Okay, so before last week I was only tangentially aware of who Scotty McCreery was. What can I tell ya? My American Idol involvement was waned since the days of jetting to Hollywood to cover a certain bald rocker. These days, I’m far more likely to empty my dishwasher twice in one day that tune into the world’s most overcooked singing contest. But alas, duty calls. See, when a North Carolinian makes it to the upper echelon of Idol-dom (pretty often, actually), a special pager I wear begins to beep, summoning me to the deepest, darkest reaches of the El Ocho compound. There, I find another A.I. operator: seemingly mild mannered morning reporter Shannon Smith. Yes, when it comes to fawning over American Idol finalists with ties to the Tar Heel state, Shannon and I are Seal Team Six. Minus the top secret helicopter and federal protection. All of which explains why we both gave up our Saturdays to infiltrate the very heart of darkness: an American Idol hometown hero concert. You know: that ninety seconds or so of video that Ryan Seacrest tosses to while torturing the final three contestants on Idol. To much of America, it’s a quick look at how their favorite finalist spent their weekend. To those of us on the ground, however, it’s special ops combat, a surgical insertion behind enemy lines. Sure, there were no grubby terrorists flinging Ninja stars at us, but when thousands of rabid Idol fans turn out to genuflect in the direction of their favorite phenom, it can feel like an awful lot like Jihad.
By the time we infiltrated Lake Benson Park, the mania was in full effect. Scotty McCreery was still nowhere to be found, but thousands of his followers were already in place, turning the sloping green lawn into that wide shot from Woodstock. It made me glad I’d commandeered a marked news unit, for nothing parts a sea of Idol supplicants like an SUV with the F-word on it (FOX). Even the hardened security guards waved us through, some believing we had the guest of honor stuffed in the floorboard. I didn’t stop to argue. Instead we found a parking spot, grabbed our gear and waded into the unwashed masses. Heads swiveled, Frisbees dropped in mid-flight and sandwiches stopped being eaten as the mob of ‘tweens, Moms and weird uncles descended upon us. Now, I don’t know what it feels like to be Mick Jagger. But I’ve slung a lens at enough Idol crowds to get just a glimpse of mass adulation. It’ll spin your melon, which is what Shannon and I kept moving, interviewing some, fending off others and avoiding eye contact with the crazies. Soon, we had what we needed and made our way to the camera platform, where an act of grace awaited us.
There, nearly dead-center on the riser, was El Ocho’s official call letters spelled out in gaffer’s tape. It wasn’t act of Allah, but rather a photog solid, done by a certain shaggy Capital City news shooter (Thanks, RAD!). For the next several hours, I stood upon that tape as local politicians, radio dee-jays and Idol producers stalled the growing crowd with promises of their chosen one’s impending arrival. After what felt like days, it happened. Scotty McCreery, perched atop a convertible, rode in like a conquering General. When his phalanx of cars finally hove into view, senior citizens and toddlers alike lost their collective shit. But I could only think of the seventeen year old at the center of the vortex. Not so long ago, dude was bagging groceries in the shallow South. Now Scotty McCreery is a household name. For the past few months, he’s been in the Idol bubble, his every move and moment choreographed by showbiz handlers. Now, he’s witnessing the frenzy unprotected, staring out in disbelief as thirty thousand friends and strangers clog up his hometown, all so they can screech and clatter their support. Word is, Scotty is a person of faith. He’d gonna need it.
But enough introspection; on with the show! A deafening roar drowned out everything else as Scotty took the stage. Unfamiliar with his repertoire, I squinted into my lens and followed him. Teenagers singing antiseptic country ain’t exactly my thing, but I’ll give him this: kid’s got charisma. Between winking to the girls and high-fiveing his backup band, it’s apparent he seems to have a showman’s instinct beyond his years. When bonafide country star Josh Turner strode onstage to join Scotty in what’s become his trademark song, it was a joy to watch the seventeen year old double over in disbelief. But as fun as that was, compressed shots of simulated stagecraft weren’t what Shannon and I had sacrificed our Saturday for. We needed an interview. In fact, promotional scripts had already been written touting that very thing. It was with this knowledge I broke away from the platform and huddled with my Idol accomplice. See, there are many approaches to gathering news with a video camera. You can plot, cajole and apply pressure by your very presence. Sometimes, though, you just gotta bum-rush the show. That’s the tactic we chose and while it was particularly pretty, it was damned effective.
As the final chords of Scotty’s closing song echoed across the park, Shannon and I exchanged nervous glances. We’d spent the past few minutes fighting through a hysterical crowd, only to be stopped cold by an overenthusiastic security guard. Sharp words followed; it’s possible I showed my country ass. In the end, we stormed off and found another blocked entrance to the backstage area. As Shannon and I stood there silently plotting, a guy in a security t-shirt told a woman she could not pass. She did anyway. It was then we knew t-shirt man was not a professional security operative. Shannon smiled and mumbled something about meeting an Idol producer backstage and Mr. T-shirt shrugged and let us through. Which is how we came to loiter in the No Press area, Shannon with her big logo’d microphone hung low, me trying to pretend I wasn’t cradling a professional fancycam. At that point, most of Hell broke loose. Cops, Idol producers, handlers and Scotty himself poured offstage, surrounded by a sea of fans who’d broken through security as well. I stepped in front of Scotty and his goons as Shannon produced a microphone out of humid air. She fired off a question, Scotty responded and I stared at the glowing red RECORD light as the crowd carried us backwards. At one point, Shannon peeled away and I stuck with Scotty, backpedaling on sheer faith. No one pushed me away so I fired off a couple of more questions. I couldn’t really hear what the Idol finalist had to say, but the dancing audio meter in my eyepiece assured me I was fulfilling my density.
Forty seconds later, Scotty was gone, swallowed by a sea of cops and the Idol machinery. I was drenched in sweat, Shannon’s hair was out of place and we were both elated.
I wonder if that’s how the guys who popped bin Laden felt...