Josiah Leming: Brilliant, Haunting Music & Web 2.0 Drive American Idol Castoff’s Prototypical Success StoryMay 19th, 2008 by Howard Ditkoff
Another Season of Inspiration on American Idol
Two years ago, I wrote an essay called “How American Idol Changed My Life”. I realized as I wrote it that some who see me as a person focused on more profound issues might find my enjoyment of an iconic pop culture talent show to be seriously out of character. However, there was no denying the impact on me of the show and especially of particular contestants from the show.
As I described in that essay, American Idol has the power to stimulate crucial thought and dialogue about the importance and optimal methods of promoting talent and authenticity in a hierarchical culture that often suppresses people’s true selves. These are themes I also explored in my piece called “The Joy and Power of Discovering True Selves”.
This season has been no exception. I’ve watched every minute of the show this year and it has already provided more than one powerful example of a genuine talent beginning to truly blossom. It was during the second round of auditions in Hollywood early in the season that I was first blown away by the gifts of one of this year’s performers, David Archuleta. Watching him sing Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” gave me chills and I instantly felt that this was one of the best contestants the show has ever seen, a feeling that I still maintain, having watched him progress through the season.
However, it is another contestant - one who didn’t even make it past the Hollywood auditions and into the Top 24 - that I want to talk about in this piece.
A Memorable Audition
It was even earlier in the season, during the initial auditions in Atlanta, that America first met Josiah Leming. Josiah was a kid with a very moving backstory. He was an 18 year-old high school dropout from Morristown, Tennessee, who, unbeknownst to his family, who believed he was staying with friends, had been living in his car for the last year as he traveled around the country playing shows. In early interviews, he conveyed a willingness to sacrifice to achieve his dreams, declaring that he felt right at home living in his car. But then moments later, Josiah first displayed his deep vulnerability as he tearfully described how lonely and scary life on the road can be.
The judges were amused by this odd juxtaposition of geographic origin and singing style, and sufficiently intrigued to give Josiah a ticket to the next round of auditions in Hollywood. I myself wasn’t quite sure yet what to make of him. I liked his passion and heart-on-his-sleeve emotion, and his voice sounded good, but not great. But above all, there was simply something memorable about him.
Ups and Downs: Josiah Leming in Hollywood
In Hollywood, Josiah Leming became even more memorable and intriguing to me. In his interviews, he continued to display an endearing mixture of passionate confidence and vulnerability. And then he performed. He did a cover of the song “Grace Kelly” by Mika, playing the piano and singing, and it was during this performance that I first began to “get” him musically.
Paula Abdul said that she loved Josiah and that he had a magical quality. Randy Jackson said that he liked him, as well. And Simon Cowell said “I think out of all the auditions, this is the one I’m gonna remember.”
However, after this impressive showing, Josiah had to do one more audition performance to make it into the pool of 50 contestants from which the final 24, who would appear on the show to be voted on by the public, would be chosen. Josiah’s preparation for this final audition turned into a bit of a disaster. He had difficulty choosing a song from the show’s pre-selected list of options and even more difficulty in his attempts to mesh with the show’s band around an arrangement he preferred.
Full of tears and worries, he made a brave, but risky choice to dismiss the band and sing an unrehearsed, a cappella version of “Stand by Me”. While the performance was interesting, it wasn’t a great vocal and the judges did not enjoy it. Perhaps more importantly, it seemed that Josiah’s dismissal of the band and response to their poor critique of the performance reasonably led the judges and producers to question Josiah’s maturity. It seemed that perhaps the very raw emotion that made him so interesting and appealing musically may have led to a perception that Josiah could crack under the immense pressure that comes with being a part of the show’s final contestant roster.
While Josiah was put into the top 50, despite his mediocre third audition, when the final decisions were made, the judges informed him that he would not be in the top 24. Simon Cowell would later say in interviews that he disagreed with the decision to cut Josiah, but for all we knew at that point, this was the end of the line for Josiah’s dreams of major musical success.
