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Pondering Kellie Pickler

I’m sure this blog post will reveal my profound ignorance about pop culture. So bear with me.

Start by watching this hilarious video by a dumb-sounding blonde contestant on a TV game show called  “Are you smarter than a 5th grader?”  I had seen it before, but I watched it again with delight.  image

After watching it, I asked myself, who is this blonde girl? Is she famous? Does she have a name?  And was this stupidity just an act or was she truly as ignorant about geography that the show portrayed?

Googling a little, I see she was an American Idol contestant.

She did a great and spunky American Idol audition here. I can’t really judge her musical talent, but she was pretty and had a strong and striking voice. It’s no surprise that she would make it to Hollywood – although it’s also no surprise that she wouldn’t win – these things are popularity contests anyway.

I’m not really a fan of  country music – although I can listen to it in small amounts. I guess my problem is not so much country music as the packaged country music which always sounds jingoistic, overproduced and bland.  The music videos are even worse. At least with rap, you had clever lyrics and visual puns. But given her North Carolina background, it’s no surprise that Pickler would be attracted to that genre.

Youtubing some more, I find this funny video – an interview with Ellen. It’s a  hilarious tale about fire ants on the Ellen DeGeneres show. Truly one of the most hilarious things  I’ve heard. She has this Southern &  unaffected way of talking as well as an ability to say outrageous things and pull it off as any Southern belle might. It’s fun to watch Ellen DeGeneres (a first class comedian of her own) just watch Pickler in amazement.  I checked some of her other Ellen appearances – and they are equally hilarious. I wonder, does she even prepare these talks or does she just wing it? First, there is this piece about getting a traffic ticket in California and another piece about getting stopped again by a cop for speeding and a strange Halloween appearance with crazy costumes and a  scare.  (Some other entertaining pieces on TV shows include an MTV awards  Red Carpet  stint she did for the Tonight Show and another Ellen appearance where she meets her idol Clint Eastwood.

These are great – and these are classic TV moments, and yet I realize that I barely had listened to her sing.  One of her most famous songs, I Wonder, was sung with tears at the CMA awards – a moving performance reminiscent of one of my alltime tear-jerkers, Jennifer Lopez’s  singing of Selena’s I could fall in love with you ). Reading through the notes, I discover that Pickler has a sad family history. The song was about her estrangement from her mother; apparently her father was an abusive criminal who drove her mother to run away and leave Kellie with her grandparents. Kellie’s mother had engaged in some small criminal activity herself, and after her father was put in prison, the mother returned to take custody again. That lasted for two years, after which both Kellie and her grandparents claim the mother was physically and verbally abusive. A court released her to the grandparents once again, resulting in a permanent estrangement between mother and daughter.

Now of course, Pickler is famous and probably rich, and so her biography probably becomes more of an issue than it would be for most people. Her mother (Cynthia Malone)  came forward and gave some interviews. In this news interview, she describes  the turbulent marriage:

She said her mother gave her an ultimatum.

"To have an abortion or leave,” Malone said.

So she left and married Clyde Pickler. She said it didn’t take long before she was being beaten again.

"It started with the alcohol, and then it went into other drugs, and the further along I got the worse it got,” she said. “In my pregnancy I was being hit. I about miscarried several times."

"I went to my baby shower with a busted lip and a black eye,” she said.

Malone claims many people were aware of the abuse but did nothing to stop it. She said when she realized her life was at risk, she had to go.

"When I thought I was going to be killed, I knew it was coming down to it was going to be me or him,” she said.

What was the worst thing that happened – the worst that you’ve felt?" Bryant asked.

“Leaving my baby, leaving my baby — that was the hardest decision I had to make,” Malone said.

(Here are two video clips here and here). On camera the mother seems like a level-headed woman. She seems like a genuine victim with remorse. At the same time, in an uncharacteristically angry TV interview, Kellie Pickler accuses her mother of lying, of doing a good acting job for the camera and warns her mother never to return to her again.  In fact, when Pickler gave a concert in Raleigh, NC, she had police officers at the concert  had photos of the mother to prevent her from making contact. (By the way, great job to the local TV journalists for such a balanced and sensitive portrayal of this human drama). The TV report makes clear that Kellie Pickler’s version of events is a lot more complicated than it first appears. The mother may have made bad decisions and had her problems, but for now it seems drowned out by the Pickler publicity machine. My hope is that they can have a  (private) reconciliation, and that Kellie can see her mother with different eyes later.

It is a great drama with many tragic dimensions. For the daughter, the pain is too real, and yet her fame brought her the power and independence to detach herself from it. She is using her music to work through the pain of growing up while at the same time exploiting it for her show business career.   All artists have a shtick, and I guess there’s dignity in trying to make your music or art about something real. (Country performers have that knack, it seems).

