I didn’t watch American Idol this season, so I didn’t understand my friend’s feelings when she first emailed and then phoned about her despair that a young singer named Adam Lambert hadn’t won the competition. She described the moment when the public declared another singer (Kris Allen) the winner as “being hit by a wrecking ball.” She understood neither her despair nor her compulsion to listen to an online recording of Lambert singing “Come to Me, Bend to Me” from Brigadoon (Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe).
My friend is a mature woman — a sixty-year-old psychologist, to be precise. She is not a person who normally cares about pop singing competitions or even watches them. But something had compelled her to turn on American Idol, and when she heard the voice of Adam Lambert, she was transformed. Something inside — perhaps her heart — opened, flooding her with a depth of feeling she is not accustomed to. Her experience catalyzed me into listening to “Come to Me, Bend to Me,” and, after finding myself weeping and rocking and moaning and thanking God that I have ears to hear this, I then listened to every performance Lambert did on the TV show.
In my — and apparently many other people’s — opinion, Adam Lambert embodies a kind of artistry, seemingly effortless technique and musicality, along with a voice that I can only describe as divine that comes around rarely and is then mythologized. It is a sound that resonates with our own divinity, reminding us what we are.
How curious that he did not win a singing competition. Since I did not watch the show, I can’t know the minutia of the story, but such a curious conclusion made me remember some other things:
In her powerhouse of a story called “Powerhouse” — about a monstrously talented black piano player — Eudora Welty wrote a simple sentence of such profound truth that I’ve never forgotten it: “When somebody, no matter who, gives everything, it makes people feel ashamed for him.”
Years after reading “Powerhouse,” I read an explanation of that sentence — a dissection of the “why” of this bizarre shame. It is from a lecture called “Shame of the Higher Self” that was believed to be channeled by Eva Pierrakos in 1960. (From 1957 to 1979, Pierrakos gave a series of lectures that became the basis for a spiritual “roadmap to self-responsibility, self-knowledge, and true self-acceptance” called Pathwork.)
Briefly, the lecture says that as children, we all long for a perfect and unattainable love from our parents, and, because this fantasy is unattainable, we experience rejection when we don’t get it. The rejection begins a kind of deep confusion where we then emulate the perceived rejecter — what is unattainable becomes more valuable than anything we can get: “In the confused, immature mind of the child, the rejecter now becomes desirable, taking the place of that which was originally desired: exclusive love, approval, and acceptance,” says the lecture. “. . . Therefore, to be unloving is a desirable state. . . . Deep in the unconscious, [the child] feels that it is undesirable, and therefore shameful, to demonstrate all that for which the child within still yearns.”
Hence, when we witness somebody being their authentic self and giving absolutely everything, many people feel a kind of shame. I’ve seen this over and over. Sometimes it manifests as a dullness; people suddenly are overcome with exhaustion to the point where they may fall asleep. Other times the reaction is an unaccountable rage, requiring the instant invention of a validating story.
Years ago, after hearing jazz singer René Marie’s heart-stopping rendition of Ravel’s “Bolero” mixed with Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” I went to see her in concert. For me, it was an ecstatic event — like watching somebody skydive musically — one of the most daring, spontaneous expressions of love through music that I’ve ever witnessed . . . alone. I was alone because on one side of me sat a white man who, almost from the first song, began to grumble to his date. He then fell asleep and left at intermission. On the other side of me was a black woman who, I deduced from her comments, was probably a well-known jazz singer. By the end of the set, she was in a fury. It was as if she thought René Marie should be punished. This was one of the more bizarre events of my life . . . but I think I understand.
I suppose you can feel despair at such divergent responses to the same thing. I suppose you can rail that the masses are shallow, that discernment is dead, that a numbness has taken over our culture. I suppose you can throw up your hands and give up on the human race. But I would prefer to say thank you. Thank you Adam Lambert, Eudora Welty, René Marie, Eva Pierrakos. Thank you for existing or for having existed. And thank you to the universe that I am alive and able to enjoy your gifts to the world.