Rediscovering Josiah Leming Online
Despite his failure to make the top 24, I was sufficiently intrigued by Josiah’s version of “Grace Kelly” in his second audition to search YouTube for it so I could hear it again. I listened to it a few times and it really grew on me. Then, in the suggested pages next to the clip, I saw a list of other related clips through which I found Josiah’s own personal YouTube page. Here he had posted versions of himself playing several of his own songs that he had written. I listened to the songs there and was shocked.
The quality and depth of Josiah’s songwriting, especially given his young age, astounded me. All of the songs were impressive, none more so than “One Last Song”, which I felt was one of the best written songs I’d heard in a while.
This led me to do some more searching, which quickly led me to Josiah’s MySpace page. There, I found even more songs available for free, including some that I hadn’t heard yet on his YouTube page. I loved every one of these songs, as well, especially “This Cigar”.
For several days, I listened often to the songs on Josiah’s YouTube and MySpace pages and found their lyrics and vocal and instrumental melodies and tones burrowing their way deeply into my subconscious. The more I listened, the more the combination of Josiah’s moving backstory and his fantastic music led me to want to support him in his dream of popularizing himself and his music. As it turned out, I was far from alone in this feeling.
The Rise of Josiah Leming
Over the coming weeks, Josiah’s MySpace page grew astronomically in popularity, as thousands of people, entranced by his music, added him as a friend and began participating in discussions there. He soon became probably the most popular and controversial American Idol “reject” in the show’s history. (Note: Here I speak not of a person voted out of the top 24 by the public, but rather someone kept by the judges from even making the top 24 in order to be voted on at all.)
- Josiah appeared on Access Hollywood, discussing his life and family, and performing “One Last Song” and “To Run”.
On the heels of this swell of publicity, Josiah sold thousands of dollars worth of his music through his MySpace page alone in just weeks after appearing on Idol. (Compare this to Carly Smithson, one this season’s early favorites and the sixth-place finalist, who, earlier in her career, even with the support of a record deal with MCA Records, managed to sell less than 400 copies of her debut album in its first three months after release.)
The publicity also brought out more information not previously shared on American Idol, fleshing out Josiah’s moving backstory. As it turns out, Josiah comes from a family of nine children, six of whom were taken in as foster children and subsequently adopted by his parents. His mother developed a rare form of terminal cancer several years ago and has been fighting it ever since. He had dropped out of school and gone on the road not out of a desire to run away from his family, but, on the contrary, out of a strong desire to achieve his dreams in order to make his mother proud. It was this desire that drove him to try out for American Idol.
A Deeper Exploration of Josiah Leming’s Music
Wisely, Josiah offered several packages of his music for purchase on his MySpace page. Having watched his popularity grow and learned more about him, I was now anxious to hear the rest of his music and find out if it was as good as what I had heard in the freely available songs on the web and during his television performances. Furthermore, having become even more inspired by his story, I wanted to support him monetarily and through being one more example proving that he was a marketable artist.
I bought the package entitled “Everything Josiah Has” through his MySpace store. This was one of the first music purchases I had made in a long time. After the download, I now had a total of 21 of Josiah’s songs, including those available in the purchase package, on MySpace, and on Youtube (which included a reprisal in full of his first Hollywood audition song, “Grace Kelly”, which he made to reward his fans for helping him so quickly reach 35,000 MySpace friends, a number which sent a resounding message to the music industry.)
The period after I purchased this package was a difficult one for me. I was dealing with a painful and challenging situation in the relationship that I describe in my post, “Choosing Intimate Partners: To Repeat or Not to Repeat?”. I was also making a number of late night drives around this time. These circumstances combined to provide a very conducive setting and emotional state in which to listen to Josiah’s heartfelt music. I listened to all of his songs over and over for the next couple of weeks and fell in love with his music.
When I purchased the package on MySpace, I had feared that perhaps Josiah had cherry-picked his best songs to put on his YouTube and MySpace pages for free in order to drive sales and that the rest of the songs in the package I purchased might not be very good. After all, it is rare that even an established artist puts out even one album without a few filler or throwaway songs that aren’t very good. That is why I love the few albums - August and Everything After, Recovering the Satellites, Duncan Sheik, Become You, Under the Pink, and all of Coldplay’s albums, for instance - where every single song is good, allowing me to listen nonstop without needing to skip any songs.
