On Friday, my student Jacob presented his thesis about the religious power of popular music. Across the parking lot, American Idol finalist Kris Allen performed in one of the show's homecoming events. The town had been covered with supportive signs for the occasion. Every third person I met on campus was wearing a Kris Allen t-shirt. E-mails about ticketing arrangements and schedules went out from the adminstration nearly hourly for days.
When the presentation was over and the floor was open for questions, I asked the obvious one. How did Jacob's analysis -- about the emotional connection, community formation, and transcendent yearnings embodied in popular music -- relate to the events taking place across the parking lot?
Jacob had it covered. Kris Allen is about the citizens of Conway suddenly becoming visible to the world. In the spotlight, we emphasize our commonalities. We celebrate what unites us. We see our American Idol as the figure that represents us on a larger stage.
That explains why I felt anxious -- even disappointed -- that I didn't get to attend any of the events because I was occupied with senior theses, banquets, and graduation activities all day. Even though Kris Allen is nothing like Bill Clinton in terms of historical significance, there was a distinct sense of lack in the knowledge that I wouldn't be participating.
Did that have anything to do with the power of music? I wouldn't buy a Kris Allen album or iTunes download of my own free will. But in the context of the show -- the competition -- I'm a fierce supporter. And I thrill -- yes, I do -- to the visibility and pride he's brought to my town. Maybe that makes me a sap. But there it was, undeniable, just across the parking lot from the singer and his fans, while I watched a YouTube clip of Elvis and hummed to myself: "Hush little baby, don't you cry ..."