It’s a Soul Thing

It’s time to come clean. Though ostensibly a reasonably serious, intelligent, educated nonconformist with an eclectic musical taste that only flirts with that of the mainstream, I nonetheless am one of the millions swirling in the pop-culture vortex that is American Idol. No pride or shame are involved here; I’m just telling you the truth, because truth is at the heart of the matter.

From the television talent show’s inception, I mocked it – and rightfully so: The ravenous greed of its producers, the callouness and cunning exhibited by music-industry sharks (including one named Cowell) in coaching and judging contestants, the glorification – again! – of flash over substance… All merited derision and ridicule. And still do.

As seasons passed, however, something happened. My feelings about the greedy, corporate, conformist parts of AI did not lessen – quite the opposite. I loathe the workings of the show and the product placements and Cingular Wireless and the endless marketing. But at some point, despite all that, I bought into the idea of a person’s dream coming true. I started noticing contestants who touched my heart and soul through their authenticity, their personal art and their tangible love for the music. In time, I found myself caring – a lot – about their dreams and seriously wishing for them to become reality.

When did this softening take place? I’m not sure, but it had to be one hell of a day. Perhaps it was the night in season one when stellar Tamyra Gray was ousted – that rankled more than I thought possible. In any event, from the next year on, I noticed that news about the successes of certain Idols gave me real glee: Ruben and Clay, Fantasia Barrino, Frenchie Davis. I’ve grown to love Kelly Clarkson – she’s simply an amazing young vocalist, and who knew she could write such powerful pop music? How cool it is to see her hit so big, even in lands where Idol doesn’t air. And frankly, with Bo Bice it was love at first song. (Just wait ’til the next CD, where hopefully he will get to ditch Clive Davis’ choices and play Bo’s music.) What do these people have in common? They share a rare ability to connect with others on a musical and emotional plane.

My season five connection came early and as a total surprise: The first time I saw and heard a tall, sloppily dressed, gray-haired guy take on Elton John’s “Levon,” I found myself entranced. Checked out his backstory: The silver eminence is premature; he’s only 29. For years, he’s rocked clubs and events and electrified crowds large and small in the southeast with his unique brand of rock ‘n soul. He plays guitar and blues harmonica and writes his own songs. He’s put out a couple of CDs; I checked out his 2004 album, Under the Radar, and experienced a “whoa” moment. This guy was the real deal. A lifelong fan of music by Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and other giants, he had soul, passion, heart, whatever you want to call that combination of emotion and empathy and expression that allows the experiencing of shared humanity. Only very special and rare artists have this… I’ll call it soul. This disheveled, happy-go-lucky dude has a real affinity for soul-music classics, but his rare gift is that he has soul and radiates soul – quite a different thing.

After that initial, spirit-lifting audition, market-focused Simon Cowell didn’t want to send Soul Man, as I called him then, on to the next competition round in Hollywood, but I knew. Win or lose, this was my guy. If there is any reason to thank Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul, it’s that they overruled the attitudinal Brit and gave my guy his golden ticket.

All these weeks later, my guy, Birmingham, AL’s Taylor Hicks, is in the finals. His competition – and beating her will be no slam-dunk – is Los Angeles’ Katharine McPhee, a stunningly pretty 21-year-old with a pretty, well-coached voice. The woman has true ability and lots of fans, but over the season, she has given inconsistent performances dotted with ridiculously oversung diva songs and her unfortunate tendency to sing while kneeling (which the little boys no doubt love and for which many certainly will reward her with votes).

Yes, Katharine McPhee can sing well, but I feel no connection with her. She suffers from a sad malady: Even during songs that perfectly showcase her voice, I get no sense that she feels anything she sings. Which, to me, is practically a sin: Without emotion, music can’t communicate or entertain and has no point. I see McPhee headlining a Broadway musical someday, which is a fine and admirable artisitc pursuit, but not the area of American Idol. An Idol should be able to generate heat, and sadly, the so-called “McPheever” leaves me ice-cold.

Hicks, however, is hot. He croons, growls, purrs and wails with grit and feeling, lighting soul fires in his wake. He infuses every song he sings with heart and unvarnished emotion and performs accordingly. He dances with honest abandon during an uptempo, joyful piece – and when he takes on a tender ballad, every word from his mouth resonates with meaning that pierces the mind and feeds the spirit.

Many people can’t or don’t appreciate Taylor Hicks. Well, to get him, you have to understand: It’s a soul thing. And that is one of the primary reasons why he should be the American Idol.

What’s real? What’s true? What really counts? Who knows these days? Reporters make it up as they go along, government intelligence is untrustworthy, people value what’s trendy and superficial, and lying and cheating are damnably accepted parts of modern life in far too many circles. When Taylor Hicks sings, there is no confusion, no question. That’s because he sings what he feels. He sings truth.

It’s almost unimaginable that Hicks is perceived by many as the frontrunner in the race for the AI crown, but try to picture it: Wouldn’t it be wild to see a big-time American TV show select someone who isn’t a cookie-cutter pop-star type, someone who is the genuine article and offers something real and raw, someone who has worked hard to realize a for-most-of-us-impossible dream, someone with actual artistic vision?