However, that fear proved unwarranted with Josiah. While it is true that, for the most part, the free songs he offered are among his best, all of the 21 songs I heard are remarkable. I can honestly say that, since I’ve heard them all several times, there have been points in the last couple of months when parts of every single song were stuck in my head. All of them are extremely well done, many of them brilliant.
Of course, it helps that the songs are of the type I tend to like most. These are songs with a haunting quality to them, filled with incredibly catchy melodies and hooks that stick in your brain. They are the songs of a longing, yearning idealist, squarely capturing the place where beauty meets tragedy, blending tender moments with emotional swells. They range from “31 Pages”, a beautiful movie-soundtrack-like piano ballad to “One Last Song”, with its unforgettable piano hook and melodies spawned like McCartney’s “Yesterday” straight out of one of Leming’s dreams and from “To Run”, which has the makings of an emo teen breakup classic, to “Theysay”, a beautiful song with a mixture of all of these elements.
One of the first things to grab me about Leming’s music were his lyrics. Deep, poetic, often philosophical, they are like those of many of my favorite artists including Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, Duncan Sheik and David Gray, and reveal a wisdom far beyond his years. Like the lyrics of my favorite album, August and Everything After, Leming’s have a knack for capturing the bittersweet poignancy of existential issues like:
- Authentic Identity
- Challenges to Remaining Authentic - (a topic I discuss in “The Joy and Power of Discovering True Selves”)
- “I’m bad news baby, I’m gonna break your heart, I burn my bridges daily before any others cross.”- “Bad News Baby”
- Growing Pains
- “I’m so proud to tell them all that I’m a man now, I can drive a car, and I’m a dropout, I’m nobody so far” - “This Cigar”
Leming also employs great imagery and symbolism:
Perhaps it is through growing up a sensitive soul in a challenging family situation with a long sick mother that Josiah developed such a grasp of these existential issues at such a young age. His ability to communicate these feelings in so many beautiful ways, however, represents a true talent.
Another thing that jumps out quickly to the listener is Leming’s unique voice, which some, like me, will love, while others may not, but which is unlikely to be confused with any other. Like many of my favorite singers, especially Adam Duritz and Chris Martin, his voice is technically imperfect, yet the imperfections only enhance its ability to convey raw emotion. A crack, a wail, even a note a bit off key simply serve to strengthen the sense of authenticity. Duritz once explained that sometimes in music when you try to get something “right” you succeed in getting it right, only to find out that’s not as good as getting it “cool.” Leming gets it cool, displaying heartfelt moments, such as crying out for his lover to come back at the end of “31 Pages” and channeling the lovechild of Thom Yorke and Chris Martin throughout the songs, especially evident in the middle of “People Diving”.
Leming’s guitar playing is basic, but serviceable, and he is more than capable of writing a solid guitar song. I was amused, for example, when I first listened to “All My Friends” on his YouTube page. At the start of the clip he declares “This is my attempt to write a song on the guitar.” I expected some very amateurish “attempt.” Instead, I was treated to yet another mature, thoughtful song, this time with moments reminiscent of Dave Matthews.
But it is on the piano that his talent shines brightest, in displays ranging from “Animals” haunting arpeggio, reminiscent of “Clocks” or “Speed of Sound” by Coldplay, to the poppier piano jam of “Her.”
His piano music and arrangements include a mixture of:
- Tori Amos-like melancholy, melodic phrases - End of “31 Pages”; beginning and much of “Dream Reality”; much of “Empty Handed”; middle of “Paper Houses”, middle piano bridge of “People Diving”; much of “Plaines Overhead”; much of “Social inSecurity”
Josiah the Creator
But, above all, Josiah Leming is a remarkable, naturally-gifted songwriter, almost unbelievably talented for his age and, despite all comparisons to other artists, possessed of a unique and highly recognizable style all his own. His talent is even more impressive given that, while he is now 19, he wrote some of these songs at an even younger age. Assuming that he produced and mixed these songs on his own, he also displays an innate ear for recording and arranging (which, ironically, was part of why he had such a difficult time during the last Hollywood audition on American Idol, when he was unable to convey to the band his precise desired arrangement.) Touches such as the background vocals and layers on songs like “Paper Houses”, “Razorblades and Handgrenades”, “This Cigar” and “To Run” exhibit Leming’s ability to incorporate simple brushstrokes that lend just the right mood to a song.
