I don’t watch American Idol very often. To be totally honest, I hardly ever watch American Idol at all. The only vivid memory I have of sitting on my couch and watching artistic hopefuls battle it out one harmony at a time was on Season 1, where a curly headed dreamboat lost to the insanely talented and absolutely electrifying Kelly Clarkson. But even though I’m tuning in now to watch the final season of American Idol, I don’t feel like I’m watching a primetime competition at all. Because when I see American Idol's La'Porsha Renae take the stage, regal and powerful and unapologetic in both her voice and her story, I see my own mother, a survivor of domestic abuse and a woman who's infinitely strong, even when she’s weak.
La'Porsha Renae is a favorite to win the final season of American Idol. (Kelly Clarkson even said so.) She's a single mother currently going through a divorce. Throughout her time on the show, she's been open about her previous relationship, one she alleges was riddled with violence and abuse, one that is clearly difficult for her to talk about. (The identity of Renae's ex-husband is unknown.) In a clip from a previous performance where she duets with American Idol Season 3 winner Fantasia, Renae shares a few specifics of her life. In them, I see a silent strength, a hopeful tenacity that urges her to try, to put herself out there, to pick herself back up. I see an unfathomable spirit, one that implores her to want and fight for and take something better than the hand her alleged abuser dealt her over and over and over again.
I see my mom.
As this final season comes to its inevitable close, I don't see a music competition. I see a story far too many women can relate to playing out on stage and set to music. I see the power we all have to demand better for ourselves, to fight for it and, if necessary, to simply take it.
On this final season of American Idol, I’m not watching to see La’Porsha Renae take the world by melodic storm one powerful performance at a time (though that's definitely happening). I'm watching a woman rise from the ashes of her life. A woman with the odds staked against her, not just in a national, televised competition but in the real world, too. Renae has decided, after auditioning for the show at 16, to again risk the unknown for a shot at something better. And when I close my eyes to hear Renae's powerful ballads, I’m watching my mother pick herself up off of our kitchen floor after my father hit her, repeatedly and with total disregard. I see the look in my mom’s eyes, the look she gave me far too frequently, that said both, “I’m sorry,” and “I’m OK." I see her once again, like I have so many times before, standing between my father and me, determined to soften the oncoming blow any way she possibly can. Her eyes closed, her body tense, her face turned ever so slightly so her nose won’t break when the punch hits. She was scared but she was sure. She was frightened but she was determined.
I feel the chill on my skin when Renae connects to the falsetto in a song, and I see my mother whisper behind closed doors, promising not to tell my father when I did that one thing and my brother did that other thing. I hear her take credit for a mistake she never made, defiant and determined to be the best mother she could be, even under the absolute worst circumstances. I feel the palpable sacrifice every woman is willing to make for her children; even if it's flawed, even if it fails, and even if it comes at a devastating cost.
When I watch Renae, I'm back in own childhood home, just a kid with a front-row seat to my mother crying in the bathroom as she re-applies her makeup. I’m angry at her and frustrated with her, because she says she has to stay when we both know we all need to leave. I’m seething and I’m scared, but I’m in awe and I’m in love with a woman who can’t find any answers other than the ones she creates on her own. She’s beautiful and pained, defeated but optimistic. I see a human juxtaposition, someone who loves an ideal more than she loves herself — so much so that she’ll try just a little harder the next day to make it all work.
When La'Porsha Renae begins to sing, I hear my mother’s voice on the phone, telling me through defiant tears that she’s finally left my father. Her voice shakes but there’s a undeniable capability in every fearful reverb. She's rid herself of the comfort of what she knows. She's stepped forward into an unknown world determined, independent, and renewed.
As the rest of the country calls in and votes for their on-stage hero, I've already found mine.
I see my mother meeting with lawyers and picking her battles: "he can have the house if he signs the divorce papers today"; "he can have those pictures, the memories are forever playing in my mind"; "he can take the car, I can find a way to buy a new one." She’s on a mission, one where freedom is the prize and nothing — not litigation or an empty threat or an expensive time suck — can keep her from ridding herself of the anger and pain and fear she learned to live with.
And when she stood, bedazzled on stage, and belted out a breathtaking rendition of “Halo,” I saw La'Porsha Renae's triumphant face and celebrated her victory over something much larger than her competitors. But I also saw my mother’s: smiling as we sat at a restaurant, side by side, drinking margaritas and celebrating her divorce. I saw the wrinkles of worry disappear, the weight of a dark, cold, cruel world leave her labored shoulders; I saw the promise of a safe, loving future fill her lungs as she finally let out the breath she'd been holding for over 20 years.
Some may scoff and laugh and even poke fun at American Idol. I can understand the sentiment sometimes: I'm not sure that pitting artists against one another, and laughing at the ones who simply show up and try, is the best use of our collective time. But for me, as this final season comes to its inevitable close, I don't see a music competition. I see a story far too many women can relate to playing out on stage and set to music. I see the power we all have to demand better for ourselves, to fight for it and, if necessary, to simply take it. I see a woman with the courage to share her own story — on a national scale, on air, and front and center for everyone to dissect — determined to reach a goal I can only imagine countless people have assured her is out of her reach. I see courage. I see fortitude. I see someone I've never met, yet someone I know intimately, if only because I can share in her songs and feel the complexity of her story, her truth, her life, and the hope she'll share with her child.
I see my mother, and I remember that as the rest of the country calls in and votes for their on-stage hero, I've already found mine.