Celebrities have to create a personality brand, and I guess it’s better to turn yourself into a ditzy country belle than a victim of a Southern family trauma. Maybe some individuals prefer hiding their personality and focusing just  on performance or art; actually, that’s pretty easy to do if you’re not a megastar. But even some megastars like  Sheryl Crow, for example, doesn’t seem to have any colorful persona during her TV concerts or talk show appearances; she is there just to sing.  Maybe Crow  makes a few asides in between songs, but she’s not really  trying to weave a biographical narrative.  She doesn’t try to be funny; she just doesn’t need to. Sheryl Crow belongs to my personal pantheon of great singers, and her music videos have always been bold and expressive (though I suspect this is more a result of Crow’s publicity team than artistic muse).

But Pickler seems to have an insane need to be liked. She is  needy but funny. Her upbringing might account for it;  the need to be funny can mask all kinds of insecurities. Talk to any comedian on tour, and you’ll find someone with a drinking problem, a history of failed relationships and a caustic attitude towards life. Ok, I am generalizing, but this is true more often that we’d care to admit; what kind of person would try to make a living out of being funny – no matter how hard?  I once had a teacher who was the funniest and most clever person I’d ever met.  Her wit was on a par with Oscar Wilde. I got  to know her rather well; she had a very prominent and visible role in her community, but later I began to feel that her public eloquence was  a ruse to misdirect her audience from her actual personality. I actually had no idea what this woman was like inside. I had no idea if she were insecure or distraught or happy. Her wit was not only intimidating and distracting, it drowned out any kind of semi-ordinary conversation.

Actors are  like that, as are many writers. I find – if I want to — I can offer scintillating wit in conversation .. and at the same time say nothing of importance!   Even when I seem to be talking about myself or confessing something sincerely, most of it is  for entertainment purposes only. As much as I like to gab, I’ve also  learned to turn it off, or else it would drive people crazy…not to mention myself.  

Authentic conversation – what is it? Awkward pauses, long stretches of conversation, lots of uhhs and outright misunderstanding of the speaker’s true intentions until days or weeks later. What was the person saying? What were they really saying? Did I say the right thing? Or was it better just to respond spontaneously … no matter how awkward-sounding?  Two weeks ago a close friend told me a secret which stunned me. I just didn’t know what to say; it was a really important revelation – and even though we moved onto other subjects, the topic still loomed over the rest of our conversation.  She wasn’t a verbal person – but when she tried to articulate something, it was vital to pay attention.

Listen carefully – I’m serious! — the person who is making you laugh might be trying to avoid a full and unvarnished conversation. 

Verbiage can be interesting and revealing; they are nice ornaments to personality. I once read a book called “I Know You are Lying” by Mark McLish. McClish trained federal marshals in interviewing suspects.  McLish takes public statements of people in scandals (such as Herman Cain and Jerry Sandusky) and calls attention to verbal tics which suggest subterfuge. For writers and readers, this is no  great surprise, and indeed that’s what we like about literature – the roundabout clues that are baked inside narratives.

The funny thing is,  Pickler strikes me as  an open and honest person. She doesn’t lie; she misdirects. Ok, sure she might exaggerate a few details in her stories (we all do that).   To have survived a broken household like that and  not to be worn  down by the relentless celebrity machine says something about her survival skills, her perseverance and her preternatural faith that things will turn out for the best. Sure, we can thank her grandparents for that, but I believe it also has to come within Pickler herself. We can say that good looks explains her success, and that may be true; on the other hand,  we could also say that good looks can make you more cynical about all kinds of human relationships. Everyone wants to sleep with you or envies your popularity. 

Pickler doesn’t strike me as cynical. Cynicism is a disease which affects mainly teenagers, the retired, and criminals. If you are 30 or 40, you are too busy to be cynical about anything.  I’m always cynical after long bouts of unemployment, but once I find a job again, voila! that cynicism is gone.  Even when in pain and desperate circumstances, most   people don’t become cynical; they still  remember how great life used to be; that’s the kind of life they still long for.  The longing to recapture a pleasant life can often be the best antidote against cynicism (even if recapturing it turns out to be impossible).

Cynicism is what happens when you feel betrayed by someone. Betrayal doesn’t just mean “cheating” or “lying.” You feel betrayed when what has been implicitly  promised to you never materializes or  when someone  you counted upon has failed to come through.  By that definition, I guess we can say that Pickler has the perfect right to be doubly-cynical (because she has been twice-betrayed).  She may  still be at the stage where the pain is still too close; this pain can interfere with the empathy that would come naturally to someone so kind-hearted.  She has spoken publicly about forgiveness, and maybe she has reached this point; regardless she has already found  a lot of caring people to restore this trust. I’m sure she will pour this kindness into all kinds of charities.

