A Dispatch From Bowerstock
Among Crystal Bowersox's sweet, only slightly stalker-y fan base in greater Toledo.
The Buckeye state is pivotal in any national election, the hue of its political allegiance tending toward purple (maybe, like, a dusty mauve) and fueling intense partisan anxiety. But this time, there's no question who gets the Ohio vote, no doubt who's captured the heart of the heartland. In the crowd of 6,000 at "Bowerstock" last Friday, one little girl's hand-inked T-shirt said it all: We been Crystal-ized.
Well, I guess that's why they call it "grammar school," but I saw her Sharpied sentiment echoed all along the roads between Toledo and Oak Harbor as I made my way from the parade to the fairgrounds. Northwest Ohio is bursting with pride for Crystal Bowersox—from farmhouses to McDonald's marquees, the signs were all there, hanging in the windows of local businesses and strung across streets, even circling the Bowerstock site in an aerial banner. We love you, they said. We believe in you. You're our Idol. Welcome home.
Crystal, like a dreadlocked Dorothy Gale, has always known how to go home. She's made herself at home, quite literally, on the Idol stage—in March she performed standing on a comfy area rug a la the Dead and, shortly after, sent for the mic stand she'd built out of a lamp, a gift in her bar-singer days from the owner of Papa's Tavern. Her stretch limo might have brought Hollywood out to us last Friday, but, piece by piece, she's also been bringing Ohio out to Hollywood.
Local fans hope Ohio will stay with her post-Idol, too. As we waited for the procession to pass on Summit Street, Toledo resident Jeff Marten worried that Crystal might end up allowing herself to be redefined by the show. "It tests what you're really made of," he said, but he hopes she'll stick to her roots. The little National Miss pageant winners nearby weren't concerned with such matters; they just went chasing madly across the muddy park as Crystal's motorcade turned down a side street. Amid the crazy crush that greeted her, she chatted with the crowd, showed her insulin pump to a child, and took pictures of us taking pictures of her (meta!) as Fox cameras looked on (double meta!). While she was transferring from the limo to a red Ford Mustang, students from her old Toledo high school for the arts surrounded her, and I heard one boy bellowing, "I got a kiss on the cheek!" to the world at large. Toledo fans are so sweet. As the car pulled away, a woman in front of me shouted frantically, "Crystal! Check your pocket! Check your pocket! I made something for you!" … And slightly stalker-y.
Crystal told Ryan last night how hard the recession has hit this area, and she's not wrong. As local resident Eric Smith pointed out to me, 10,000 people showed up downtown to see her pre-Bowerstock mini-concert on a work day. It's tough times, and we need a hero (Thank goodness she didn't sing that song on Tuesday! No, instead, Ellen had her wondering if maybe she was a man.) Crystal has brought folks together here. On Friday evening we were all united under the Bowerstock banner, which sported a Woodstock-esque peace sign, a cross, a guitar, a motorcycle—her dad's influence, I think—and an ear of corn. (The farmer and the biker should be friends!) She came home to more than one place—did any of the other Idols get the keys to two cities? Don't tell Toledo she's two-timing it with Elliston! And her song "Holy Toledo" is, like she said, our new regional anthem, a current staple in the KISS FM daily—sometimes hourly or 15-minutely—rotation. That song's really grown on me since I heard it live twice on Friday, even though I think it might imply that if you live in Toledo you're probably headed to hell. "How do I get to heaven from here?" I'm not sure, but if it's anything like getting to Bowerstock, it probably involves a lot of county roads and corn fields.
Steve Turnow, a farmer and council president at Elliston's Trinity United Church of Christ, was at the Oak Harbor event—a real fair, with funnel cakes!—to present Crystal with a gift, and to help Trinity sell commemorative T-shirts. I bought one; it came rolled up in a plastic, jumbo-sized Coca-Cola cup, but at Crystal's request all proceeds went to Toledo's Diabetes Youth Services. Proceeds from another T-shirt, which Toledo School for the Arts alum Jacob Parr designed for her posse to wear, were donated to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Crystal herself once attended DYS summer camp to learn how to manage her condition, I was told, though the JDRF's special events manager, Shelley Crossley, says the singer has had to make some adjustments during her time on Idol—she's even been mentored by Season 5 finalist and JDRF spokesman Elliott Yamin. Crystal is an inspiration to young people dealing with a Type 1 diagnosis, Crossley added, an assessment underlined by the sign I saw held proudly aloft: Diabetics Rock!
If they're Crystal, they certainly do. Her Bowerstock performance, supported by her old Toledo musical cohorts, felt as confident and intimate as a barroom set, like the thousands watching were just Monday night regulars at the Village Idiot and not voters who held her fate in their hands.
We're about to find out whether America can be trusted with that fate, and it's gonna be a close one. While I'm in the minority who didn't love Ellen's song choice for her on Tuesday, it did prove definitively that there's nothing our girl can't handle. But Lee also did genuinely well, with great songs, and the judges are clearly enamored of his season-long evolution from "lamb" to "impala." (That's how evolution works, right?) Idol built Lee; he belongs to it. Crystal, on the other hand, has always been her own woman—though whether she wins or not next Wednesday, she'll always belong to Ohio.
Katherine Meizel is the author of Idolized: Music, Media, and Identity in American Idol and a visiting assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Oberlin Conservatory.