of courage is a paradox – it refills richer and deeper with its every emptying.
Do I dare to dig deep into the cup of courage and choose to love again, love hard through pain? To follow a wild dream? To not be afraid to not be afraid?
Do I dare? Do you?
Rainey dared, on this wild and messy Minnesota day, to give it all she had, to risk, to throw caution to cruel winds and, against all odds, to try. Just try. To not be afraid. Rejection is never the end unless we choose to let it be.
We only have this one wild and messy life, and it can be brutal sometimes. But often, yes often, it is breathtakingly beautiful.
She walks back to the car without a single regret.
Now, that’s real.