Letting the echoes go

This morning, an acquaintance asked me, “What did you think of the Oscar results?”

I answered, “I think La La Land should have won.”

“What?!” he said.

I answered, “For me, it was the best picture of not only this year but the past few years.”

He became unreasonably irritated. “How could you say that? Moonlight was the obvious winner. It’s going to save the lives of so many marginalized people.”

“You asked my opinion and I gave it to you,” I said. I’m fairly no nonsense first thing in the morning before my coffee kicks in. “I’m not disparaging the great film that won. My thoughts don’t change the outcome and they aren’t meant to change your opinion either.”

He then told me my white privilege was showing…because I liked another movie more than Moonlight. Rarely do I engage with someone who is seeking a fight, but I looked him in the eyes and told him he was wrong for implying I was a racist and for trying to discredit my opinion in that way. Calmly, I explained to him that I looked at the Best Picture nominees as movies and not just as the messages they represent, and as a movie, I felt La La Land was superior. This is my opinion on the subject, something that has not a single thing to do with him or the way Moonlight resonated with him. I told him I was glad he felt empowered and represented by Moonlight, that his passion for it meant the film did what it intended to do, just as the sheer joy I felt watching La La Land meant that film did what it intended to do. He was unable to accept this and left in a huff. I took another drink of my coffee and went on with my morning.

It’s a silly thing, award shows. We put so much stock in the title that takes the top prize and while I love award shows for the cultural milestones, the performances and the montages – I live for a good movie montage – winning at these shows doesn’t matter all that much. Sure it looks good on a Wikipedia page or an end-of-the-year recap video, but winning an award, in the scheme of everything, isn’t why art is made.

For example, Wicked didn’t win the Tony for Best Musical yet it’s outlasted nine of the subsequent Best Musical winners. Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard, Saving Private Ryan and even Moulin Rouge all lost Best Picture at the Oscars. Steve Carrell never won an Emmy for The Office nor did Phylicia Rashad for The Cosby Show. Gold trophies don’t always share the same shelf life as the projects that never won them.

But in the moment, we care, and as social-media-obsessed as we are, people can care loudly and repeatedly. They care enough to argue and comment and click and rant so while live tweeting an award show has become par for the course, our cultural obsession with the trophy status of rich celebrities has become just another thing to argue about. Something was “robbed” this year at this or that show and something else will be “snubbed” next year at another. That’s what the headlines will focus on at least.

When I transferred to Baylor, it was a new start for me. I was switching majors and in need of some emotional and educational resuscitation. I’d spent a few years at a small private school whose ideology had worn me down. At Baylor, I had a fresh outlook, I had Homecomings and football games and because of my roommate and his immediate friend group, I had All-University Sing.

Sing is an enormous singing and dancing competition that’s been held at Baylor since the 1950s. Fraternities, sororities and other organizations perform to the cheers of sold out audiences, try to impress the judges with their costumes, sets, dance moves and live vocals, and when it’s all over, eight groups are declared winners. Those groups are invited to perform their acts again at Homecoming in the fall. It’s a Baylor tradition as emphasized as football games and the live bear mascots.

My new roommate had shown me a video of his group, Sing Alliance, performing their act from the year before and I was mesmerized. You mean a hundred of you, none of whom are theatre majors, get to sing and dance in costume under the bright lights of the stage and it’s all for fun? I needed to be a part of this. Watching the video, I listened to the soloist and thought, “I can do that.” Turns out, that soloist wasn’t able to perform with them that fall and they needed someone to take over for him.

It wasn’t as easy as just taking the solo of course; I had to prove I could sing it. I tried a few times in my apartment and I was almost able to hit the high notes. Yet, when I sang for the leaders of the group, those top notes came out as a puff of dry air. There might as well been tumbleweeds rolling off my tongue. Buy my resolve was strong and a week later, after daily rehearsing in my apartment (twice my neighbors knocked on my door to ask me to stop singing while they studied) and after much self-motivational mirror-talk, I called up the two heads of the group and offered to bring dinner to their apartment. I also said I would sing the song for them again. I brought over a stovetop bag of frozen vegetables and chicken, fed them and then sang. I nailed the top note and while eatable bribery may have had something to do with getting the part, I hit the note and would be singing on stage at Homecoming.