Josiah Leming: A Prototype of Early 21st Century Talent Development and Promotion
So what is the purpose of mentioning all of this on a blog that typically deals with more profound issues of personal development, politics and social change? Is it just to promote Josiah Leming and his music? Well, yes, that is certainly part of it, though he no longer needs my help. I’ve heard a great deal of his work. I’ve appreciated his story and his commitment to authenticity. And I’ve watched his warm and grateful attitude toward his growing fanbase, revealed in his interactions with them as displayed in discussions and photos on his MySpace page and on the pages of those who have reported encounters with him. All of it definitely combined to fill me with the urge that I sometimes get to promote someone with talent and soul.
But more importantly, Josiah’s story demonstrates some larger and more broadly applicable principles and themes that I’ve written about before and that bear reinforcing.
Josiah is yet another example of someone with great talent, driven to authentically share that talent with the world and willing to take courageous and bold risks to do so. All of these traits are evident in Josiah’s story leading up to his appearance on American Idol, in his short time on the show, in his interviews during and since the show, in his interactions with his fans online and at his own gigs, and in his music.
As Josiah said in an interview on MTV:
“The ultimate goal with me and music is I just want to help people. Whether I help one person or a billion people, I don’t care and if I have to get in my car and go back on the road again and try to reach as many people as I can, that’s the goal. I don’t care about the fame, I don’t care about the fortune, I don’t need the money, you know, I can stay alive. I’ve already proven myself to that.”
I believe that such a combination of talent, authenticity and courage is one of the most powerful constellations of qualities that a person can possibly develop in attaining meaningful success and the ability to deeply move others. This is a theme that I talked about at length in “How American Idol Changed My Life” where I discuss how Chris Daughtry’s raw talent and solid confidence in his identity inspired me and led to a chain of awarenesses about myself and my drive to foster great ideas and talents in the world. (By the way, American Idol provided another interesting moment of authenticity this season when Alaina Whitaker broke down during her elimination and viewers witnessed a rare televised display of honest, raw emotion.) I go on to talk about other such artists, whose talent and authenticity inspired me, in that piece and in “The Joy and Power of Discovering True Selves”.
I also believe that the development and promotion of such authentic talents is central not only to personal satisfaction and inspiration, but to profound and crucial social change. In “The Joy and Power of Discovering True Selves”, I discussed our culture’s dysfunctional degree of hierarchy, in which powerful gatekeepers, rather than the public at large themselves, have too often decided which ideas and people would come to the wider attention of the public. These gatekeepers, often asserting an unmerited authority, have commonly made such decisions through the lens of a very narrow-minded and self-serving agenda that has suppressed the authentic talent of many. This configuration both deprives society of the opportunity to benefit from and be inspired by countless unrecognized ideas and individuals and deprives people in any and all disciplines of opportunities to truly contribute to society using the best of who they are.
Therefore, as discussed in both pieces, I believe it is extremely important on many levels to help people recognize, nurture and promote their talents. This belief was instrumental in my decision to start my coaching, consulting and training company. And I believe an intuitive recognition of this fact lies behind the growing impact of emerging forces that are shaking up the hierarchy, allowing otherwise undiscovered talent, previously unrecognized or suppressed by the hierarchy, to reveal itself and find its niche.
Paradoxical as it may seem for a Fox television show that is a linchpin of popular culture, American Idol, imperfect as it may be, is one of the most visible examples of this subtly subversive trend. The show allows at least some artists, whose talent might otherwise never be widely discovered, to bypass the often unmerited hierarchical suppression and obtain unprecedented mass exposure. Chris Daughtry, after coming in only fourth on the show, took just one year to parlay his newfound fame into the best selling album of 2007. Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia, Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood were lifted almost overnight from obscurity to Oscar, Broadway and Grammy-winning success by Idol’s platform.
