When I was barely twenty-four, I received an email that contained a whitewashed photo of Christina Aguilera wearing a black leather bustier.
A friend had signed me up to audition for The Voice. The show, on NBC, gathers aspiring celebrities to sing to the backs of four actual celebrities’ heads. People like Adam Levine and Christina Aguilera press big plastic buttons to turn around their throne-chairs when they hear a good singer. Winners receive $100K and a recording contract.
At the bottom of the email, there were some devil’s contract-esque eligibility requirements in a grey box. Among them: You may not participate in the Program if your participation would create impropriety or the appearance of impropriety. And: The foregoing eligibility requirements may be amended, revised, or changed at any time and in any fashion in the Producer’s sole discretion.
I’ve been singing since I was four. I used to sing in restaurants for money. I was also Peter Pan in my middle school play, so I’ve had to sing while hanging from metal wires attached to a metal harness that was suffocating my sperm. I’m used to it.
I like singing the way my wizened grandmother likes cooking: it flows. Singing feels like skimming the frontal lobe from your brain, almost like a psychological reversion. Your cerebellum can repeat the same fine motor patterns as if it’s chopping cilantro, moving fine pieces of throat muscle back and forth.
More than that, I’ve always wanted people to watch me sing. More accurately, I’ve wanted to watch people watch me sing — to stand in a well-designed room somewhere and be loved for essentially shaking what I was born with.
So I packed a sandwich. I rode the subway to Port Authority and boarded a bus that took me to a stadium, the Izod Center, across the river in New Jersey. I disembarked by a sand dune and walked through what looked like another biome. Arriving at the stadium, I waited in line for four hours, standing in the mass of tattoos and hair dye and people prayerfully intoning pop songs under a late July sun. And, when I reached the heavy navy doors of Izod, I received three badges — on my wrist, my t-shirt, and in my pocket, as if I were being admitted to a hospital. Someone sat me in a cold red plastic stadium seat, and I held onto the audition form I’d brought from home.
In the men’s room, three anemic-sounding Asian men were singing Mariah Carey to themselves in stalls normally reserved for defecation. I couldn’t tell, judging by the direction of their feet, if they were actually shitting as they sang. I peed and tried to let the sound of my urine bouncing off glossy ceramic not interrupt the hope I heard from those men. And then I rehearsed my “Amazing Grace” a few times in the mirror, stopping to sheepishly say ‘hey’ when a man entered the bathroom mid-verse.
When our turn came, I was led with a group of thirteen auditionees through a warren of concrete hallways to a small windowless room with plastic folding chairs arranged in a half moon. A man wearing a purple cardigan over a deep V-neck was sitting behind a plastic table with two bottles of coconut water and a Macbook air. There was a cardboard box at his feet, under the table, with what looked like the dead remains of others’ audition forms.
We were supposed to stand in succession, walk into the middle of the room, and sing to the man in the deep V. There was no order. Two people sang Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours.” I think the man said something like ‘that’s good’ after everyone’s turn, and made a swift mark with his pencil on a single sheet of paper. I got up and sang “Amazing Grace.”
In the middle of ‘I once was lost,’ he stopped me. ‘Do you have anything else?’
My legs were vibrating, but I managed to sing a saccharine verse of Rascal Flatts’ “God Bless The Broken Road,” and he asked me to sit down. Three minutes later, he called my name. It was like I was in school. I stood there as he gave me my reward, a red piece of cardstock with another photograph of Christina Aguilera. I left and took the bus back to my state. Callbacks would be the next day, in a dank recording studio on 25th Street and 10th Ave. I’d sing into a series of cameras and be told to go home.
The Voice’s logo is one hand holding a microphone and making a peace sign. Two fingers up. Interesting that the logo isn’t actually of anyone singing, but rather of a gesture a singer makes at an audience when they’re saying hello or waving goodbye. Someone I know recently advised me against becoming a writer because writers always need to be doing something else about which they can write. I guess art is always hiding on the edges of things.
You can stare at a picture of Christina Aguilera in a black bustier all day and you’ll never see her vocal cords. You’ll never see the way their mucous membranes dance up against each other. You’ll never see how the blood flows up and down them, uninhibited, or what they do when they make noises that sound like saxophones. There are just some things you’ll never get to see.