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.
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.