And Josiah Leming, an unknown teen from a small Tennessee town, was able to launch a career and inspire thousands, including me, to become passionate about spreading the word about him on the foundation of just a matter of minutes of exposure on American Idol and without even making the top 24.
In addition, Josiah’s rise since his initial television exposure exemplifies the wise application of other powerful and revolutionary promotional and marketing tools that challenge the supremacy of hierarchical gatekeepers. While it is true that he gained his initial attention from American Idol, as Josiah himself has pointed out, few contestants who have made the show - much less been cut from the top 24 as he was - have managed to build so much buzz so quickly. Idol gave Leming a chance to be heard, but it has been his expert use of relatively new and empowering technologies that has allowed him to truly ignite his career.
Like some of the lesser known talents that I discussed in “The Joy and Power of Discovering True Selves”, Josiah has leveraged the power of Web 2.0 tools such as YouTube and MySpace to reach and consolidate a growing fanbase of supporters. He wisely gave away free samples of his music to attract fans, used MySpace’s SNOCAP e-commerce service to sell his songs without the necessity of a middleman, built even greater momentum and interest throughout the web, and enabled his supporters to communicate and interact directly with him and with each other through all of these means. All of this culminated in a clearly demonstrable, readymade fanbase that was evident to those with even greater platforms, such as Ellen DeGeneres and MTV, and to record companies and music industry insiders through the number of hits, friends, views and sales on his YouTube and MySpace accounts.
Thus, I see Josiah’s path and success story as emblematic of an early 21st century prototype that I have discussed before and will no doubt discuss again. He is a prime example of how a new democratic, populist, “bottom-up” mindset, evident everywhere from American Idol and similar voter-determined shows to the Web 2.0 culture to the campaign of Barack Obama, is providing an environment in which an authentic talent can take initiative, sidestep previously unavoidable obstacles, directly communicate with the public, and develop a niche with exponential speed. Far more than just a great musician, Josiah Leming is an example of a growing movement that has the power to shake the foundations of the social order for the better. Not bad for a teenage kid from Tennessee.
Great Expectations: Support Josiah Leming as his Career Begins in Earnest
I’m very pleased to say that this strategy seems to have worked out tremendously well for Josiah. Persuaded by his talent, and no doubt further convinced by his already fanatical level of online support, Josiah was courted by record labels and was recently signed by Warner Bros. Records to produce his first major album. Since then, he has played a number of small shows throughout the country, including a special show in Nashville so that his sick mother could get her first chance to see him play live for a paying audience before his travel schedule grew more hectic. I believe he has begun or is soon to begin working on his album and expects it to be done in the fall. I don’t know if the album will consist of new versions of the songs I’ve already heard, new songs altogether or a combination of both, but, either way, if his previous work is any indication, I expect this album should be fantastic.
I urge people to take a listen to Josiah’s work through his YouTube and MySpace pages, as well as many other clips now available simply by searching for his name. If you like his work, I urge you to support him by purchasing his music on his MySpace page and looking for his album when it comes out. And if you see him coming to your town to play live, definitely check him out. In yet another example of the wise use of new technologies to build a base from the ground up, fans can go to Josiah’s MySpace page and use the Eventful Demand service to request that he play in their town. When enough people from a given location make a request, he knows to set up a show there.
Perhaps the most effusive serious praise that I’ve seen for Josiah comes from former Idol contestant Chris Sligh. On his own blog, Sligh said that he can’t remember being so excited by and impressed with such a young musician and that he feels sure that Leming will win a Grammy in the near future. That is a considerable prediction, but given what I’ve heard it is definitely within the realm of possibility. With a talent as young as Leming, it is impossible to predict how he will respond to the pressures and challenges the industry will throw at him. But if he manages to mature and grow as a musician and songwriter, as well as in his emotional strength, there is no telling what is possible for him.
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Included in: How to Make Money Doing What You Love Carnival – Issue 4, Social Media Blog Carnival - May 27, 2008, All About Celebritites Blog Carnival: Volume 5, Music Lyrics Carnival Edition 3, Carnival of the Review: Volume One, Electronic Commerce - Blog Carnival (3rd June 2008), Carnival of Creative Growth #28