As a reader and a writer, I have become a student of the importance of story in our lives and the impact it has on what we believe, how we learn, what we understand and what we accept as valid. This has made me more attuned to my own responses to the messages around me and how those messages are now being created or transformed by story. It is useful information for me as a writer and as a consumer of information.
A Case in Point
In the summer of 1964, a group from my hometown appeared on television’s “Ted Mack Amateur Hour”. For those of you who don’t know, Ted Mack’s program introduced performers to a national audience through radio and then television from 1934 until 1970, with 3 ½ million auditioning and 25,000 acts performing. Such notables as Ann-Margret, Frank Sinatra, Pat Boone, Maria Callas, Joey Dee and the Starlighters, The Gentrys, Penny Marshall, Beverly Sills, Jim Stafford, and Gladys Knight appeared on “The Original Amateur Hour” and countless others competed for the public’s votes, with the winner each week invited back to compete with new contestants.
I was particularly interested in the program in 1964, when my brother performed with a group of folk singers from Kennett, Missouri. The Minstrels had won an audition through the Delta Fair talent show, one of many they entered while in high school. The format for Ted Mack’s show was similar to those talent shows: each act was introduced very briefly before they performed and all were brought back individually for a couple of seconds at the end, with a phone number for viewers to cast their votes.
That The Minstrels were invited back for a second time was a confirmation of their talent; Kennett and the surrounding small towns could not have supplied enough votes for them to win. When it was over, they all returned to Kennett and proceeded with their lives. I imagine they recall those days as times when they enjoyed their music and each other and gave little thought to being propelled into stardom.
Fast Forward to Today
I have recently been drawn to the television on Sunday and Monday nights, after promising myself that I would not become an “American Idol” watcher during their come-back season. I had watched the series during some of the earlier seasons, but had decided that I didn’t really have time to get involved.
But one night, I sat down to watch “for just a few minutes” and I was drawn in. By the end of the show, I was hooked – I knew that I would be watching the entire season. But it wasn’t the talent, although I quickly chose some possible winners and winced at some who obviously wouldn’t be “going to Hollywood.”
It was the stories the contestants told about themselves that caught my attention and, in many cases, my sympathy or empathy. I found myself giving extra points to those who had gone through heartbreaking struggles or self-doubt. (I couldn’t help noticing that I was giving those extra points to almost everybody.)
Last weekend, I found myself almost weeping when a couple of the contestants were eliminated. I liked them so much and had become so engaged with their lives that they were almost a personal loss to me. That’s when I realized that the creators of “American Idol” were using our connection to story to bring us back week after week. Yes, we appreciate the talent and assume that it will somehow get its due when the votes are counted. But those personal stories are influencing us just the same – just as the fact that my votes went to The Minstrels because they came from my hometown back in 1964.
I realized that the creators of “American Idol” were using our connection to story to bring us back week after week.
The difference lies in something very subtle – the voters’ ability and consent to be affected by story. We are learning that it is a human trait that we all possess in varying degrees and it applies to virtually every aspect of our lives today. A program like “American Idol” can be fairly benign in its intentions and I can continue to enjoy it as entertainment and hope for the best for my favorite performers, just as I can read novels for the same reasons.
What we must remember is that the power of story can also be used in negative ways also, but that’s a subject for another post.
In the meantime, I tuned in to “American Idol” last night and was fairly subdued until it appeared that my favorite contestant might be eliminated. Then, at the last minute, she made it through and I almost fell off my chair with relief. It was almost like reading Cinderella for the first time – she would “go to the ball” and (maybe) get a chance at the glass slipper.
Such is the power of story, and the reason I’ll tune in for “the next chapter” next week.
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