I participated in a fundraiser for my special education job the other night. It was a talent competition called “[Education District] Idol”, and consisted of volunteers singing popular songs with a live band or karaoke track, and attendees buying votes to raise money for our programs. I sang “In the Ghetto” and had a good time.
There was something odd that kept coming up, though. First, at rehearsal, the organizers (and fellow performers) who were listening asked me if I was going to “dress up as Elvis.” They suggested that I go to a thriftstore for a “costume” or maybe “slick my hair back.” Then after I sang on performance night, one of the judges declared, “folks, Elvis is alive and well!” Later that evening the district superintendent complemented me and told me I was “channeling the spirit of Elvis.”
These comments were sweet and well-intentioned, and they weren’t the only compliments I heard. But I felt such an aversion to that trend that my skin crawled! They were so incredibly counter to what I was trying to do. I chose a song that resonates with me musically and lyrically, and focused all my energy on expressing it with art and oomph. Yes, I was singing a song made famous by Elvis, and I was inspired artistically by his rendition. But I wasn’t trying to channel him, imitate him, or BE him. I was trying to be me, singing a song with authenticity.
This is something I can’t help but notice about our whole culture—our creativity is incredibly imitative. Not just in the sense of respecting and drawing from a rich body of tradition, but rather a slavish aping of existing art. Even the most creativity- and originality-obsessed of us tend to describe a work by what other works it is like. It’s, y’know, easier that way. The famous “elevator pitch” is the language our culture uses to process creativity. The producers of mass entertainment are even afraid to take a risk on a “property” that isn’t readily similar to something they already know and understand. In the “Idol” competition, one judge, upon hearing a father/daughter act with gorgeous vocals, exclaimed, “I feel like we’ve witnessed the birth of the next Judds!” We’re obsessed with finding the “next ____” rather than meeting a thing on its own terms.
One egregious example I recall from my days of consuming junk TV: in a family sitcom, when a child character gets on a “kick” of some kind as that episode’s comedic device, the only language the show has for conveying it is the scrupulous copying of a real-world example. A kid won’t just get on a “detective kick”; she’ll start wearing a Holmesian deerstalker cap and smoking a bubble pipe. A boy won’t just go through a stand-up comedy phase, he’ll start copying the dress and mannerisms of W.C. Fields or Groucho Marx. In one wretched show I remember, the teenage son and his buddy started a cable access show, and proceeded to meticulously mimic the style and content of “Wayne’s World” to the letter.
In such a cultural mode, of COURSE the only way someone can sing an Elvis song is to become an Elvis Impersonator.
I played into this, of course, by singing a song by the most famous singer in the 20th Century and using a canned accompaniment track. That’s not where my heart lies, for creative expression. Story by the Throat! exists because I want to empower myself and others to reclaim art, expression, and even tradition as a living, breathing source of spirit and imagination for everyone. I want us to make our own music, to tell our own stories, to build (or rebuild) our own culture, to break free of the Man not just in our economic and political circumstances, but in our creativity and spirituality, too.
Still, though, I approached the competition with the purpose of being real with the song and my own musicianship. Don’t get me wrong, I had fun, the district raised money for special needs kids, and I got to enjoy a few phenomenal musicians. And I feel I succeeded in being real, but I still saw my expression processed through this imitative filter, and it left a bad taste. Maybe it’s a cultural context that just can’t be redeemed, and I’ll have to look elsewhere for the vitality I crave.
Which I already do. So there’s that. I know what my soul craves, and can mostly see how to get there. I just wish I could show the rest of the world how to get it too.