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American Idol, Success in Appalachia, and Dreams of Escape

January 14, 2010

Vonore, Tennessee’s Vanessa Wolfe gave one of the most notable performances of American Idol’s debut week last night.

In an introductory segment before she performs for the Simon Cowell-led Inquisition, Wolfe exudes rural simplicity and innocence, and we see a few snippets of life in her Appalachian home town. While lively fiddle music plays in the background, Wolfe tells us, “There ain’t really much to do in Vonore, so I jump bridges.” She also reveals feelings of frustration with her current circumstances, saying, “I’m stuck in Vonore. I can’t get out.”

To Vanessa, American Idol represents her greatest chance for success, which she completely equates with escaping her present surroundings. Of her Idol audition, she says, “I come out for American Idol because I feel so trapped. I want to make somethin’ of myself.” Presumably, this is something she strongly believes she cannot do in the Appalachian region of Tennessee.

So she goes to the Idol audition and sings her heart out. [Cheers for her choice to sing Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel,” by the way. That’s probably the closest Kara Dioguardi, for whom country music likely stops and starts with Taylor Swift’s “mall-y’all” version thereof, will ever come to hearing real old-time or even bluegrass music.]

The result? The judges praise Vanessa for being an “authentic country girl,” and they literally give her a “golden ticket” out of Appalachia. And it’s impossible not to root for her. When the Hollywood competition begins, I will be watching her attempt to “make something of herself” with great interest and affection. Her honest enthusiasm and joy over making it to the big stage were deeply moving.

But I will also cringe every time Vanessa, her fellow competitors, or the show’s stars imply or blatantly state that “success” for people born in Appalachia necessarily means leaving their home region. Because what does that mean for the millions of people who still call Appalachia home and whose families have done so for generations? Just by living in a place, having roots there, and not leaving, have they failed?

Even in well-meaning attempts to portray life in Appalachia, this pernicious message often prevails. While watching Vanessa I thought of American Hollow, the 1999 HBO documentary by Rory Kennedy, daughter of Robert Kennedy, who of course did as much as anyone to call national attention to Appalachian poverty during his cruelly brief life. Like her father before her, Ms. Kennedy obviously meant well when she traveled to the mountains of Kentucky to document the generational struggles of one Appalachian family.

And yet, time and again throughout American Hollow, the emerging message is that the only Bowling family offspring who “made it” is the one who left the hills to work in Cincinnati. The frustrations and barriers faced by 18-year-old Clint mirror those expressed by Vanessa Wolfe in her Idol interview. Near the end of the film, Clint leaves the family home to join his uncle in Cincinnati, but in the epilogue, we learn that he had to return home a mere few months later. This is clearly portrayed as a sad defeat for the boy.

It saddens me to think that millions of Idol viewers, even Wolfe herself and those rooting most fervently for her, will likely view her story as similarly “sad” if she is voted off the show early and returns home to rural Tennessee. It saddens me to think that few of those viewers who come to care about Vanessa will start supporting economic and environmental policies, and the few leaders who espouse them, that might make Vonore a place fewer young people want to escape.

Finally, it saddens me to think that, simply by leaving the town and appearing on national television, Wolfe will now likely be perceived as Vonore, Tennessee’s most successful native. Are there not hundreds or thousands of Vonore residents (including Vanessa, as shown in her introduction) who are already deeply successful by such measures as perseverance, resourcefulness, faith, generosity, devotion to family and friends, and service to community and country?

Having said all that, I join those who wish Vanessa all the success she could ever want or dream of. May she do well.

May she also then go on to do good, by doing right by her community in her words and deeds.

  1. January 14, 2010 3:33 pm

    It’s so conflicting, isn’t it. I cringe every time someone says they are from Kentucky, waiting for the damage, the perpetuation of stereotypes and ignorance, the overwhelming feeling of escape at all costs. We in small town Appalachia are treated like a lost cause. Like the third world, but with less support. It’s better to escape than to try and improve where you are. I said my fair share of “and I’ll never come back” as a teenager, and yet here I am, back because it truly is a wonderful place to be.

  2. January 15, 2010 12:36 pm

    “In the deep, dark hills of Eastern Kentucky/
    Is the place where I trace my bloodline/
    And it’s there I read on a hillside gravestone/
    You’ll never leave Harlan alive.”

    So many of us grow up in Appalachia with our eyes fixed on somewhere else. The stereotype of doing anything to get out – and of so many failing and deferring the dream to the next generation – is widespread, but it certainly has the ring of truth to it. Everyone I knew who grew up in WV dreamed of getting away. Most didn’t. You either make peace with it or you don’t, because as beautiful as it can be, its demons are legion.

    Like everyone whose roots reach back there, I’m conflicted about it. I love it, and I still think of WV as “home”, but I don’t know if I could bear to live there again because I don’t know if I could come to terms with the things I can’t change about it. It’s a love probably best left unrequited.

  3. A. McKenzie permalink
    March 23, 2010 2:22 pm

    Hello Alan. I am so happy to see you picking up on this theme in your writing; a subject so complex, potentially incendiary, and yet rarely confronted that it requires someone well-read, well-experienced, and deeply thoughtful to chip away at the topic. You are the perfect candidate.
    You really nailed two of the biggest themes, for me, in thinking about this matter. First, the inherent contradictory feelings of fight or flight about the region, a fact so pervasive that it affects everything from regional politics, to family life, to an individual’s identity. Second, is the link between historical national perceptions of hill folk, and connection of abstract framing to very real policies and conditions. This is a factor that nearly every commentor on the subject fails to realize and appreciate. To me you can’t understand the historical obstacles in Appalachia without discussing politics, and politics is perception.
    Finding this post literally made my day. Best to you.


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