Paul Simon invites a fan onstage to sing “Duncan” after she calls out that that’s the song she used to learn guitar. Watch it here, and then consider the Thought Problem appended below:
Thought Problem: Why is this so delightful? It’s not a particularly musical experience. Rayna may or may not be able to sing, but the song is out of her range and, in any case, she’s too petrified and ecstatic to be able to put it over. But who cares? Nobody in that Toronto crowd, or in Simon’s band, or Simon himself, or the zillion of us who watch it on computers from and beyond sea to shining sea.
It’s not quite a realization of the Fan’s Performance Fantasy, in which suddenly the drummer/third baseman/point guard/prima ballerina falls ill, a call goes out to the gallery, and you–YES, YOU–step up and perform brilliantly, saving the day and impressing the pros. 42nd Street (“Lissen, doll. You may be going out there just another hoofer, but you’re gonna come back A STAH.”) it isn’t.
Similarly, it’s not just another American Idol/Miss America moment of, like the maniac says, WINNING! Because Rayna has won nothing–no new career, no prize, no transformed future. In fact, it’s the open pursuit of such prizes, by the polished/ruthless semi-pro’s that really do want to be Miss America or your next American Idol, that makes our experience of their winning much more emotionally compromised (at least if we’re older than 14–which, believe me, we are) and much less touching.
I think we feel good for this woman because the entire event is pure in every aspect, and for that reason our emotional identification with it is pure. Suppose this weren’t a Paul Simon concert but, instead, a college talent show. The emcee summons Rayna to the stage and she sings for an audience of friends and strangers. That’s nice, but hardly a circumstance to trigger the orgasmic thrill she has in this performance.
No, this is one of her heroes, happily–to the extent that Paul Simon is able to appear “happy”– ceding the stage to her without knowing if “she’s any good”, for no other apparent reason than he appreciates his fans, and he knows that The Music is a way of life, a blessing, a natural resource, a spell that hypnotizes players and audience alike into a single communal event.
(This reminds me of seeing Paul Simon on Letterman years ago. Dave asked him what he was working on. Simon said he’d been working on a new song, and picked up the guitar and played what he had so far, stopping about halfway through. He explained how he was tempted to go here with it (played a chord) or there (played a different chord). What did Dave think? It was, to me, at least, a niftily un-egotistical, un- and anti-mystifying display of honesty–the opposite of star posturing or the disingenuous faux modesty of most “geniuses.”)
We beam and kvell and tear up at Rayna’s unselfconscious ecstasy because we enjoy three or four minutes of unalloyed vicariousness–something actors and writers and directors spend a lifetime to elicit. We feel good for her and with her in a context uncontaminated by matters of careerism, financial gain, or any other kind of market or professional consideration. And we appreciate her performer’s courage, going through with it in front of everybody, in spite of being a beginner and totally and completely freaked out.
Of course, my wife explains it all succinctly with, “She’s a commoner, and he’s royalty.” True, but then what? Suppose he had told the band to lay out, and said to her, “Really? Great. Show us.” Suppose Rayna had been up there strictly on her own, with her wavery voice and her rudimentary guitar. It would have been excruciating for all concerned. But the band kept playing the official arrangement, Simon conducted, and the whole thing had his imprimatur.
So maybe there is an aspect of the “magical” about it all–Cinderella being selected by the prince. And, as in the fairy tale, the prince himself is affected. It’s easy to assume that Paul Simon will remember this as fondly and as long as anyone else.
It was as though he had invited her into his home. He personalized the artist/fan relationship voluntarily, on his own, without the formality (willing, or coerced) of a public book signing or a fund-raiser meet-and-greet. He didn’t confer royalty upon her–she wasn’t knighted, or whatever the female equivalent is–but, rather, he invited her to share his. And, because no matter how flabbergasted she was, she rose to the occasion, we got to share it, too.