When I was seven years old, I began taking vocal lessons. My teacher, Ms. Dotty, was assessing my range and asked me to sing the highest note that I could.
“I can’t sing high,” I said. “See?” I squeaked out what I’d later learn was a C6. Ms. Dotty made a bit of face but quickly recovered it.
“I can work with that,” she said.
Eleven years later, I was one of only five first sopranos in my college choir, meaning that I could pleasantly sing up to a high E. After I graduated, I joined a cover band where I sang everything from The Cranberries to Blondie.
I often dreamed of becoming a professional singer. I even tried out for “Glee” when they held open auditions. I had perfect pitch and a broad range. When I sang karaoke and in my cover band, I specialized in impressions of Gwen Stefani, Adele, and Dolores O’Riordan. Yet I had my own voice, which as I aged became a velvety croon rather than the bright belting voice that I always wanted.
My singing career never took off, but I still enjoyed hearing other sopranos work their magic. People were always surprised to learn that I was a soprano, because my speaking voice is rather low. Singing was my secret talent, and as I drifted away from my professional singing goals, I kept my talent close to the vest. “Singing is the expression of the soul,” I wrote in my poetry journal. Eventually, I felt so vulnerable while singing that I rarely brought it out for other people.
When I learned of a new show, “The Masked Singer,” in which anonymous celebrities would compete on the basis of their voice alone, I had to watch it. The “masks” are more like full-body puppet suits, so as a costume designer and puppeteer, I deemed it “research.” The show quickly won me over, not only by its performers and costumes, but also by its unspoken premise: This was an opportunity to see celebrities’ true selves, and moreover to celebrate the art of singing rather than the glamour and drama of their day job.
“The Masked Singer” performers are usually people who need a comeback. Perhaps they were too weird for their industry, or perhaps personal strife or scandals set them back. When I started watching the show, that immediately resonated with me. As a lifelong performer who has seen less talented folks get a leg up through ass-kissing and as someone who has been kicked out of a troupe for political reasons, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to perform anonymously. How much easier would it be if people couldn’t see my face? Would I perform better if I could hide my nerves? Most of all, how amazing would it be to have a show that let me get my weird on?
“The Masked Singer” gives rejects like me a place to shine. As season one showed, few of the performers were untalented, even if their creative profession wasn’t singing. All of them had something that they wanted to prove by being on the show. The winner, T.Pain, is known for using Auto-Tune on his songs. Behind the mask, he bemoaned that people don’t consider him to be a real singer. His natural voice shone through on all his “Masked Singer” covers, especially his exquisite performance of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” which helped secure his win.
What “The Masked Singer” celebrates is not really its weirdness, despite the funky costumes. It boils performance down to the human elements, as celebrities are stripped of their prestige and any preconceptions we have about them. It prioritizes the voice, that primary means of human communication, over the frills. The costumes, as wonderful as they are, tie so closely into the masked singer’s identity that they’re merely clues, while their voice is how we connect. That’s what makes this show more powerful than “The Voice,” in which only the judges are turned away from the singer. “The Voice” seems to be a half-hearted attempt to dispel bias, while “The Masked Singer” offers a truly genuine means of connecting with the singer on an emotional level.
I was never one of the popular theatre kids. My high school drama teacher passed me over for a lead role in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” because I was “too quiet.” I’ve looked at countless cast lists where the most extroverted or attractive people were handed the leads. I’ve endured hours of poor singing by overenthusiastic people who received standing ovations by their large friend groups. It seemed to me that celebrity was a byproduct of charisma rather than talent.
All that made me not want to even try, but I finally got up the nerve to sing “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd at the class recital. Every note was in place, every pause was perfectly timed.
“Demons are prowling everywhere, nowadays,” I sang, imagining my personal demons melting away. “I’ll send them howling, I don’t care, I’ve got ways.”
I received a standing ovation for that performance.
The applause was both deafening and silent as my consciousness struggled to exit my performance state. My adrenaline plateaued into a buzz. I was slightly stunned after coming out of my creative flow. This performance had been transformative — an expression of my pure self.
When I watched “The Masked Singer,” I saw that in the performers. I heard Tori Spelling ask for people to overlook her personal drama as she sang “Fight Song.” I heard Donny Osmond express his love for show business with “The Greatest Show.” I heard Rumer Willis share her dark side as she inched out from under the shadow of her famous parents.
“The Masked Singer” gives us a how-to guide on comebacks — how to reestablish our goals, how to rediscover our talents, how to reclaim our humanity in the face of personal brands and office politics. This show markets itself as “weird” yet gives beaten-down celebrities a chance to find their voice. Is that so weird?
As we enter season two, which promises bigger surprises among its contestants and their impressive list of awards, I hope that the show doesn’t lose its magic. I don’t want to see people who are widely loved try to fool us; I want to see the people who need to express their true selves because they’ve been shot down. I want to see transformation that goes beyond putting on a mask. Most of all, I want to feel inspired to reach for new heights myself. And perhaps pick up the microphone again.
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