Tuesday a week ago I was in Cedar Falls for a pre-Memorial Day sale at one of my favorite hobby shops. Looking at the map, I could see I was not much more than half-an-hour from Clarksville, hometown of Maddie Poppe, the newly crowned American Idol. So I thought I would surprise Linda, my spouse, by bringing home a Maddie Poppe T-shirt.
For those who don’t closely follow the “American Idol” extravaganza, in the early stages the contestants are selected and weeded out by a panel of three judges who are popular music stars. But in the latter stages, remaining in the contest is determined by telephone call votes from fans. Approaching Clarksville, I saw increasingly more “Vote for Maddie Poppe” signs, and these signs were displayed everywhere in Clarksville.
Clarksville is a typical small rural Iowa town (population about 1,500) with a main street business sector only a shadow of its former self. I searched for a business to enquire about where I might find a Maddie Poppe T-shirt and spied an open door at Anna Lee’s antique shop. When I put my question to the woman proprietor (I assume, Anna Lee), she laughed and said I was about the 50th person to ask that question that morning, and no, nothing along those lines had been organized in Clarksville. As far as she knew, Maddie items were only available on line. That made sense! It fit the persona Maddie displayed throughout the contest: Maddie is a quiet, unassuming small-town Iowa girl still humbled by the overall experience and the outcome.
Over the next several months, Maddie and the other finalists will be touring the U.S., with shows in major cities. She also has a contract for an initial record release. In the proces,s she needs to demonstrate to the broad music market that she really is deserving of the title bestowed upon her—American Idol. Maddie is multi-talented. In addition to her unique singing voice, she plays the piano, guitar and ukulele, and writes some of her own music. But her style is not the loud, hard-hitting theatrically staged rock currently in vogue. Rather, Maddie is more of a classical lyrical ballad singer. An article in the Des Moines Register suggested she may have difficulty in establishing herself because she does not fit into the dominant genres of pop rock and hip hop.
For similar reasons, when Maddie made it into the final three I was skeptical about her potential to win. I did not begin watching this season’s Idol until I heard that an Iowa singer was competing. Once I heard her sing I was hooked, and I had Linda call me whenever Maddie was up to sing so I could watch and listen. The judges always raved about Maddie’s performances, but on the first night of the two-show finale, it seemed they had more to say and were much more immersed in the performances of the other two performers, Caleb Lee Hutchinson, a country and western singer from Dallas, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, and a pop rock singer from Pittsburgh, Penna., Gabby Barrett. Indeed, when Barrett gave her final performance, the youthful audience was fully engrossed in her highly animated stage show enhanced by an array of dazzling lights. At that point I was certain Barrett would win and I said so to Linda. Apparently, the Idol live audience is not representative of music lovers across the U.S., because Barrett was the first to be eliminated. That said to me there is a strong following of Maddie’s music and the DM Register article’s prognosticating is highly likely to be wrong.
The week prior to the two-show finale, all three finalists made trips to their hometowns, much of which was video-recorded to be played during the finale. Anna Lee and her husband told me the TV crew members accompanying Maddie on her hometown visit were impressed with the friendliness and sincerity of the Clarksville community. They also mentioned the three TV crews vied among themselves for the privilege of coming to a small town in rural Iowa. Anna Lee’s husband and his dog actually appeared in the telecast.
Often in movies or TV shows, when characters are cast to be plain folk from obscure places, it turns out to be somewhere real or make-believe in Iowa. I believe there is a lot to be said for old principles and values, and it is in part those Iowa small town principles and values that make Maddie unique. When combined with her outstanding voice and other artistic talents, she is indeed the upcoming star that her American Idol title implies, and she represents the best of Iowa. I am eagerly awaiting Maddie’s first record release.
Pete Korsching is an Iowa State University Emeritus Professor, a Nevada resident and a freelance columnist for the Nevada Journal.