A visit to the Village Idiot in Maumee, Ohio.
"Calm Down Before Entering" reads a sign outside the Village Idiot in Maumee, Ohio. But on Tuesday night, even though I obediently took a cleansing breath before I pulled the door open, I could see that the advice went otherwise unheeded, since boisterous, slightly tipsy excitement filled the barroom. "Everyone shut the fuck up when Crystal comes on!" was the first thing we heard as the Idol theme started up and my party found a table. (Two ethnomusicologists, a historical musicologist, and a folklorist walk into a bar ...)
At the Village Idiot, you can find booze, "live pizza and great music" (another sign declares), and some very proud friends of Crystal Bowersox. All of northwest Ohio is crazy for Crystal; the local Fox station reports weekly from viewing parties at one of the two churches in her tiny hometown or at a Toledo tavern where she used to sing. But the Village Idiot has its own special claim to her. It's the friendly, quirky place, just up the turnpike from Crystal's Ottawa County home, where she brought in a growing Monday-night crowd until last December. Bar staff have sat in the Hollywood audience to cheer her on, and it was here that an Idol crew visited to collect footage for Crystal's pre-performance video last week. The cameramen were all (show) business and left after 15 minutes—"they didn't even have a drink," manager Nathan Woodward lamented—but Crystal, on the other hand, lingers.
"Our girl," the bar's co-owner Nikki Schafer calls her, as Crystal gazes down Madonna-like (the Virgin Madonna, not the "Like a Virgin" one) from the wall, where local artist Mike Schwartz recently rendered a larger-than-life portrait. That's paired with an equally beatific depiction of bartender Ed Lopez, known around here as ELO (like J.Lo, but with fewer Louboutins), dressed up as Isaac from The Love Boat. ELO confirms that Crystal's "down to earth" character on-screen is no act and, like everyone else I talked to, considers her on the same level as more established stars who've appeared at the Idiot. Staff and patrons never paid much attention to American Idol before this January—"I thought it was cheesy," says Nikki's husband and business partner, John—but they always paid attention to Crystal, and now they faithfully gather around the bar's three screens every week. Crystal is a priority. The band that plays Tuesdays at 9 will wait to start if her segment hasn't aired by then, and Nathan, who can list in order every song she's done on Idol, estimates that he and ELO together voted 500 times last Tuesday. America, that takes some dedication. Nathan put Crystal's 1-866-IDOL number on the chalkboard, and later we tried to call over and over for the longest time—no texting for those unfortunates without AT&T—but her line was busy, and only one of us got through, just once. But that was a good sign, it turns out; she was safe on Wednesday.
The Village Idiot's enthusiasm was irresistibly infectious. Though Nikki fiercely shushed the room as Crystal began "Me & Bobby McGee" (a song that Simon thought fit like a Pink glove), even she couldn't keep from making some noise when Randy complimented the performance or when Crystal's former bass player showed up in the studio audience. But the moment Crystal stepped off the little carpet she'd put on stage—"You should call it a magic carpet," Nikki whispered to me—the crowd around the televisions disappeared, the rest of the Idols forgotten. Rightly so, I'm afraid, for Tuesday's mostly disappointing episode. This week Paige unhappily succumbed to her persistent laryngitis; Mike Lynche gave me flashbacks to that cassette of Time, Love, & Tenderness I owned—I mean, "My roommate gave me"—my freshman year; Lee sang "The Letter" without anyone mentioning the great, recently late Alex Chilton; and the most interesting thing about Tim Urban was the off-screen revelation that pre-Idol he worked with Actors, Talent, and Models for Christ. (How does that Psalm go again? Ah, yes, "Raise a song, strike the timbrel/ Strike a pose, come on, vogue …")
Next Tuesday, the reign of Radio Disney is over and Usher will class things up as the R&B mentor. This is a sea-change moment, I think—the Idol voices used to make every week R&B week, no matter what the chosen theme. It's a testament to how different our current crop of contestants is that R&B is supposed to challenge them, and I have to admit I'm curious to see what happens. And I can't wait to see what Crystal sings. Her choices, like the bar favorite "As Long As I Can See the Light," are often the most surprising, the smartest. She may have played the Idiot for a long time, but she's not playing one on Idol.
Katherine Meizel is the author of Idolized: Music, Media, and Identity in American Idol and a visiting assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Oberlin Conservatory.
Photograph of Crystal Bowersox on American Idol © 2010. All rights reserved.