Haley Reinhart & The Problem with American Idol

We interrupt this blog hiatus to bring you an important rant about the mediocritizing of America and the squishing of dreams.

So, Haley Reinhart. Yeah, I got sucked into another season of American Idol. A partial season. I’ve been watching since about the top 10. And to be perfectly honest, none of the contestants really did it for me. Not like, chills-inducing, tears-in-my eyes, make-me-want-to-write-a-story-to-match, which is how I like my music to do it, and how Idol hardly ever does.

Until tonight. This performance, specifically (Haley’s second song of the night):

It’s a combination of the fact that I love that song, and her voice is just so scratchy and sultry and perfect for it, and she totally rocked that joint. I dare you to say otherwise. The judges gave her a standing ovation and called it the best performance of the night, and for once, and even though Haley never really stood out to me before, I totally agree with them tonight. So much so that I’m actually voting for a contestant on American Idol, something I’ve only ever done once in my life, like five seasons ago.

But House of the Rising Sun is not the performance I’m ranting about tonight. It’s this one, Haley’s first song, Lady Gaga’s unreleased You and I:

Okay. It’s not technically the most awesome, flawless, chills-inducing performance ever. But… seriously judges? Are you all passing around the same head cold, and sharing a bottle of NyQuil, and the pressure in your sinus cavity, when combined with the coma-inducing effects of just one swill from that green bottle, has completely janked your thought processes?

They told her she should’ve picked a song everyone knew.

Steven doesn’t count because he mostly loves everyone, especially the cute girls. But WTF, Jennifer and Randy? This girl takes a chance and does something different within the limited parameters of a show like yours — an unreleased song on which she puts her own cool spin — and you tell her she probably should’ve chosen a song everyone knew? That she lost out on connecting with the audience because no one had ever heard that song before?

So you basically want everyone to do the same old cookie cutter songs they always do, season after season, karaoke style after karaoke style, over and over and over again? Is that what makes an “American Idol?” Is that what sells records these days?

No, don’t answer that. I should know better than to watch this show. I know. But still.

Look. I’m not trash-talking any of the other contestants. I think they all have their own talents and strengths, and whatever your views on Idol, I think it’s cool that they’re working so hard to get something they want. And normally I don’t really care what the judges say, because I make my own opinions, and it’s not like I’m so invested in the outcome of this show anyway.

But tonight’s reaction to Haley’s performance really bothered me, because it wasn’t like they were just giving her some constructive feedback on how to be a better singer and performer. They were totally squishing her dreams. Telling her not that she did something technically wrong, not that she under- or over-performed, not that she was pitchy or flat or any of the other tired adjectives Randy likes to fling onto the stage, but that she just shouldn’t follow her own creative heart and soul. That instead, she should strive to be… just like everyone else. You know, so people can “connect.”


I don’t like when people squish dreams and try to cram other people’s creative ideas into a McDonald’s Happy Meal. Whether it’s music, books, art, food, dance, movies, or any form of creative expression, I think this world needs more new, fresh, unrecognizable stuff. More of the unknown. More people who are willing to stand against the mediocritizing of everything and take a chance to follow their dreams, even if it’s not the most popular or expected or predictable choice. Especially then.

So I’m voting for you tonight, Haley.

And um, yeah, hi everyone! Sorry I’ve been in hiding for two months. I promise you I wasn’t practicing for an Idol audition. I was doing something else just as exciting, though, and I’ll tell you more about it very soon!

Brandi Carlile & The Story Behind The Story

In late 2007, I was driving home from work thinking obsessively about the story of Fixing Delilah, which I’d recently started. All I had was a rough picture of a family of women, a bunch of long-buried secrets, and a teen girl who couldn’t seem to keep herself together anymore. I had no idea how to bring these random bits together on one page, let alone for an entire novel, and I was starting to question whether my publisher made a grave mistake in taking two-book chance on me.

Knowing my melodramatic self, I was crying in the car, alternately downshifting and wiping my nose and cursing the absentee muse, wondering if I’d have to give back my advance once my publisher discovered I couldn’t actually write books. Maybe. But at some point, I stopped sniffling long enough to click on the radio, and a song I’d never heard before filled up the gray space of my car.

All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I’ve been
And how I got to where I am
But these stories don’t mean anything
When you’ve got no one to tell them to
It’s true
I was made for you

It gave me shivers. Her voice, her passion, the words, everything I could feel from her heart. It’s hard to explain, but when this woman sang, I believed her, that’s the best way to put it. And behind those words, I suddenly saw in my mind Claire Hannaford, Delilah’s mother, looking at her daughter, thinking about all of the difficulties of their relationship, all of the said and unsaid things, the history and secrets and mistakes, and how despite everything, there was still so much love. I thought about Delilah’s Aunt Rachel and her Aunt Stephanie that died young. I thought of Delilah’s grandmother, Elizabeth, who left her legacy unresolved when she died after an eight-year estrangement. And I knew it then — no matter how things turned out, the Hannaford women of Red Falls Vermont were made for each other, just like the song said. They would always be connected, blood and history, secrets and promises, good and bad. It sounds crazy, but for me, that one song brought the Hannafords to life in a way that no amount of plotting, brainstorming, character interviews, and crying (and drinking, if we’re being honest) could.

