July 4, 2011


[The Stars Came Out Once the Lights Went Out–The Veils; Brighten Up– Chutes; Flashing Red Light Means Go– The Boxer Rebellion; If You Run– The Boxer Rebellion; All the Same to Me– Anya Marina; Navajo– Black Lips; I Killed Sally's Lover (live)– The Avett Brothers; I'll Be Thinking of You– Jamie McDonald; You're a Wolf– Sea Wolf; Dots on Maps– Say Hi; California Love– 2Pac]

The small Illinois town my dad lives in began a new tradition this year. They held a talent show in the town square yesterday, in part to determine who would perform before the fireworks show tonight and in part to raise money for the fireworks show. Kitten saw a flyer for "Ottawa's Got Talent" and decided to enter to complete one of her goals for the year—performing a stand-up comedy routine.

Here's the thing about a first-year talent competition—there are still some kinks that need to be worked out. For instance, each act was given ten minutes. And there were 34 acts. If you'll be so kind as to do the math with me, you'll realize that you're looking at a five-and-a-half hour talent show. Yep.

Someone must have realized this, but rather than adjust the time allowance, they just scheduled the event to go from 2-8pm. The show was divided into age groups: 5-12, 13-17, and 18 and older. Kitten checked in at 2pm, came home and got ready, and then she, my dad, and myself returned to the park at 3:30. Number 15 had just finished, the last in the 5-12 age group. Good, we thought. Ten acts until Alice. And they went through 15 in an hour and a half, much quicker than expected. My dad fetched some lawn chairs. The weather was surprisingly pleasant. We prepared to enjoy the next hour.

Things didn't go quite as I'd envisioned in those blissful minutes just after we'd arrived. First of all, things slowed waaaay down. These teens were serious about taking the whole ten minutes. (The set was opened by three thirteen-year-old boys who performed a mash up where they danced to Usher, break danced to Chris Brown, and sang to Jusitn Bieber.) Second, there were frequent pauses and interruptions. Winners of the previous group were announced. "Split the pot" winners were called to the stage. The MC, a nice man in his mid-30s wearing a shirt that said "More Cowbell," frequently implored the crowd to go vote for their favorite acts. The judges were praised.

But the slow pace was okay. The park was full of people, there were treats for sale, and there were activities for children.

And then, half-way through the adult set, right after Kitten performed, the teen winners were announced and the crowd thinned way out. The only people left were either seriously invested in one of the adult acts or too old and tired to get up. Half an hour later, all the food vendors closed up shop and left. The activities were long-gone. The rest of the show had the perverse feel of a mother hell-bent on getting her overweight child to finish out a pee-wee soccer game despite an abject lack of talent or enthusiasm on the part of the child.

Which isn't to say that nobody was talented. Some act were great. But there was absolutely zero audience participation. Every joke told dropped dead as soon as it exited it's creator's mouth. (Kitten leaned over at one point and whispered "Ottawa's Got Narcolepsy.")

One of the final performers was a woman who sang the national anthem and then what she called her "personal anthem," a country song I didn't recognize about overcoming adversity. She peppered the vocal pauses with comment about her personal journey. I half expected her to include performing at that talent show as one of her many trials. God knows it would have been justified.

As the day wore on, the exhaustion was most evident in the behavior of the MC. When we had arrived, he was energetic. Enthusiastic. Bubbly. He bounced onto the stage as soon as each act was over. He complimented each act and introduced the next act. He made corny jokes. He was effusive in his praise.

But his energy began to flag. It took him longer and longer to make it to the stage. Most acts left the stage alone, pitifully unplugging their guitars and shuffling away as the applause died after three or four claps. (The saddest, Kitten reminds me, was an awkward teen who sang two Dashboard Confessional songs without introducing himself or the songs.)

The second to the last act was a band of 18-year-old boys who performed Nirvana's "In Bloom" and Radiohead's "Creep" while wearing goggles. (What could possibly win you the affection of your rural audience more effectively than singing to them "He's the one who likes all the pretty songs and he likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun but he knows not what it means"?)

When they finished, the MC ambled out in front of the stage and said "Just leave your amps, kids. We'll just...yeah." The last act, a male/female duet who called themselves "Whiskey Romance," was quite good and, in fact, won.

After they finished the MC appeared, looking haggard, and said in a completely flat and emotionless voice, "Well...we made it. Man I'm tired. Does anyone care...?" Kitten and I looked around to see most of the audience gazing back at him, glassy-eyed and open-mouthed. "I guess that's a no." He gave the audience ten minutes to cast their votes. When he appeared fifteen minutes later to announce the winners, he accidentally dropped all of his papers. They fluttered everywhere. "It doesn't matter."

What could be a better summary of the day's events?

Kitten and Dad on a sunnier day in Ottawa.

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