Taylor Hicks is the choice of the independent, the rebels, the true-blue and unafraid. For this misfit to see someone like him win… it’s almost too much to contemplate. For me, something that is such a small deal – seeing a guy I don’t know win a silly reality show, for crissake – will symbolize so much more.

There are other reasons to support Hicks, of course, many of them based on pure opinion and personal taste. But that’s why I’m writing this, to express mine: His combination of talent, experience, artistic sensibility and ability, star quality, personality, heart and soul makes Taylor Hicks the best pick to be the American Idol – one who can bring a breath of fresh air to the popular-music scene.

So I encourage you to vote May 23 for Taylor Hicks. Word has it that it may be a good idea to invest in a Cingular account and text-message votes, as it is much more reliable than traditional landline dialing if you actually want to cast a registered vote or a few.

Oh lord, just realized that this aging hippie nonconformist love-and-peace type plugged a cellphone company (one I don’t use and can’t afford to have; sorry Taylor). Ah well, gotta do what must be done to fuel the train and help make this worthy artist’s dream come true. For Hicks and the majority of his true supporters, this is not about glorifying corporate greed, it’s about a whole lot more: It’s a soul thing.

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28 thoughts on “It’s a Soul Thing

  1. This is a great article and truly expresses how so many of us feel about this guy. I’ll be his fan forever and will buy his music and go to as many of his appearances as I can manage.

    Thank you for your story that is actually “our” story and journey right along with Taylor. He has touched our hearts and deserves to win this thing.

    Please everyone, vote for Taylor Tuesday night and try to text if at all possible!

  2. Natalie thank you for this wonderful article on Taylor Hicks. I hope you dont Mind but i posted it on so that all fellow Soul Patrollers can read what you have written, What you have said in your article reflects exactly to millions of people around the globe !!

    thank you once again

    RoDz & Chris
    Soul Patrol UK

  3. Natalie thank you for this wonderful article on Taylor Hicks. I hope you dont Mind but i posted it on so that all fellow Soul Patrollers can read what you have written, What you have said in your article reflects exactly to millions of people around the globe !!

    thank you once again

    RoDz & Chris
    Soul Patrol UK

  4. Your article is beautifully written and you expressed all of the things I have felt about Taylor from the beginning. Thank you!

  5. Hi there, nice to read someone having a similar AI experience to me (except I’m an aging punk, not an aging hippy!)- it’s just that I’m having mine in the UK, where noone I know, none of my friends, noone at work, watches American Idol. I live in a city with a huge musical scene and musical tradition (Glasgow, Scotland)- traditional, folk, country, roots, dance, pop, rock, you name it. On top of homegrown, we have every artist, big and small, alternative and mainstream, touring regularly and something like 6 big music festivals every year of different genres. We don’t “need” a Taylor Hicks over here, but I read all the Taylor Hicks forums and see how sad it is that the majority of Americans seem to only access their music through the cheeziest mainstream and so truly think he is something unique and world-changing. I hope this situation opens them to the myriad of talent already performing and recording in the US, let alone abroad (like Ray Lamontagne). As for my support for Taylor, I just love watching him on American Idol for all the same reasons as you do Natalie. I hope they allow him enough flexibility to release the album he wants to release: we have had 3-4 TV talent shows like American Idol over here (including Pop Idol on which AI is based) and I’ve only once seen something like this- a punky 19-year-old lesbian called Alex Parks who rocked the house every time with her soulful delivery; she won by singing the most gut-wrenching version of ‘Imagine’ I have ever heard, then released an appalling, cheezily produced album that I bought anyway.. a few years later she seems to be getting clear of the evil music big-biz and doing her own thing, but to me it shows how winning these competitions is a mixed blessing for true artists. I feel a bit better after reading your post though, and seeing that this may have a positive effect. Of course the other thing is: here in the UK I have to either check online to see who won this week, or wait until Friday night when they show it on TV- how I wish there was a live feed I could tap into!


    This article is 100% bullshit.

    Lindsey Cardinale all the way.


  7. Wow, dude, far from kynd.

    Thanks, all others!

    Sarah, I know EXACTLY what you are saying and feeling (I was immersed in punk too, goddess help me). How incomprehensible it is for me to be watching something so cheesy as AI, and as I have to keep reminding people – I watch for a particular person, not because I enjoy the show or approve of the companies involved. That’s why picking someone so un-AI would be FABulous – and lead to others being turned on to artists they might never know, songwriters and musicians not stamped with the imprimatur of the vile, music-biz-controlling Powers that Be. It’s worse over here than I experienced in the UK (my second home), the forced-feeding of musical crap. (Then again, ’twas Simon Cowell who gave you all the Spice Girls, eh?)

    Whatever happened to Will what’s-his-name who won the first Pop Idol?

