Two-and-a-half years ago I auditioned for America’s Got Talent. I figured I didn’t stand a chance, but I thought it would be interesting to learn how they make these talent shows, and getting audition experience is always good. To this day, I’ve never even watched the show apart from random clips online. (I don’t have a TV because I’m a TV addict in recovery.)
I did learn a lot. I learnt how much is faked for the TV screens. The scene where the crowd stands in a long line waiting to fill out their forms? Totally faked–we had all filled out forms and submitted our forms before that scene was staged. Plus, we were all instructed to hide our coats because, despite the fact that it was February and 10°F outside, we were told that, because the show would be aired in the summer, they didn’t want the audience associating the show with winter.
And auditioning before the celebrity panel? That doesn’t happen in the first round, though they make it seem so on TV. Instead, we were all divided by talent, each talent was broken down into groups of six, and each group was sent off to a small room to audition. I auditioned for a friendly young Indian-British woman, who was apparently part of the production staff, as well as her assistant who was taping.
By astounding coincidence, each of the six of us sang in radically different styles. There was a country singer from Wisconsin. An R&B singer, a genre I had assumed would dominate the auditions. A twelve-year-old rapper had come all the way from Chicago to Minneapolis. There was another twelve-year-old who sang opera. Her mother was the most stereotypical stage mom you could imagine. At one point, before we entered the audition room, the mother asked, “How much do you want this?” and the girl spat out her computer program, “With all my heart.” (I wanted to throttle the mother and tell the girl that, whilst her technique was advanced for her age, she was really flat on her high notes.) One guy in his twenties sang Broadway. He said that he had auditioned for American Idol before, and the judges asked if he sang anything modern, and he told them, “No, I’m a Broadway singer,” or, as he might as well have told them, “I really don’t care that the entire premise of your show is to look for a contemporary pop singer, so I’m going to waste my 20 seconds of audition time.” (He told me that at American Idol, you only get 20 seconds to audition. At America’s Got Talent you get 90.) And finally, as for my part, I was marketing myself to the show as a jazz singer, so I performed my own jazz rendition of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”.
But, as I said, I already knew that I wasn’t going to advance past the first round. It was not because I totally whiffed the opening of my song. (The judge told me I could start again; the Broadway singer told me afterwards that in American Idol, they don’t allow you to do that. And I totally get that: different shows, different purposes, different approaches.) And it wasn’t just because I wasn’t even the best singer in the room (that would have been the R&B singer), let alone the Minneapolis Convention Center. It was because I understood that my back story was not ready for prime time. (I think everybody in the place knew that the one who would go far was this guy in the warm-up area who did these impossible things with yo-yos. And he did.)
I had filled out my paperwork several days before the audition day. The contract was several pages long, most of it fine print. One of the most telling things is that you give the show permission to have them portray you however they want, and that you rescind your right to go back on them if they show you in an “unflattering, embarrassing, or insulting” light. (If that’s not an exact quote, it’s awfully close.) Another part of the application is to provide some back story. If you’ve never noticed, contestants on these talent shows almost always have dramatic back stories, which the judges have been tipped off beforehand even though they make it sound like it’s the first time they’ve heard it. They filter out folks who don’t have much of a back story because that doesn’t make for compelling television.
The big question they asked about the back story was, “What challenges have you had to overcome in the pursuit of your talent?” And for me, the biggest obstacle I’d had to overcome was that my church had forbid me to sing on stage because my ex-gay “therapy” had not yet been successful, and if I stood on the stage as less than fully “cured” and totally heterosexual, I would be seen as representing the church’s beliefs as something other than what they actually were.
Two-and-a-half years ago, such a story would have been much too controversial for a prime-time family show.
Look just how much has changed in that amount of time. I saw a video this morning of an America’s Got Talent audition from this season by a young opera singer named Jonathan Allen. (The video has since been removed for copyright violation.) He told of how his family kicked him out on his eighteenth birthday because he is gay, and that they haven’t spoken to him in the two-and-half years since. (Odd coincidence–that means he was kicked out right around the time I auditioned.) And he had nothing but support from the audience and judges. And it doesn’t hurt that he had a truly remarkable voice.
We’ve come so far, and yet have so far to go. There was gay bashing spree in Columbus this week, coming on the heels of one in New York City. And that’s just talking about the United States–LGBTQ folks are having to face much worse around the world.
And that’s just looking at the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer communities. There is so much more going on the world. Assaults on the poor and homeless and immigrant and disabled–whether with fists or with legislation. Women who are on the constant lookout for potential attackers. The exploitation of children and workers. And wars–always, always wars.
And I wonder, how long? How long will we speed our extinction? When will we wake up to the truth that we are all equal and important and need each other?
UPDATE: America’s Got Talent has posted a shorter video of the performance on their official YouTube channel. See it here.
Originally published here in March 2011, though this version has been thoroughly proofread and edited. The original was dashed off in a hurry, so I hope this revision demonstrates my editing abilities, if nothing else.
Human beings today seem to communicate primarily in two ways. We either share personal narrative, or we “debate”–though it does not merit the name. True debate is measured, calm, well-researched, and deliberate. What we have instead, coming from all sides, are name-calling, belittlement, anger, resentment, hatred, malice, insults, and every curse of hellish fate you can imagine.
These “debates” develop as we lose sight of our mutual humanity. We do this by mentally converting fellow human beings into labels, into abstractions. We call each other “liberal”, “conservative”, “gay”, “straight”, “Christian”, “Muslim”, “American”, “Chinese”, on and on it goes.
It is easy to go to war against an abstraction (why do you think they call them “casualties” and “collateral damage”, rather than “deaths”?), to oppress an abstraction, to abuse the rights of an abstraction. An abstraction does not share your breath and your DNA and your heartbeat. And if we behave as if the world consists of nothing but groups of abstractions, a “them”, and a small number that we call “us”, there’s nothing that to keep us from blowing “them” to smithereens. We should just drop the nukes and call it a day.
However, it does not have to be this way.
We may well be hardwired to think of each other in terms of our differences rather than our similarities. But we also have amazing minds that often transcend their wiring. What if we stretch our minds beyond the capacity to label? If our differences, and the way we use them to dehumanise each other, are speeding the destruction of our species, what are our similarities, and how might those similarities save us?
It’s not our genetics (for example, not all human beings have 46 chromosomes). It’s not our physical composition. It’s certainly not the way we look, dress, think, or believe. The one thing that all human beings share is Story.
By Story, I mean the personal narrative that each of us carries. It is the unique path that has brought us to where we are. It is the tale of our triumphs and tragedies, events both momentous and mundane, the things that shaped our decisions, beliefs, and character. Not only is Story the only thing that we all share, but, in a very real sense, it is the only thing that any of us has. You can lose your job, your home, your possessions, your family and friends, you can lose absolutely everything–but no-one and nothing can take away your Story.
So, if focussing on our differences hastens the destruction of our species, would focussing on the commonality of Story save it? First off, it is very easy for me to share my Story with someone who closely identifies with me–who shares my labels. The trick–for all of us–is to learn to transcend our boundaries in our sharing, to share with those who don’t share our labels, and to start seeing each other in terms of one label only: fellow human beings.
In this spirit, I am working hard not to engage in debate but to share Story. And I fail. A lot. But to keep trying in hopes of success is all I can do. And I know that I can’t force anyone to share their Story with me. But what I do know is that I’m not responsible for what others do, only what I do. And if I have the option of choosing actions that can make the world a worse place or a better place, I choose the latter.