When that weekend finally arrived, I felt good about it. I had spent weeks with Sing Alliance, making friends and feeling welcomed into the fabric of tradition at my new university. But when my family came to see the show, I was nervous. It didn’t matter that the first time I sang the song in rehearsal everyone stopped and clapped for me. It didn’t matter that I’d sung the song a hundred times before. That night, all that mattered was that my family was going to hear me prove myself.

Oh yeah, this whole solo thing was about proving myself. I was proving I could cut it at this bigger school, I was proving I wasn’t a scaredy-cat on the big stage and I was proving I could sing to both myself and to my family. I hadn’t sung a solo in front of anyone in years; I’d remained tucked away in the third row of the choir, happy to harmonize. But I’d been working on my vocal self-confidence and while I thought I was good, I wanted my parents to think I was good too. When I told them this story later, they thought I was utterly crazy for thinking they didn’t believe in me. Honestly, I knew they believed in me, but I didn’t believe in me. This was singing. My sister was the singer of the family. She was the one studying opera performance in college. She was the one who received adulation because of her voice. It’s not that I wanted a piece of her glory; I just wanted to prove I could stand on my own.

When we performed that evening, I strutted on stage and sang my songs while an army of students dressed as Mario, Luigi, The Princess and the other stars of the Super Mario Bros. world danced and sang behind me. Afterward, I waited impatiently in the lobby for the doors to open for intermission. I will never forget the look on my father’s face when he walked out those doors. He was so proud and put his hands in the air to signify I’d been great. I’d proved myself to myself. That was the first thing Sing did for me: it injected me with confidence.

I spent the next two years of my life as a part of something huge at the university. I anticipated the comradery and the joy of performing, but I didn’t anticipate the second thing Sing would do for me: teach me about leadership. Sing taught me how to lead, mostly by learning the hard way what not to do. The self-confident performing part was the fun part; the learning to be a leader part was not.

As a kid, I wanted to start a soccer league in my neighborhood. I’d assigned all the neighborhood kids to a team and decided we would wear bright colored jerseys with our team names on them. How we’d pay for those jerseys was a detail I never quite factored in, but in my brain, I was the league commissioner and could coordinate front yard soccer games each evening. I tried leading, it didn’t work. Once I was older and slightly-less delusional, I spent my high school years leading drama groups at church, something that provided a shaky foundation in peer-leadership. When the time came at Baylor, I decided I wanted to become a leader within my Sing group.

I gave a rather memorable speech to get elected. I outlined the reasons I’d make a good president of the organization and while standing in front of the group, I said something akin to “Hey guys, I know most of you, but I’m Ryan. I want to be president because I have experience leading groups. I was the leader of a program at church, and I had about 120 teenagers under me.”

Insert inappropriate college laughter here.

I was elected. Perhaps my inappropriateness got me a position of power. Apparently that will also get you elected President of the United States these days, but I digress. The other leaders and I started out excited and eager to work together. Our planning meetings were fun and we felt like we had gotten off on the right foot. We didn’t end that way though. The leadership of the organization had different ideas of how the group should be run and I think we wanted to be successful so badly that we got in each other’s way. My goal was to be a good leader and for us to succeed. I don’t know that either thing happened. My year as a leader of our organization ended sourly and I gladly passed the baton to my roommate who was able to cultivate success the following year.

I’ve never let that experience go. I’ve held onto those failures like keepsakes, allowing them to inform my decision making and to serve as markers of a time when I didn’t reach the mark. I thought I was doing a positive thing by clutching them close to my chest because I was allowing them to serve as reminders of what not to do. Ten years of time and life went by and I forgot they were still with me.

