On the journey to excellence, sing loud, hug no one.
Alexa, play “star-crossed” by Kacey Musgraves, even though I wasn’t star-crossed. I was just trying to offer solace to someone who wasn’t as good of a singer as I was.
I used to sing in front of people. Now I sing to my cats and to Andrew sometimes. I do a great karaoke cover of “9 to 5,” but that’s pretty much it at this point. I sing for me now because it makes me happy, and sometimes, it’s nice to keep things to yourself.
But when I was a performer—a true diva—I sang for the whole world. You’re reading the story of a man who made it through one producer round of American Idol, won the South-Doyle high school talent show in 2011, and once held the coveted role of Artful Dodger in a 2002 production of Oliver! I was a god, ok? And now, I’m simply a peasant. Like you.
Of all my performances though, none were more high stakes and controversial than the audition I had for the solo in the eighth grade choral performance of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It was the closer—the only solo in the entire winter choral performance, and by God, if I had to sing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” in traditional Latin, then I deserved this. No, I needed this. It was my job to breathe life into this Christmas bop.
From a young age, I think I considered everything a competition. I didn’t hang out with people after school all that much as a kid, and I wasn’t athletic. But I was a good singer. Even as a kid, I’d perform for my parents in the living room: a medley of country hits from yesteryear. There’s a video of my dad and me, back when when I was just a little nugget, laying on my parents bed, singing Tanya Tucker’s “It’s a Little Too Late.” For all the ways I wasn’t the prototypical little boy, I had all these artistic talents that my parents tried to foster, even if that meant rattling the wood panel walls of our house.
What I could do well, I wanted to do the best. For other kids, I think solos were a cool addendum to a class they were required to take, but to me, it was a trophy worth fighting for. Part of me attributes that attitude to a desperate need to please and prove myself to the men in my life who didn’t value education and arts like I did. I’ve discussed that in therapy a lot. Part of me attributes it to watching a lot of competition reality TV growing up. I have not discussed that in therapy because it’s far too personal for me.
Anyway, the auditions were open to anyone in the eighth grade chorus. The final line up of prospective soloists was maybe a dozen or so people deep. Mostly young women. Mostly sopranos. And then there was me, who was relegated to the tenor section but had the range of a soprano because I was what? Late to hit puberty.
We lined up in the chorus room, which was this big expansive room with risers and a piano. At the time, it felt massive—about the biggest stage in the school, save the auditorium. Even auditioning felt important. Each person were given the first four lines, each sounding a bit similar to the one before. And before we go forward, I want to say that I’ve struggled my whole life with the line that separates arrogance and confidence. Worried about overstepping, I’ve always leaned in the way of being self-deprecating, if not a bit anxious and insecure. But that day, as every thin-voiced girl went up to the front of the chorus and gave her best rendition of the same eight bars, I knew that I was going to be shortlisted. Growing up, I studied the voices of Reba McEntire and Whitney Houston, trying to do the weird things they would do with their voices. This was probably the first time in my life I could employ what I’d learned. And in retrospect, I bet it was a bit of fresh air for the room of South Knoxville parents who had to listen to us sing in Latin, as unaware of what they were hearing as we were singing it.
The final two came down to me and Sarah, a girl I’d known since elementary school. From the time I first met her, I always felt a bit of a lesser to Sarah. She was flanked by friends and she was cool in an alternative, smoke clove cigarettes after school kind of way. She was smart and pretty and spoke to me in this manner that felt sprinkled with a tinge of pity. I existed on the fringe of her life and would have done anything to puncture that social circle. Sarah was a plenty fine singer, but people like Sarah were expected to make the final two. I was a surprise though. People in class told me I sounded like *NSYNC. Not one particular member. Just *NSYNC, at large. I knew how to work with a vocal run because I’m gay. But also because I was blessed by God and Reba and Whitney.
Our chorus teacher Mr. Ambrose asked us to audition one more time, explaining to me that while he liked my style, he would prefer I toned it down because this is a traditional song. Tone it down my ass, Peter Ambrose. This was my moment. As we auditioned again, I imagined I was Fantasia Barrino. Rich coral dress, splayed on the stage of American Idol for her finale performance of “Summertime” from Porgy & Bess.
I dominated. Mr. Ambrose announced that I would get the solo, and Sarah took a seat. He asked if I would sing one more time—an encore, if you will—but before I did, I walked over to give Sarah a hug. It’s what winners on American Idol did first: congratulate their lesser. My moment in the sun, this moment, was the strongest I had ever felt. I performed my encore, and then after class, Mr. Ambrose reminded me that while I could do some runs, I needed to seriously tamp it down. I was riding high most of that day and the next, but the day after my massive victory, I was told I needed to watch my back. Sarah’s boyfriend, Brian, was on the lookout.
Pourquoi? Because I was talented? A vocal gem among coal? No, no, it was the hug. The thing that you might not know about middle school aged boys is that they weren’t like me—they did not carve out portions of their week for vocally superior women, intent to get home and root for the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Kimberly Locke, or Fantasia Barrino. They did not understand the complexity of competition show decorum. The pageantry was lost on their deodorant devoid souls. Instead, word had gotten to Brian that his girlfriend had cheated on him. In public. With me.
That was simply not the case. I hugged Sarah because it was customary, and maybe because it was a slight reminder to her that she lost. But after lunch, I was told that Brian would be lingering. He wanted to have a conversation with me. Because puberty had been elusive, I was a touch over 200 pounds, but also about 5’5. Had I considered the physics of it all, I could have fallen on Brian and the whole spat would have been over. But Brian was popular, too. Popular and rich, or at least rich in the way people from South Knoxville were rich. His family allegedly had a boat and his dad owned a Party City. My God—do you dare punch a Rockefeller in the face? In the breezeway of South-Doyle Middle, we met, and I immediately folded. Brian, I did not mean to insult you. I would never… I peeked at the two guys behind him. I don’t want to date Sarah. I just want to sing.
Brian stood, tall and lanky, in front of me, wearing a polo shirt and cargo shorts. He furrowed his brow and said, “Dude, you need stay away from my girlfriend,” completely ignoring everything I had said before. Stay away from Sarah? Fine! It’s not like she was going to be at solo practice! I don’t do confrontation well, and because of that, I think I blacked out. I don’t remember how the argument was resolved, but I remember standing, shaking, with my rolling backpack as Brian walked away with his friends.
I wasn’t much concerned with having a girlfriend, and I never considered that Brian and I would ever be friends. I just wanted to sing for the good people of South Knoxville and survive middle school. I promised him I would stay away from Sarah. A week later, the two of them broke up for good. Brian cheated on Sarah, though one cannot be sure what the indiscretion was. Perhaps looking at a girl across the lunchroom. Perhaps full blown HBO sex. Mysteries like that haunt me.
I performed at the Christmas concert with a slightly more traditional, though impassioned solo of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I couldn’t see the audience, but I heard their mid-song applause, and in that moment, I was perfect. The difficult ascent was worth it.
At a certain point, I decided that singing was my hobby, and like a lot of things in life, I prefer to keep my favorite hobbies to myself. But when Andrew is out of the house, or I’m somewhere alone, I’ll sing. Like sing sing, as if I were back on that stage, gunning for a championship finish. Record deals are on the line. Boyfriends be damned. And by God, I’m a diva every time because nothing—nothing—can stop untapped talent from flowing forth.
Something fun I worked on this week? An ode to gas station food, which is the best food. Ricki Payne, this one’s for you and the Bi-Lo.