In these strange times when phrases like ”balloon boy” and ”cocktail waitress” and ”Khloe Kardashian” find wormholes into our collective brain-space, it’s hard to give one’s cynicism a rest. This realization hit me especially hard tonight after watching American Idol‘s Atlanta auditions, and in particular the unexpectedly touching segment about Vanessa Wolfe, a 19-year-old native of tiny Vonore, TN, who spends her days diving off bridges, playing her guitar, and hanging out on her mom’s porch swing.
Now it’s not like over eight-plus seasons of Idol we haven’t seen hundreds of Vanessas — small-town dreamers hoping that the nation’s biggest TV show might spring them from cages of anonymity and relieve them of the sometimes exhausting toll of workaday living. And it’s not like I wasn’t aware of the way the producers were manipulating my emotions from the get-go: queuing up the fiddle-and-banjo soundtrack (she’s from the south, y’all!); showing footage of her walking a dusty rural road carrying nothing but her guitar; and building up to that image of Vanessa attaching her audition number (92276) to her torso while declaring ”This is the biggest thing that’s happened to me.” It all played out like a hokey Hallmark Channel movie — only funnier and more interesting.
Seriously, Vanessa had me hooked from the second she waxed poetic about her personal belongings — ”I’ve got this dress,” she giggled, before extolling the virtues of her $4.50 dollar-store steal — and sealed my devotion when she told Simon, ”If I didn’t have a dress on I’d throw you a backflip.” In a sense, the trembling young woman’s serviceable, heartfelt take on Old Crow Medicine Show’s ”Wagon Wheel” — Simon sweetly noted Vanessa’s nerves and inexperience; Kara crassly blurted ”You were a lot better than I thought you’d be” — was secondary to her ability to create a winning TV moment.
I know, I know, just yesterday I was griping about Idol‘s tendency to showcase backstory over actual musical chops, but if you think about it, Vanessa represents the Idol dream at its most distilled. From what Google tells me, she has no self-recorded tracks lurking on MySpace, no YouTube footage lauding her prior cable TV experience or local theater appearances, no early works available on CDBaby. And while Simon did her a solid by explaining that without copious practice and a booster shot of self-confidence (maybe having a guitar in her hands will help), she’ll get swallowed alive by the Hollywood Week competition, I’m glad she’s at least getting a chance to take a peek at the big show — as well as the inside of an airplane.
In a weird way, the episode’s final audition — 62-year-old ‘General’ Larry Platt belting a self-penned ditty called ”Pants on the Ground” — provided a thematic bookend to Vanessa’s story. I mean, neither contestant has a true chance of taking home the season 9 crown, but would that have been any reason to deny the American viewing public the chance to sample Larry’s thoroughly absurd rant against the kind of lowwww-rise jean that has a waistband closer to the ankle than the navel? The only thing funnier than Simon’s deeply held fear that ”Pants on the Ground” could become an actual hit — it did sound vaguely like MC Hammer’s ”Pumps and a Bump” — was watching a crowd of 100 or so Idol auditioners come together to chant the chorus, and then see #pantsontheground become a top trending topic on Twitter. Surreal!
NEXT: Jermaine Sellers takes us to church