Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Paths to success

Two years ago, I spent two days sitting in the rain in Gillette Stadium near Boston with my 16-year-old daughter and 5,000 other people, waiting for her American Idol audition. It was, for the most part, a light rain, and we all had umbrellas, so it wasn't much of a hardship. I was vaguely aware of a hurricane somewhere in the South that was causing this rain. I brought work with me, to pass the time, and I noticed a father a row or two away working on his laptop computer under an umbrella. (Those under 18 have to be accompanied by their parents).

We talked and we eavesdropped on other conversations. A couple was talking about how they had driven up from Virginia, wrecked their car in an accident in Rhode Island, rented a car and drove on, so sure were they of their imminent Idol success. Another person, noting the extremely low ratio of people selected to people rejected, mused, "I wonder how I should act if I get selected and those around me do not. Would be rude to express joy in front of the losers?"

Others strategized. Should I sing really badly, with hopes of getting on tv as one of the dreadful auditions, then sing well when I finally get into see Simon? Still others were practicing their songs, performing for others, or still deciding what they should sing. Periodically groups of people would start singing, and the song would bounce around the stadium for a while. Everyone I talked to, or eavesdropped on, or observed seemed to share the same belief: "I am (or my daughter/son is) supremely talented and will make it." Even I was quite sure that as soon as the judges heard my daughter's voice, we'd be on our way to Hollywood, even though hers is more an operatic voice, than a pop music voice.

The American Idol staff had us sing "Singing in the Rain," while we twirled our umbrellas. Very few of the under-30 crowd had ever heard the song, so it was a little rough getting it going. I don't think this bit ever got on tv, but it was fun being part of the tv production.

When it was finally my daughter's turn she sang two songs, including "Summertime," and was told, along with the other members in her group, "Thanks, but you're not what we are looking for." We joined the parade of dejected, unbelieving rejectees stumbling toward the exit. We saw some friends of my daughters, good singers, all, and everyone seemed to think it was just a quirk that they were not selected. They all still believed.

When we reached home, and reality, after two days of immersion in pop culture, I turned on the tv and discovered that Hurricane Katrina had hit New Orleans with a fury, people were dying and stranded, homes and businesses were destroyed, and help was slow in coming. And two years later, the city and its people are still struggling.

American Idol goes on. This year, the closest audition site was Philadelphia, and my daughter, who is now old enough to attend auditions by herself, decided it was too far too travel. I read that 17,000 people showed up to audition in Philadelphia, the largest turnout yet.

I'm sure there is some lesson here about our priorities as a nation. Like many others, I sent money to the clean-up effort (which was probably misused), but otherwise I have not made a personal contribution. Maybe we want the same quick fix that American Idol offers: overnight success, and we lose interest the long, hard work of rebuilding a city and providing help to its people. Wouldn't it be nice to divert some of the military budget to New Orleans and other areas in need?

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