2008: Kanye I’m Still Free, Take a Chance on Mamma Mia

I can’t sing. I can dance, I can act, but I really can’t sing, so my career as a stage performer was over before it started. I’m tone deaf, so while I have the rhythm of the song just fine, I sound like a dying bird. Even though I cannot sing worth a lick, I am always a willing participant when my cousins and I go to karaoke during the holidays.

One year there was a guy there who had auditioned for American Idol, clearly sang incredibly well, and would get a decent amount of applause when he was on stage.

Then it was my turn. I performed The Proclaimers classic from Benny and Joon, the song I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles). I try to sing-talk my way through these songs, kinda like Rex Harrison, but even that tipped the hand as to my lack of singing ability. But everyone loves that song, especially the chorus, so I got them involved, singing the first “Bah Duh Da” myself, then holding the mic out to indicate they sing the second one. I had a blast, and the audience seemed to enjoy it too.

Afterwards at the bar, the talented kid came up to me and asked how I managed to make the audience like my performance so much, explaining he was struggling connecting with people. Here is what I said:

“You spend most of your singing with your eyes closed or looking at the floor as you sing into the mic. I can’t sing. I know I suck, so I just own that I suck, try my hardest, and the rest of the room doesn’t feel bad at how much I can’t sing, they enjoy how terrible I am right along with me.”

Such is the case with the summer blockbuster of 2008, Mamma Mia! This musical basically had a cast of super serious actors like Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Scarsgaard, Colin Firth, and more. Rather than spend months learning how to sing and perfecting their craft, the movie is instead celebrity karaoke, where we get to laugh with the Lady Meryl as she jumps around on a bed singing Dancing Queen in her overalls.

People malign the movie as being hokey and campy, but that is exactly the point. The mere premise is pretty absurd, too absurd to be taken seriously. Shortly before her wedding Meryl Streep’s daughter (Amanda Seyfried) sends invitations to the three guys she suspects are her father based on facts she found in her mother’s diary. All three show up to the town in Greece where they are living, calamity ensues.

In other words, it ain’t Shakespeare. And the only way this movie works is if the stars commit to the absurdity and give it their all, knowing full well it is going to sound kind of awful. They make the most of the musical talent they’ve got, and the results are hilarious, but hilarious in the same way as my karaoke performance, because the stars are in on the joke. Trust me, Pierce Brosnan knows he sounds abysmal singing SOS to Meryl, but my God does he give it an earnest try.

We get taught a lot about taking risks when there is a good chance of success, but this movie reminds us that when you put it all out there when you know you won’t really succeed, you can nonetheless end up with some fantastic results. This movie earned nearly $150 million, making it the 13th-highest grossing film of the year. It also spawned several more musical movies. Some, like Hairspray, succeeded because they actually cast incredibly adept singers and dancers, while others, like Rock of Ages, crashed and burned because both the movie and the performers were taking things way too seriously and trying very hard to be good instead of trying very hard to be themselves. What it really boils down to is that you can’t pretend to be something you’re not, even if that something you are is being really bad at something. If you don’t believe me, watch the ending credits of the movie and try to tell me these guys aren’t having the time of their life knowing full well that they look positively ridiculous.

It feels like a total 180 to transition from a fluffy musical to an incredibly serious TV show about the end of the world, but Jericho can teach some of the same lessons Mamma Mia! does, mostly that trying to be something you were but are no longer. Like older women who still dress like teenagers except you replace “older women” with “town experiencing nuclear fallout” and “teenagers” with “America”.

The whole post-apocalyptic television show thing has reached critical mass, but back in 2006, the world didn’t seem quite ready for the end-of-the-world scenario Jericho had to offer. Critically lauded with a small but incredibly dedicated audience, the show managed to stay on the air for three seasons. Unlike other shows that resorted to pandering with a new baby, an unexpected wedding, or some other ratings stunt, Jericho just kept doing its thing, letting the rest of us decide whether or not we were interested.

It isn’t just the show’s attitude when it came to production that teaches us this lesson that we have to make the most of with what we’ve got. The residents of Jericho had to reevaluate their existence every episode, resulting in a show that was an apocalyptic metaphor about growing up. Slowly but surely, life shifts from being kind of like what you’re familiar with to something completely unrecognizable, so much so, that by Season 2, the country isn’t even the United States anymore.

Along the way, characters are constantly having to be things that they normally aren’t, like doctors, nuclear experts, or school bus drivers (they found countless reasons to make star Skeet Ulrich drive a bus early on). And sure, they kind of suck, but they are the only option they’ve got, so they run with it.

Most of us will, fingers crossed, not have to experience the end of the world or a cataclysmic event in our lifetime, so we don’t necessarily have to learn rudimentary first aid or how to make something for a tracheotomy out of a Lunchable. While the circumstances we live in may be simpler, the idea of pushing yourself into the unfamiliar is much, much tougher because when push comes to shove, you don’t have to. It isn’t a matter of life and death that I figure out how to be an entertaining singer. All I really am risking is possibly missing out on the fun at cousin karaoke night.

Say what you will about Kanye West, but that guy is always willing to put himself out there. While other musicians have tried to branch out into unfamiliar territory ::cough cough Chris Gaines Garth Brooks? Cough cough:: West went out on a limb and produced what many consider to be his best album to date, 808s and Heartbreaks.

West had absolutely no need to veer from the pattern of successful rap songs that made him the star he was. It is actually impressive he had the resolve to even make an album in the wake of a painful break up with his fiancée and the death of his mother. Not only did he get his act together and make an album, he made one with a fresh and interesting sound that bore little resemblance to his previous work. In fact, in the song Heartless, he didn’t even rap, he mostly sang. He sang with the help of AutoTune, but he did sing and it is a song not about a glamorous life or the toughness of the lower class experience, it is an emotional song about the heartbreak a woman put a man through.

It is tough for someone with a reputation for being hard and tough to admit that his life fell to pieces because of a woman, but West was willing to speak the truth of his situation and take the chance it was a commercial and critical failure.

The song itself speaks to the idea of life not being the way you wanted to be anymore and trying to make the most of it. Each verse covers one of those emotions that come with a break up, the feeling that the other person will regret how good they had it, the feeling you’ll do whatever it takes to get someone back, and that feeling that you will never stop hating this person.

Kanye’s got it figured out though. When things change, you shouldn’t go back, you should move forward. You should try something new. When it comes to taking your own personal risks, heed the words of ABBA and take a chance on yourself. Or, at the very least, sing that song next time you get the karaoke call.

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