CLOSE

Seven years ago Maddie Poppe competed in the Iowa State Fair Bill Riley Talent Search and didn't make it past the first round. Kelsey Kremer, kkremer@dmreg.com

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

OMAHA — I really wanted to write something snarky about the “American Idol Live!” tour.

Going in, the whole thing felt like a cheesy money grab.

Even though a few former contestants have become household names, the batting average for stars created from the once-juggernaut reality TV singing competition is fairly low.

This tour will no doubt mark the end of most of their 15 minutes of fame. (Put your pitchforks down, I said most. I think Maddie Poppe has staying power, if she can break into the right radio market.)

So I was expecting the show to be good karaoke, with the kids singing the same covers and wearing the same outfits they did on TV.

But then, the kids took the stage. And they gave it everything they had.

The first sign I was in for something different was the lack of a backup band. There was just one guy who looked like an overworked choir teacher switching from piano to guitar to piano again.

There wasn’t any major set outside of a lighted stage with the "Idol" logo, and there weren’t tons of speakers separating the performers from the crowd.  

Autoplay
Show Thumbnails
Show Captions

The Top Six, who are all under age 21, backed up each other vocally. They played guitar or banjo or ukulele on each other’s tracks.

They danced when it wasn’t their solo. They interacted with the audience. They enjoyed every second of being on stage.

There was something so pure about it all.

And they looked so young.

That afternoon, I sat down with Maddie Poppe and learned that she and Mollie Tibbetts were the same age.

20 years old.

Related: Complete coverage of Mollie's disappearance, death

So, here’s the thing: I went to the “American Idol Live!” tour two days after spending time with the people of Brooklyn, Iowa, the city that rallied together to find Mollie during the month she was missing.

CLOSE

Hearts are heavy in Brooklyn as news sweeps the small Iowa community that a body believed to be Mollie Tibbetts' has been found. Des Moines Register

When we got the news last Tuesday that a body had been found in a cornfield, I was one of the reporters sent. Find out how people are feeling, my editors told me.

No surprise: The people of Brooklyn were broken. They hadn’t allowed themselves to think of any option besides the one where Tibbetts returns home.

Now that the other way it could turn out became the actual way it ended, the devastating pain sat just under the surface. Mention her name, and everyone I ran into couldn’t help but cry.

This was all weighing on my heart as I sat next to Rhonda Templer, an “American Idol” super-fan who has been to tours from 10 different seasons.

She, her husband, her kids and her grandkids have traveled to New York City and Chicago and Portland, Maine, following "Idol."

She told stories of how the tours grew from intimate spaces to arenas and how Carrie Underwood was “just a little quiet thing” on her season.

Rhonda fell from a ladder a few weeks ago, and they didn’t know if they would make it to the show. But at the last minute, they traded their tickets down front for handicapped ones, and she rolled in with the help of a temporary wheelchair.

“What other show can all these generations enjoy together?” she said, “I mean kids, adults, grandkids, older people, all love it, and that just makes ‘Idol’ something really special, I think.”

Looking out, I noticed the crowd was a hodgepodge of Brownie troops and girls' nights out and couples on dates and grandparents carting young ones.

Then the lights dimmed, and we focused on the stage.

Michael J. Woodard, who came in sixth, took the stage to sing “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret. It’s a sad song about a woman hoping that maybe she’ll finally get her happy ending.

I love this song. I listen to it a lot as a sort of odd empowerment anthem (we can talk about the psychology of that later).

The stage went dark, save for a spotlight on Michael and a microphone. He flashed this thousand-watt smile and he sang and he gestured to the crowd and pointed at specific people.

He was so happy. The scene was so beautiful. 

And I just bawled.

In the dark, not loud enough for Rhonda to hear, I took a deep breath and I let go. I let go for Mollie. I let go for me.

I don’t know if I’m allowed to be moved by the people I write about. My mentor told me to never forget that every time someone opens up to us they are giving us a gift.

"They are leaving a little piece of them with us," he said. "And with that comes a sense of honor, but also a great responsibility."

Last year, I covered more trials and courtroom proceedings than I ever had before. When I’m nervous about something I over-prepare, so I knew the legalese regarding my cases through and through.

A few stories in my editor pulled me aside and he reminded me: Never forget the human side of all this. Never forget the lives that gavel’s swing will affect.

I’ve been reading a lot about Robert Kennedy this year, it being the 50th anniversary of his death, and I haven’t been able to shake this one stump speech he used to give.

At the time, President Johnson was touting the success of his administration with repeated mentions of the country’s high gross domestic product.

So Kennedy said:

“Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but — if we judge the United States of America by that — that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. 

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. 

And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

As we track timelines and Snapchats and immigration statuses, remember, there is a girl — Mollie — at the heart of this national story.

As internet sleuths track down whether her clothes were on her or near her and dissect each new claim, there’s a family grieving.

The minutiae of this case tell us everything about the way Mollie died, but nothing about the way Mollie lived.

For now — as lawyers start lobbing bombs — that’s what I'm trying to keep in mind.

My colleagues at the Register will cover every detail of this case. It’s part of the job, and a crucial piece of making sure that the powerful are held to account and justice is actually served.  

But the real story is in the people left behind, in the townspeople who will lean on each other for support and in the memories of Mollie that will linger.

Those are the stories we will remember, because our shared emotions connect us all.  

So, here’s the thing: In this moment, I was happy to put away the snark. To stop. To let go. To find a way to see the light in the world.

For Rhonda, who snapped pictures and bounced in her chair, she found that happiness in that moment by being at this "American Idol" concert.

Curiously, I did, too.

COURTNEY CROWDER, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. You can contact her at (515) 284-8360 or ccrowder@dmreg.com. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: https://dmreg.co/2o96Up1