Our souls are ugly. Our raw souls, that is to say. When we are living in this world honestly—when we allow ourselves to be natives of the planet earth, we work hard to survive. We live off the land, kill animals for food, build shelter in the middle of a storm. We are anything but domesticated. We get ugly. We are true. We work hard. We take up all the space we’re due, and we don’t apologize for it.
Recently, I watched an old video of Jennifer Holliday singing, “And I’m Telling You”. God. It was everything. I’m not sure what the producers were thinking, but they had brought her back as a special guest appearance with the lovely Jennifer Hudson. And in so doing, did their level best to domesticate this vocal beast. They had her in a light brown, slick wig…with highlights. They put her in an eggplant colored gown, with shimmer. She was torturously presentable.
Miss Holliday is famous for her run on Broadway in “Dream Girls” back in the 80’s. Her career was somewhat up and down after that…mostly down. She never attained the kind of success she had previously known. But the impact she made singing her trademark song, “And I’m Telling You”, was not easily forgotten by those who saw it. It was raw. It was soulful. It was gutsy, confrontational, and ugly.
Fast forward to a time when the song was being revitalized by the uber-glam, performance-based show American Idol, and someone got the idea to bring these two vocal powers together—Jennifer and Jennifer—Hudson and Holliday.
During the performance, I half expected Jennifer Holliday to tear off her wig. Midway through her performance, her face was so contorted—her jaw wiggling out the vibrato and her body knotted in pain, as she screamed out the words…
Tear down the mountains
Yell, scream, and shout
You can say what you want
I'm not walking out
Stop all the rivers
Push, strike, and kill
I'm not gonna leave you
There's no way I will
And there she was. I found it impossible to see the trappings of glamour that, in this moment, had no place or purpose on this woman. She was bigger than all of it. She was so ugly…unbelievably so. A native of her own soul. At home with how she was put together and in who she was meant to be. There was something transcendent about it.
I know that I am not that man yet. Not yet willing to be this kind of ugly. I’ve shown aspects of the ugly me over the years…but I nearly always default back to the safety of status quo—of being what those around me need for me to be. But then I see something like Jennifer Holliday showing us the ugly truth; baring a part of herself that is fighting like hell to survive…yelling, screaming, shouting…pushing, striking, killing…and I get tears in my eyes. Why is that?
I think it’s important to pay attention to the discomfort we feel. Because in those uneasy moments when we come face to face with who we are, there are signs pointing us to our true selves. Which is, not glam. Not presentable. NOT palatable for the crowd or the committee in our head that seems to be watching with an ever-critical eye.
Who AM I? What is aboriginal about me? Can I close my eyes and find it anymore? Can I hear it? Feel it? Or is it too far gone?
Who are you? Or better yet, who WERE you?
I believe that we are ugly at our core. Bone through our noses, dancing around a sacred fire and howling at the moon. And I can’t help but wonder; how do we get that back?