The song? “The Story,” by Brandi Carlile.

Last week, we had the privilege of seeing Brandi Carlile live in Denver. She performed with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, which made her songs even more powerful and dramatic. I loved the arrangements and loved seeing her live — I totally got choked up when she walked on stage, and though I’m a car-crier, I don’t usually cry over singers1. But I’d just received my finished copies of Fixing Delilah, and now I was sitting just a few dozen feet from the woman whose music helped bring the characters to life and became like the theme song of the book. It just felt right to see Brandi here in Denver. It was like things in the universe colliding and coming together, like they always seem to do (Aunt Rachel would definitely agree, with or without her Tarot cards).

I refrained from public fangirling2 at the concert, but I would really love to send Brandi a signed copy of the book she inspired. Is that nuts? Maybe. I sent an email to her PR people hoping to track down a fan mail address, but they probably think (*cough* know) I’m a stalker. I guess the only chance I have of delivering Brandi her signed copy is if singers are as neurotic and insecure as authors (*fingers crossed*), because a little self-Googling on Brandi’s part might lead her right… here! OMG! Brandi, is it really you? Can I send you my book? Please? I… I think I love you. But not in a creepy way. In that totally non-creepy way that strangers fall in love with singers all the time. Anyway, if you’re reading this, you rock. Maybe we could hang out some time? You can sing to me, and I’ll read to you? See? I’m not just in this for the fame and glory. This is totally mutually beneficial. Think about it and get back to me. Love, your stalker. I mean, me. Right. Anyway.

On a serious note (pun intended), if you’ve never listened to Brandi before, go YouTube and Pandora and iTunes her and get to listening.

Aaaand if you like “The Story” and want to see how it inspired the book… Fixing Delilah is already shipping from online retailers right NOW and is starting to make appearances in stores this week. Yes! Now is zee time on Sprockets ven vee3… freak out! Brandi, take me away!

1. Well, other than that time Michael Jackson got in the Pepsi commercial accident. But that was just sad, okay! Everyone cried!
2. We were after all in the orchestra hall, not some collectively drunk concert stadium with popcorn and vomit on the floor, and the usher had already “encouraged” us to use the “complimentary guest coat check” when she saw us try to drape our coats over the rail before us, so I figured any bra-flinging or crowd-surfing would be highly frowned upon, not to mention it’s pretty difficult to play the violin with someone’s bra dangling off your bow. Ahem.
3. Sprockets. I hope you got that reference. If not, I’m older than I thought.

Look Out, Beyonce!

I love Beyonce, but I’ve got to hand it to these kids from HOPE Christian Schools in Milwaukee. Check out their hit single, “Scholar Ladies,” which is even better than the Justin Timberlake SNL version of the Beyonce hit. Go, HOPE!

She deserves an award just for getting that principal to rock out!

Josh Berk’s Release Day: The Musical

I’d like to send a big ol’ congratulatory shout-out to my good friend and agent brother-from-another-mother, Josh Berk, on the official release of his debut novel, THE DARK DAYS OF HAMBURGER HALPIN!

This isn’t Josh’s first appearance at SarahOckler.com. You might recognize him from such well-publicized scandals as the animal cruelty thing, the NCTE big fat lying liar thing, and the highly un-Kosher pig-Frenching thing.

Video evidence aside, Josh’s days as a cow-killing, name-dropping, pig-smooching sociopath are behind him. In honor of his debut release day, he’s used his new-found talents for threatening bookstore employees, dancing on desks, and exploiting small children and household pets to produce a mostly family-friendly musical number. And because I’m so excited for Josh and his lead character, Will Halpin, and because I’m kind of embarrassed for him on account of all that public dancing, I’ve officially certified THE DARK DAYS OF HAMBURGER HALPIN as cruelty-free, lifting the nearly year-long boycott on Josh and his critically-acclaimed meat-monikered novel.

So go forth, good readers. Sing, dance, point, laugh, and buy Josh’s books in large quantities!

Congratulations, Josh! 🙂

Dance Like Nobody’s Watching?

Sometimes you see something so cool that you just have to stop and thank the universe that you’re even freaking alive.

And then you hide behind a lamp post on Elmwood Ave. in Buffalo just so you can video-stalk the most adorable kid in the universe without getting dirty looks from her dad. Or the police. But I just had to share this with you! Not the best quality video but it zooms in after a minute or so. Check it out.

I really admire her. I hope she stays like that forever. 🙂