  8. To all you Sarahs, you’re %100 wrong about this article. If your mind wasn’t closed, you’d be able to see the aging hippie was able to capture the essence of Taylor’s being. And he was able to word in a way that a lot of people can/will be able to identify with.

    P.S. Lindsey Cardinale, who?

  9. Thank you so much for this beautiful article on Taylor. You should be proud because like Taylor’s music, your writing comes from the soul and it is damn good. It touched my heart. thank you!! I will be voting for Taylor (just had to add, sorry, although i always wanted Taylor to win, I also liked Elliott, i felt he had a beautiful voice, that was underrated throughout the competition)..

  10. I couldn’t agree more. You beautifully wrote my exact feeling on Taylor. I have loved him from the beginning, like no other ever before. I never got caught up into all this, before Taylor. Taylor symbolize my values, hopes and dreams. It is an American Dream and he is an American Idol.

  11. Thank you so much for expressing all the things I have felt and experienced with Taylor Hicks. He is amazing. You just want to watch him sing for hours.

    I have never enjoyed the American Idol show as much as I have this year. This young man is going to be a name that we will hear for years to come.

    A change is gonna come in the music industry.

  12. Wow, but you said exactly what I’ve been feeling and haven’t been able to express. I don’t like AI at all either, but I do love and admire Taylor so much!! Thanks Natalie!

  13. I looove Taylor. But Elliott was better. Elliott has an outrageously great voice. Elliott can do real R&B and Taylor would be the first to say Elliott is phenomenal.

  14. Thank you for your great article. Taylor has so many fans worldwide (unfortunately not all are able to vote) that I emailed Fox several times to give them my opinion.
    Taylor should have his own TV show. He has so many fans – they would tune in because we are sure gonna miss watching our ‘soulman’ when Idol is over…can’t get enough of him – and I’m age 67 and have listened to all the greats – but Taylor has a special charisma – he makes us forget about our screwed up world, brings smiles to our faces, ‘woo’s us and leaves us wanting more and more.

  15. Insults aren’t welcome here. I don’t understand why a couple of you have pointed at Sarah as having said something bad or unacceptable. She made a lot of excellent points, many with which I agree. She enjoys Taylor – she’s watching AI from the UK, where she has no personal stake in the matter. She watches only because she enjoys him. I would think you’d embrace her. All she’s saying is that we all ought to open our eyes to the many, many undiscovered talents (some even better than Taylor, and no doubt he would asgree) performing and recording. A cheesy money-motivated TV show gave us the opportunity to discover off-the-beaten-path Taylor, and I’m grateful for that. But I’m also not depending on AI to perform this service. If you want to find excellent artistry, you often have to take a DIY approach and look beyond mainstream TV and radio.

  16. sarah wrote:
    I read all the Taylor Hicks forums and see how sad it is that the majority of Americans seem to only access their music through the cheeziest mainstream and so truly think he is something unique and world-changing.

    sarah –

    I think you may be misunderstanding the enthusiasm. A lot of us understand that Taylor isn’t exactly unique in the strictest sense. However, he is unique in the current mainstream pop music environment. His presence on “American Idol” is nothing short of a godsend for those of us who would like to see his kind of music regain the widespread acceptance that it had in, say, the 60’s and early 70’s. So while we support indie musicians and singers in this genre, we also support Taylot making it very, very big and bringing more attention to this kind of music.
    Dorothy in the southeastern US

  17. What an incredible piece of writing! Without any shame, I admit to having watched this season of AM since the get-go. And again w/o any shame, I pinpointed Taylor when he auditioned & I hoped & held my breath each time he had a chance to go on. And did.

    And here we are tonight. I just watched him blow the house away w/his 1st number of the showdown. I’m a freelance writer — many articles, 4 books — & have been trying to write a piece about this phenomena which is Taylor Hicks. Just haven’t been able to put it into words.

    You have done an AMAZING job. Thank you for your wonderful testimony to feeling in music. That’s what Taylor has . . . it’s really as much heart as it is soul. And FEELING.

  18. Thank you so much! Taylor was sooooo in charge tonight. When Simon said, “You just won American Idol,” my son and I leaped into the air and I nearly hit the ceiling. Haven’t jumped that high since I won the seventh grade high-jump competition. Let’s hope America does the right thing. It’s gonna be a long 23 hours… Then again, I’ll be checking dialidol in about three hours or so, if I can stay awake.

    For me, soul encompasses heart and feeling. It’s all the same thing, and how great that we both got that feeling from him – us and millions of Soul Patrollers. Do the right thing, America!

  19. Wow, you just hit the nail on the head. All this time I couldn’t understand why I was so captivated by this man, and I felt kind of silly about it, but I just loved him (in the right way). He had me dancing with him…time just stood still when he sang….I held my breath. It was just so not me. I am a practical person. This is the first year that I’ve gone beyond the auditioning and the last final rounds. I just couldn’t wait to see him each week. Thank you for your insight.

  20. America did the right thing. Congrats to My American Idol, Taylor Hicks, and to first runnerup Katharine McPhee. May both of their dreams – and those of the other contestants too — come true.


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