Best story wins

The stories you hear, and the ones you don't

Photo: Just Sam, winner of American Idol 2020 (via Cinema Blend)

It’s the storytelling, stupid

These newsletters come to life on a piece of digital scrap full of ideas and fragments, much of which will thankfully never see the light of day. One such note, from months before I decided to launch this, reads “best story wins.” Even though I can’t remember what I meant when I made that note, it’s lived on as part of a brick of lines that function much like the strategy that James Carville developed for Bill Clinton and hung in his campaign HQ, famously including, “it’s the economy, stupid.”

Stay at home Idol

After all, it’s true - the best story does win, now more than ever. It won last Sunday - when NYC subway singer Just Sam won a strange, shortened American Idol season, during which live performances were hosted in the singers’ homes - the ring lights surrounding their phone cameras casting a surreal futuristic vibe to the proceedings, even as we were privy to their most intimate domestic spaces.

I had thought there were a few contestants better positioned to win - The self-doubting, ridiculously talented Jonny West (who somehow pulled off a version of Amazing Grace with his own added lyrics); Julia Gargano, the preternaturally poised college student and songwriter from Staten Island; and Arthur Gunn, the soulful 22 year old, born Dibesh Pokharel in Tibet but now living in Kansas (who performed not just one, or two, but three unbelievably great re-imaginings of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain”). 

All of these contestants made it to the top five, unusually populated by songwriter-type performers this year. It’s unclear if this turn away from vocal gymnasts and pop / country gloss has to do with the homebound format, or if this kind of music has particular resonance in these strange times. Either way, I think it’s significant that I can come up with a one sentence description that encapsulates who they are in the competition. Just as every pop song needs a hook, every story needs a simple telling.

But at the end of the day, Just Sam’s story (and talent) prevailed. It combines struggle, grit, faith, an unconditional maternal love - and the power of her own storytelling vocals. But it’s not my story to tell - see for yourself


The flip side is - what if you need to rely on storytelling to get by, and the message doesn’t break through? This is the struggle of many families who have to rely on GoFundMe to support their medical expenses in the broken system we have right now. In 2017, one-third of money was raised on the platform went towards medical expenses - it’s too much, yet nowhere near enough. This was alluded to in Lisa Sander’s Netflix series, Diagnosis (where she hitched an unfunded GoFundMe story to her crowdfunding docudrama) - and made explicit in June of last year, as the subject of this New Yorker piece by Nathan Heller. It tells the heartbreaking story of a couple who are faced with a nearly impossible fight for their children’s future, the campaign they launched to raise $2m, and what happens to the healthcare campaigns that you don’t hear of - the ones that never quite catch the Internet’s attention.

A stunning memorial

Sometimes data tells its own story, but I was stunned by the front page of the New York Times yesterday - a rendering of the scale of America’s pandemic loss, with a selection of its victim’s names alongside obituary excerpts that shined a tiny light on the people behind those names.

Since it’s Memorial Day, here’s another way to conceive of it - the toll thus far is about one and a half Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which represents the 58,000 or so Americans lost in the conflict in Vietnam - one that an entire generation of Americans said no to. 

They were young, and had promising lives ahead of them - and wanted to write a different story for themselves.

More reading:

  1. Apropos of the Times cover: who gets an obituary and who doesn’t? You might be unsurprised to learn that there are blind spots to certain communities. WNYC’S On the Media podcast / radio show ran a segment on THE CITY’s project to build a comprehensive list of New Yorkers who have passed from the disease, in part correcting a historical record that is already missing something important. It’s one part of a show dedicated to the way we mourn those lost to the pandemic - if you don’t know it, On the Media is a must listen for anyone who wants to take an unflinchingly critical look at the stories we hear about current events.

  2. Ian Curtis, Joy Division’s singer, took his own life forty years ago last Monday. Incredibly, he was 23 years young. While we might mourn the loss of a brilliant artist, his former bandmate Peter Hook reflects on a more human dimension in this brief interview.

Your Musical Moment of Zen

Joy Division - “She’s Lost Control “ (1979 live recording) - For as perfect as Joy Division’s studio recordings are, they don’t capture their bristling, live punk energy. My go to in this regard is their live set recorded at Les Bains Douches, but this BBC video recording does the trick nicely, too.