Nobody questions that reality shows and competitions dominate today’s TV landscape. Generally, this trend is seen as a molasses-creep down the abyss, the demise of American cultural relevance.
But last night, a young singer, songwriter, and guitar player from upstate New York won the biggest singing competition in the nation. He entered the competition at the age of 15, and at 16 emerged the winner. Why did America vote for him? What does this mean? And what got him there?
In the first stage of the competition, the “blind auditions,” the coaches/judges fought for the young man who had an original, authentic, roots-based sound. Sawyer chose Pharrell Williams, a coach who said that music was Sawyer’s “destiny.” Pharrell performed a victory dance unmatched by any other judge’s response during the auditions (and edited from YouTube videos, perhaps because it would have been prejudicial to other performers.) I was already on board, and clearly many others were too. But why?
Of course, Sawyer was a good looking, engaging young man with a distinct, appealing sound. However, his sound and vocal style were not popular. He was not an obvious competitor to lead the Billboard charts.
I’d argue that Sawyer’s music and his background – and attraction for America – are intertwined. I believe the voting public backed him not only because he deserved to win, but because he represents something we want to see in ourselves. And I don’t believe that unusual combination of qualities would have developed without a very old, American background that is rarely seen now.
Sawyer is a home-schooled kid who grew up tending animals and performing chores with his brothers on the family farm. He got into music around the age of 12 and started playing guitar and singing at local venues – farmers’ markets, and for charitable events. He was scouted for The Voice. He didn’t seek the competition.
But when Sawyer showed up at the auditions, the judges were electrified. Why? For the same reason that he won. Sawyer possessed an authentic American voice and vision that expressed what we see as the best of our country, and this was communicated through his vocal expression: purity, individuality, and honesty, rooted in the traditions of our nation.
Sawyer not only has an individual, original, and powerful voice – literally and as an artist – but also represents what we want to see in ourselves. He’s a fresh-faced kid who’s proven that, with talent and opportunity, you can still make it in America. And with the innocence and purity of his vision, he’s told us that we’re still good, too.
But where did Sawyer come from? He’s a home-schooled kid from upper New York State. He was the best in the competition. He rose to the challenge, but was humble. He was generous to his competitors.
The question I think we must ask ourselves is: Is Sawyer, our shining light and favorite, an American anachronism?