Bowersox an Idol to idolize
By Alex Strachan, Canwest News Service May 21, 2010
There was a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment on American Idol earlier this season, during the auditions stage. It was a quick, video screen-grab of a then-unknown young woman playing guitar on a Chicago subway platform, while all around her commuters rushed by. No one gave the singer with the dreadlocks and folk-styled voice a second glance.
On May 26, Crystal Bowersox is poised to become one of the most improbable and remarkable stories in American Idol's eight-year history.
The shy farm girl from small-town Ohio who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, whose parents divorced when she was a child and who and was picked on in high-school for being too poor to fit in with the in-crowd, started writing songs when she was just 13 years old - songs with names like "Ohio Flies," "Sandman" and "Put Your Guitar Down."
She sought refuge in music, and that's where she found it. Her then-recently divorced father, struggling to keep the family farm afloat, hauled her speakers from small-town venue to small-town venue across northwest Ohio, while she was still in her early teens.
During the day, she went to school in Toledo, Ohio, near the small town of Elliston where she was born and raised. At night, she played area clubs to raise a little cash on the side. Her musical inspirations were Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Tracy Chapman Tracy Chapmanand Melissa Etheridge, and by the time she struck out on her own, she knew she would never be a Top 40 artist.
She sang in smoky dives, roadside diners and half-empty coffee houses, suffered a few hard knocks on the road and, one day, tired of a life of uncertainty and not knowing where the next paying gig might come from, she did what she never dreamed she would do: She auditioned for American Idol.
As luck would have it, her audition would prove both fortuitous and telling, though no one knew it at the time.
The guest judge that midsummer afternoon in Chicago was Shania Twain, herself no stranger to a turbulent, rocky upbringing. At that same audition, out of the thousands of hopefuls who showed up that day, Bowersox was seated alongside another unknown - Lee DeWyze.
And then it happened. She walked into the Idol audition room, tired and dishevelled, grabbed her guitar and lit into Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart."
Twain, herself no stranger to a rough childhood, felt a pang of recognition, and told Bowersox she had a "raw, natural talent."
The other Idol judges that day knew that whatever they had, it wasn't a Britney Spears or an Avril Lavigne, or even a Kelly Clarkson. For Simon Cowell, Bowersox was not even Idol material. Bowersox later realized that Cowell's reaction that day was an endorsement, not a put-down.
"Simon told me that he didn't think I was part of this competition," Bowersox posted on Idol's official Facebook page. "But it was unanimous among the judges that I'm still here. I interpret that as, 'You're a little off the beaten path, but we like you.'"
Like: verb. To take pleasure in; find agreeable or congenial: "We all liked the concert."
Love: verb. The Idol judges' cumulative reaction to a run of performances that, after her tearful rendition last month of the folk anthem "People Get Ready," had one MTV music critic wondering if she had just delivered the single finest performance in American Idol history.
"You just schooled all those (other) contestants," Kara DioGuardi told Bowersox, moments after the singer broke down in tears - "My dad's here," she explained, in a faltering voice - during the closing notes of "People Get Ready."
The normally reserved Cowell said, of her performance: "Now - that - was inspirational."
Something else happened that night. Bowersox ascended to the pantheon of American Idol performances that isn't about picking an eventual winner, or even finding a recording artist, but something more meaningful: The discovery of an artist who has the soul, power and voice to move the audience on a profound, fundamental level.
For her first live performance, Bowersox covered Alanis Morissette's "One Hand in My Pocket," prompting praise from the judges for originality and honesty; Ellen DeGeneres said Idol was fortunate that Bowersox overcame her initial misgivings and decided to try out for the show.
Jamie Foxx, the mentor for Idol's film night, pressed a T-shirt on Bowersox with the word "ARTIST" on it, and told her, as she rehearsed Kenny Loggins's "I'm Alright," "Vamp, get yourself together and don't ever stop. You have to not be intimidated. Raise those pretty blue eyes up and let people see that you're going to be alright. When you're - vmmm - when you're like that, now, it's not just a song; it's a testimony."
It hasn't all been easy, though.
Bowersox was rushed to hospital in March, prompting speculation about her diabetes. Cowell characterized Bowersox's hospitalization at the time as being extremely serious. Idol's producers switched programs that week, moving the male contestants ahead a day and delaying the women's performance program to the following night, allowing Bowersox time to recover, sparking accusations of favouritism.
The following month, intimidated by constant hounding from the gossip sites and tired of the media spotlight, Bowersox came close to quitting Idol altogether. Idol host Ryan Seacrest talked her out of it, stressing the opportunity in front of her and reportedly telling her that it was because of Idol that he was able to buy his mother a house.
Days later, Bowersox said she had no regrets about reconsidering her decision to audition for Idol.
"No apologies for being human," she posted on Idol's official Facebook page. "Life is always testing one's strength- and weakness threshold. That's how we learn how strong we really are."
American Idol, television's most-watched reality-competition program at the moment, has a lot at stake this season. An Angus Reid poll published May 18 in the U.S. found that Bowersox was respondents' favourite singer by a more than three-to-one margin over runner-up DeWyze. The same poll, however, also found that 61 per cent of respondents said they are unlikely to watch Idol after Cowell leaves at the end of the season.
American Idol doesn't just need a winner, in other words. It needs to find a credible recording artist, a born performer with the ability to inspire and move.
Why should Bowersox be that performer?
"'Cause I deserve it," she said simply, earlier this season. "I've struggled long enough. I want to play music. I want to get to work."
American Idol's final performance program airs Tuesday, May 25, and the final vote results will be announced May 26 in a live broadcast.
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