Talk show ditziness is fine  (for a while at least), but eventually Pickler will find that making people laugh is less important than making them care and helping them to resist  the terrible sting of cynicism.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Ray 1/3/2012, 8:09 pm

    Glad to see you are amazed by Kellie Pickler! As you may recall, Season 5 of American Idol was the highest rated in the shows history and the main reason was Pickler! There is something about her that is so refreshing and honest. You did a good job of listing some of her greatest hits on YouTube, but this just scratches the surface… She has done 4 USO tours – one which has been turned into a documentary on GACTV. Lewis Black calls her a countrified Gracie Allen… She is a hoot on Twitter (@kelliepickler) … she has had 3 songs written about her, yes 3…. and this girl can sing!

    I will add a few links to your list….

    One is an original article about America falling hook, line, and Pickler:
    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,189331,00.html

    The second fast forwards to Kellie performing a new song off her soon to be released album at the Opry a few months ago…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1PUV3oetbB8

    I work in talent for one of the Fortune 50 and I always have been excited by “diamonds in the rough”. At the end of season 5 of American Idol I told my brother in law that Kellie will go on to be the biggest find from American Idol. He told me I was crazy, that she will never get past her first album…. It will take years to know if i am right, but after hearing cuts off of her third album and seeing her growing confidence and poise – well – I am feeling more confident in picking “The Pickler”

  • how to study 4/1/2012, 10:11 pm

    I love your insightful writing. great contribution. I hope you write others. I will carry on reading

  • nona p 9/4/2012, 10:49 am

    I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket but I know talent when I see it. K. McPhee has a great voice but no stage presence. She is the equivalent of mashed potatoes with no gravy. What Kellie has is the stage presence and ability to captivate her audience. If she can get her tv audience engaged in her performance, I could only imagine what she could do with a live audience. Her interactions with Simon Cowell were genuine and displayed her quick wit, charm and sense of humor, all of which were lacking in contestants such as McPhee.Kellie has a personality that makes her memorable and it was easy to see, even the ever stoic Cowell, found her fetching.
    When Dolly broke away on her own, some of her first performances were miserable. Her concerts were saved by her opening acts like Eddie Rabbitt. On stage, between songs, she was on her own, no Porter to banter with and she did not have a clue how to interact with the audience. Well, that is history, tough as nails Dolly, either knew her weaknes or was quickly informed and it didn’t take long for her to correct the problem.Kellie, like Dolly, is flexible and resilient. McPhee has made no progress in this area since the end of the 5th season of Idol. She is just as dull on stage now as then. Nowadays, fans seek the whole package. And that is exactly what Kellie effortlessly delivers…….fresh,unrehearesd spontanaity.

  • FireFly 8/13/2016, 11:26 am

    This was so well really written, quite eloquent…and after your delving into what wit and eloquence can really make it makes me quite curious about who you are, haha.

    I really wrote Pickler off as shamefully ignorant after the Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader clip, all I could think was “This is how the world views America and she and others of her ilk are the reason why”. Judgmental and mean, I know, but I’m just being honest, it’s what came to my mind. I started googling to see if I could some interview or footage of her talking about that moment after the fact and you are what I discovered!

    I read what you had to say, I watched the fire ant clip and just cracked up! And I have to admit found myself rather charmed by her. In all honesty I once knew a girl somewhat like her. She was seemingly silly and crazy and said ridiculous, ditsy things; but being friends with her I knew there was more to her than that. She was one of the best people I’ve ever known; warm, kind, caring, funny, and more intelligent than she seemed. I should have known better than to so quickly and harshly judge Pickler. I often miss my friendship and time spent with that girl, but we’ve lost touch and I’m not the same person I was the one.

    In fact, I’m much a more cynical person than I was then. And I’m 33, so I’ll have to disagree with your thoughts on that note. Cynicism can easily afflict 30-somethings : p.

    Annyywwaayyy, all I’m trying to say through all this yammering (I guess it’s a good thing Ellen isn’t trying to end a show with me) is that I appreciate your having written this and changing my perspective a bit.

    Robert Replies: I wrote her back privately. Excerpt: As for cynicism, well it happens throughout your life. (I’m 50). During my thirties I had a relatively exciting and interesting life — and even in my early 40s, things were relatively great. Then in the last 5 years it’s been the pits more or less. My rule of thumb is that 1 out of 5 years in your life is going to suck, and 1 out of 5 are going to be fairly good. It’s probably a silly observation, but it relieves me of trying to figure out why year X was good and year Y sucked. One more thing. The older you become, the more adept you become at hiding your cynicism and negative perceptions.

  • Patricia Norris 8/19/2016, 11:55 am

    I know what ur going threw!! I been there with my kids I was in a bad situation and my X took my kids from me by lying. Told it of bad things on me that was not true. Ow my kids don’t talk to me. I hurt r everyday. I want to be a part of my kids life and. can’t be because of lying. His family did on me.

    Robert Replies: I know two close friends who were wrongly accused by a spiteful spouse during divorce proceedings. Traumatizing at the time, but about a decade later, the kids — after they grew up — realized that the father was a screwup and hadn’t told the truth about the mother. For both people, there was a belated reconciliation. Let’s hope that these reconciliations happen often….

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