A few weeks ago, when talking to my shrink, a sentence jumped out of my mouth that I didn’t know was waiting to jump, a sentence I can’t get out of my mind: “I feel like me singing on television is something that needs to happen.”
Now, anyone who knows me knows I don’t exactly radiate grandiosity, so for me to make a statement like this is…well, shocking, really. And even more shocking that three weeks later, I would stand behind those words, even if I don’t know exactly what I meant by that. It needs to happen? Why? I mean, there isn’t exactly a shortage of good singers in the world.
I know what the odds are. These singing shows (especially the ones without upper limits on age) get something like 50,000 people auditioning for them every season. Even if you figure that only 10% of those people can actually sing, they’re still drawing from a pool of 5,000 people for only about 50 slots on TV. With those numbers, they might as well be drawing names out of a hat. A really BIG hat.
Ah, but these talent shows don’t just want talent, or even good looks, they want narrative. They want fascinating backstories, people who make viewers go, “I can’t believe I just saw/heard that,” and buzz about it at the water cooler the next day. Maybe even a freak or two, something for viewers to argue about.
So why not me?
When I was younger, I would have (wrongly, because this is true of no one) answered the latter question with, “Because I’m not talented or pretty or charming or tough enough to be chosen.” How many people out there are like I was, running around with no idea what they’re capable of? Or are just finding out now, at an age when they’re “supposed” to be winding it down? How many of them have been told that only young voices are worth hearing and older people’s voices are just sloppy seconds?
It’s all a lie. Last year I took voice lessons and hit a soprano high C (C6) for the first time at age FIFTY. I have range and control and style and depth I couldn’t come close to in my youth. I believe in what I’m doing all the way; I don’t waste a whole lot of time on my neuroses about it. That doesn’t mean I don’t have neuroses about it; this is me we’re talking about, I am probably not biologically capable of being free of neurosis. But this time around, those neuroses don’t prevent me from doing the work, and loving the doing of it.
When you’re 25, even as part of you worries about being “washed up” (yeah, we do that to people in this world, especially female people), another part of you secretly feels like you have all the time in the world to screw off and follow the wrong people around and tie bowling balls to your ankles that have words stamped on them like I SUCK and OH NO WHAT IF and PLEASE PLEASE LOVE ME. Double that age, and you’re sitting there thinking, “I thought what 25 years ago? Did people sneak yutz pills into my food or something?”
I got your narrative, right here, along with a set of pipes that sound like no one else’s. Why not me?
The other night, I was deeply touched by a performance on The Voice, of 16-year-old Madi Davis covering Eva Cassidy’s cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird,” a favorite of her mother’s. Unlike so many of the acts on these shows that emphasize flash and bombast and showboating, Ms. Davis just moved into the song and lived there, and her sweet, rich voice and the gently rocking groove had the audience clapping along within the first four bars. It was exquisitely lovely, watching her float along on a sea of clapping hands, being fully herself. I wish I had had that at her age.
So then I found myself, late at night, replaying her performance multiple times, listening through headphones, swaying and clapping along in my chair (silently so as not to wake anyone), feeling all my nerve centers lighting up with pleasure, my face flushing, my heart thumping. Being turned on in every way by that gorgeous sound. A reaction that strong meant something more than just simple appreciation was going on here. What was it?
Then, the third time I watched it, without consciously trying, I placed myself behind Madi’s eyes, on that stage, being carried away by the feeling of creating the sweetest music with a thousand-piece body percussion section and one voice, my voice. I am not, of course, 16 years old, and I could sing that song an octave lower than she did (which might be lovely in its own way, come to think of it). But when I was her age or even twice her age, I used to watch musicians on TV and think, “I’ll never be as cool or talented as them.” This time I had an entirely different thought: “I can do that. That could be me floating on that sea of handclaps one day.”
That’s not to take anything away from how awesome Madi Davis is, mind you. (So is her fellow contestant Jordan Smith, paving the way for deluxe-edition freaks everywhere. I wouldn’t mind either of them winning the whole thing.) It’s not like I think what she’s doing is easy. Lots of talented singers who never blow a single note anywhere else barf out on live TV, and she didn’t, even once. But I can see a space for myself, singing in my own deep, textured, surprisingly flexible, wonderfully complex voice, softly inviting a big audience to join me in rhythm and having them joyously accept. Maybe it won’t be one of these talent shows, maybe it will be a different TV show, maybe even one that doesn’t exist yet.
But me singing on TV needs to happen. It does.