Carrie Underwood stepped into success the way most girls step into a down-home family reunion where loving attention is paid to youth, beauty, clean-living and style. She’s the hometown girl next door who’s made it big. Simon Cowell said she’d be the biggest star launched from American Idol; and, with a nod to Kelly Clarkson, she probably is. She can sing, she’s pretty, and she’s found her niche in the current country scene, with its ongoing devotion to melody and lyrics in an industry held in thrall by all those insistent voices slamming obvious rhymes. Carrie Underwood is one of the very few who’s not been voted off her dreams, her future, her life. She’s a fresh, innocent, talented woman with just a touch of shadow in the blurbs (old news) about some guy named Tony Romeo (Cue Dallas soundtrack) to keep it all grounded, to keep her real for a generation whose understanding of the term has more to do with “virtual” than “real.” So, let’s do the curtain call thing, applause, applause, and leave the music hall. The show’s over. Carrie goes on about her life, and the rest of us should go on about ours.
But, no …
The road rarely taken marked “success” is as constant as the inconstant moon, as straight as a one-minute chart tracking the Euro and the British Pound on Boxing Day. Perhaps if someone had told Ms. Underwood that dips, deserved or not, are standard operating procedure, or perhaps if they’d warned her of the perverse need etched in the public’s DNA to elevate and worship their celebrities until the time is right for them to rip gods from Olympus and to tear them to pieces, all of this might have been less traumatic. It’s the cyclical nature of news cycles and celebrity, after all, the inescapable rise and fall of those who dare to raise their heads (or have their heads raised) above the crowd.
Take all of that, then, the above, the very hard drive of American celebrity and couple it with the software of an overrated period piece from the fifties, now frozen in the collective memory as something almost sacred, with memories of one legend on Broadway and another legend in Technicolor, and try to design a remake for the holidays. Hire a blonde singer new to the boards, forget those Les Mis special effects, build sets of cardboard with that flat Technicolor, poorly-financed feel, and the result is this: Carrie Underwood becomes suspect number one in any number of crimes and conspiracies fomented to destroy what little remains of western civilization. (This just in: Carrie Underwood did not kidnap the Lindbergh Baby. Film at 11:00).
From palms a-wavin’ on a sunny morning outside of Vienna to Skull Mountain in the Salzburg Alps to the witty dismissal of the “Clever-clevers” who never write so well as when they dip their wit in acid and excoriate another’s alleged misstep, Carrie Underwood took a hit for the team. And what did she do? This newcomer? This Julie Andrews shadow? This Mary Martin wannabe …. This …. This ….This Carrie Underwood?
She starred in a live production of The Sound of Music! So, ring the bells, swing the smokey incense and wait for the soft pitter-patter of so many nuns, contemplative, yet wondering how to handle a problem like Maria, that “will o’ the wisp,” an almost-perfect child, whose heart’s in the right place, but whose life is not.
This writer saw the show on Broadway in 1962 and the movie with Julie Andrews some years later. In sum, the whole thing was a pre-Beatle stop-over in the gilded age of musicals, seen, enjoyed, forgotten and easily dismissed once the boys in the garage figured out how to plug guitars into amplifiers purchased with yard-work money. That was this writer’s response, though whenever Ed Sullivan brought the cast out for another turn, he’d head for the kitchen to grab something to eat, wait for Gerry and The Pacemakers, and witness the reverence with which his elders held that particular musical in their hearts and minds. What was it about The Sound of Music that made it so special.?It was just a small story about a nanny and a large, stalwart family from the Catholic Austrian nobility, who crossed the Alps after the Anschluss to escape the encroaching darkness of the Third Reich. Maria, Mister Von Trapp and the children all slapped the face of fascism and, no doubt, would have slapped the face of communism if they’d had the opportunity to do so. And, perhaps that was it. For a fifties audience, the Greatest Generation, slapping the face of German fascism was a pretty good calling card, not to mention the identity American Catholics felt with any Catholics, anywhere, and especially in those European countries that had remained Catholic after the Reformation, e.g., Austria.
Yes, it was a perfect story for the fifties. The songs were just that – songs: catchy melodies with well-crafted lyrics from a couple of masters. And onstage they lined up these very clean, very white, very cute (almost cloyingly so), very privileged, somewhat rigid Austrian children with a single parent who looked west to the ravings of a mad man and east to the threats of Comrade Joe. And all of them refused to be victimized, choosing instead to escape to Vermont, USA, where, for years ever after, the Trapp Family Singers entertained busloads of nuns, clerics and schoolkids with pitchy harmonies and bad Austrian fare served on paper plates. As for the matriarch herself, the real Maria of happy memory, the “will o’ the wisp” girl, despite best efforts of her public relations people, all anecdotes imply that she was not a very pleasant person. The irony is that she probably would have made a very good nun, given the personality profile of nuns in that particular iteration of American Catholicism.
The whole thing – the show, the brand, the industry, the re-runs, the touring companies, not to mention the broad considerations attendant to the story’s political correctness and unassailable conservative rectitude, has become a sacred bull. Like mothers, the flag, apple pie, yadda yadda yadda, one tampers with The Sound of Music at his or her peril. Just ask the wizards who put on last week’s live production.
There’s something intimidating and forbidding about sacred bulls, and when Carrie Underwood’s number came up to take the lead in a production that rocked the bedrocks of all those Julie Andrews devotees, she became the target of hate mail. She became that “country chick” who only got where she is by having a bunch of kids punch their cell phones. She became that “country chick” who’s more Wisconsin dairy than southern drawl. She became the “who-does-she-think-she-is-girl,” trying to fill the considerable shoes of one no longer able to perform, whose name must not be uttered in pedestrian company, a secular saint modeled on a real saint (or would-be nun). And what could Carrie do?
Not much. The poor girl was done before her feet touched the stage. She was done before the lonely goat herd did whatever he does on the side of a mountain. She was done before all the auf wiedersehen kids “so longed and fare welled” themselves to bed. She was done before they dressed her in all that mountain finery with the frills, frippery, doilies, lace, buttons, cotton and wool, topped off with Wandervogel caps and intimations that the Von Trapp Tyrolean brand of healthy superiority, endemic to people who live on the peaks of mountains, made her and her family just a little bit better than the rest of us.
Carrie Underwood sang well. She moved OK. She did what she had to do, live, on stage, on TV, under the critical eyes of just about everybody. It wasn’t The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, February 9, 1964, but then what was? It was just a poorly-conceived remake of a time piece designed for Disney kids before assassinations, Nam, riots, and Gates – Water and Bill. So, ease up, America, and carry on Carrie Underwood. Go on with your career and the gift you’ve been given. Sing well, make tunes, make a fortune. And, as for the ones who wrote the hate mail and the ones who asked, “how dare she?” Well, she dared, and she did it, and she’s still Carrie Underwood. Not a bad way to go, when one thinks about it.
By Mike Hogan