This weekend, the night before the Academy Awards, I attended Sing again. While I annually see the top groups perform during Homecoming, this was the year that marked a decade since my first foray into performing on that stage in Waco, Texas. As I watched the current membership of Sing Alliance perform, I was overcome. I’m unsure if it was the whiskey from happy hour or the elation of being back on my college campus or a mixture of both, but watching them perform so well, so full of life and spirit, thrilled me to the point of tears. It’s nice to see that something you invested so much time and energy into is thriving and is still opening up those same opportunities for others that were once opened to you. I stayed to hear the announcements of the winners, believing they would be among the top acts. Their act was among the best of the evening and as such, should have been listed in the coveted winning spots. But it wasn’t.

The disappointment I felt was palpable, something that genuinely surprised me. It’s been years since I’ve had any personal association with the group, yet I knew without even knowing who they were, those leaders were devastated. My senior year, while I was busy being a sub-par leader, I experienced the same thing. I spent a year of my life working on a performance that would hopefully raise the bar of our group as the previous leaders had done before me. I dreamed of standing on that stage, among the best in the school, accepting one of those top spots and then running off stage to celebrate with our group. That year, of the groups who were selected, at least three were inferior to ours. They were sloppy, their singers weren’t as strong as ours, their costumes were ugly, etc. But they were chosen as winners and we were not.

En route to the after party that year, sitting in the passenger’s seat of my friend’s car, I cried. I felt like the disappointment of the group rested on my shoulders and I thought I’d never recover. Existing in that moment, my body was numb with sadness. That would dissipate in a day or so, but letting go of that disappointment took time. Even as recently as the last couple years at Homecoming, I relived imaginary arguments in my head over what I could have done better all those years ago. It wasn’t a struggle I vocalized to anyone, but inside I still hated that disappointment I willfully carried with me.

Again, hanging onto that failure was a decision I’d made to help me steer clear of similar pratfalls. I took heed to the sayings that said we should use our failures as opportunities for growth so I course-corrected my decision-making as such. The truth was, by doing that I was still clutching that failure in my hands like an Oscar in the press room. I forgot it was there, I imagined I’d left it behind, yet it was still silently present with me.

But on Saturday night, sitting with my best friends on row J, watching my alumni group shine on the stage, I felt a release in my spirit. I felt the release of the disappointment and the itchy irritation in the back of my mind that I could have been better. Oh I’d “moved on.” I’d moved to New York, started my own magazine, blah blah blah, but I allowed that disappointment to remain tethered to me long after its expiration date. Thinking about Sing, this giant part of the collegiate phase of my life, a small echo of disappointment lingered. I thought I was doing the proactive, self-assured thing by using Sing as the reminder of what not to do in the future, but life had given me new lessons, new resolutions and new opportunities for growth. It was time to exhale and let that echo go for good.

Time and distance have now brought hindsight into focus, revealing things much more valuable than our names written on a trophy. Every great thing I’d received from Sing a decade ago, including the nine people sitting on Row J with me, were what actually mattered from that experience. The self-confidence to stand up for myself – be it on a stage or in a job interview – was what mattered. The way I learned what not to do was what mattered and now, in a roundabout way, the act of letting go was unfolding anew in my life due to Sing as well, all these years later.

And that brings me back to the conversation I had with my passionate acquaintance about the Oscars. The important question isn’t whether that thing you love won or not, it’s whether that thing you love did what it was intended to do. Awards, placements and accolades are nice but they aren’t the reason we create. Cheers to Moonlight for winning the trophies it won and cheers to La La Land for its trophies as well. They both deservedly won big. Cheers to the visibility and viability of true artists telling important stories in a hateful, intolerant, reality TV-centric world. And cheers to the artists and filmmakers of so many other films, shows and maybe even Sing acts from this past year who won nothing yet succeeded in doing what they intended to do: making us think or laugh or smile or reason or let go.

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