Jake Jones started at the TV, watching himself and three other contestants on stage, and wondered who was going to die. Under each person appeared a caption with their name, song title, and ranking – the counter changing as the audience voted.
“Three contestants will move on tonight. The person with the lowest score will lose. So don’t forget to vote for your favorite musician,” the announcer chimed in. “Text your vote to 800-555-5522, or vote on your favorite social media site. You must use #MusicOrDie #CreateOrDie for your vote to be counted. You can vote as often as you’d like, but you must be 18 or older to vote.”
The third contestant flashed on the screen, a twenty-something girl with blonde curly hair, rosy cheeks, and a mega-watt smile. Her name flashed under her image – Emma Mae Lee. Such a wholesome name for a wholesome girl, Jake thought. The video changed again, and she sat on a large sectional surrounded by her family, as they talked about the struggles and adversity she had to overcome to be a contestant on Music Or Die.
Born without vocal cords, she had corrective surgery at the age of five. Three month’s later, she discovered her love of music. There was no guarantee that her speech would ever be normal again, and the doctors cautioned her parents against fostering her interest, concerned about the strain singing would put on her throat. But she was insistent and practiced every chance she got, despite doctor’s warnings. Seeing that they weren’t going to be able to stop her, her parents decided to invest in singing lessons, reasoning that properly learning to care for her throat muscles would make sure that she didn’t undo all the progress of surgery. Regular lessons and daily practice honed her voice into what it was today, and she was excited to make her debut. As she spoke, her voice was sloppy and warbled, her words difficult to understand.
A counter appeared on the screen, the number set to zero. As her story unfolded, votes began to come in. Jake watched in disbelief. It was unusual to have votes come in before the performance, but Emma Mae’s story had a strong hook. Perhaps the viewers were voting out of sympathy, trying to cheer her on, eager to see her make good on the promise that all of her hard work had paid off.
The screen flashed to her on stage. She looked so small and vulnerable sitting on a stool, her pink and white dress falling around her. She wore a matching pink and white plumeria flower tucked behind her ear. In her hands sat a gunmetal gray ukulele, plugged into a small amp on the floor behind her. She cleared her voice and leaned into the mic stand, her lips kissing the microphone as she began to sing. The first few notes faltered as they struggled to break free, but as her throat warmed up, her voice changed. Soon it became smooth and sultry, the exact opposite of her squeaky, warbled speaking voice. The ukulele came to life under her fingers as she plucked the strings, its delicate notes electric from the reverberation from the amp. Her voice grew louder, the ukulele all but a distant accent in her song.
For a moment, everything stopped. The TV production crew, the audience, Jake — everyone and everything stopped, focused on nothing but the waif of a woman on stage and her large voice that filled the room. Jake shook his head in disbelief. Damn, she was good. It was going to be rough for whoever went on after her.
Her image faded and was replaced by a picture of the next contestant. His stomach dropped. Familiar green eyes peered back at him from the screen. He was the unlucky contestant picked to go on after that brilliant performance. He didn’t stand a chance, not against her. He could only hope that he wasn’t the worst performance of the night. There might be a chance that he could still squeak through to the next round.
The on-screen Jake smiled, his voice deep and proud as he talked about how he had always been a musician for as far back as he could remember. It was the only thing he wanted to do with his life. He spoke about how it was an honor to be showcased on Music or Die. He had been auditioning for years, and now that he was cast to appear on the show, he was grateful for the opportunity to share his music with such a wide audience. He rambled on about how he used his songs as an outlet, a way to process his emotions, and as such there was a piece of him in every song that he wrote.
But all he could see was his unkempt beard and how his hair sat like a messy mop atop his head. He shot his intro video in his bedroom. It seemed like a good idea at the time, a way for the audience to connect with the real him. But as he watched, the only thing he could focus on was the dirty clothes strewn about the room, his stained underwear visible in the corner of the screen. His stomach dropped and he started to get a bad feeling about his submission video.
His guitar appeared in view, a heavily stickered, cheapy black and white fender with a dent on one side. The night he dented it, he was ready to swear off his music career. He had been grinding away at it for years, but the best he could get was playing in the same dive bar every Friday night for thirty bucks and some free beer. He was tired of being broke, of being unknown, he was tired of writing songs that no one would ever hear. The next Friday, he announced that he was retiring from music. Two drunks in the corner bobbed their heads at him, but otherwise his statement went unnoticed, causing a rage to fill up within him. Was that all he was worth? Was that what all his time and hard work amounted to? He gave up girlfriends and real job opportunities that could have gotten him somewhere in life, gave it all up for music, and this is where it landed him? He brought his guitar down upon the stage in a rage, ready to smash it into a million pieces, ready to destroy it like it had destroyed his life. But instead, it landed with a dull thud, the stage denting the guitar and nothing more. He looked up to see an add for Music or Die on the screen of the television in the far corner of the bar, and took it as a sign that he wasn’t supposed to quit. From then on, it was his lucky guitar. When he was presented the opportunity to send in a submission to the show, there was no question which guitar he would use.
A wave of nausea washed over him as he watched himself strum the guitar. It bleated, barely able to hold a tune, the sound of the guitar alone pretty embarrassing, but then he began to sing, his voice wavering. He sounded awful. How could he have been so stupid? His parents and the few friends he had warned him to re-think this idea. They told him to save up the money to professionally produce his submission video. They told him to consider voice lessons. But he wouldn’t hear any of it. He wanted the audience to see the real him, to see him as a person, not some manufactured sob story designed to elicit votes. He wanted his music to speak for itself, for the audience to vote for him based upon his talent alone. But now, as he watched his submission video, he kicked himself. If he didn’t get voted off, it would be close. Sweat broke out on his brow.
His video ended and the screen changed, the headshots of all four contestants appeared, their names and a counter under each person’s picture. The first two contestant’s scores were locked in from an earlier round of voting, each one amassing 10,000 and 20,000 votes, respectively. His counter, along with Emma Mae’s started at zero. Hers quickly jumped, first to 1,000, then 10,000, then 100,000. His eyes darted to his counter – twenty votes. Twenty? Was that even possible? No one ever received double-digit votes. The worst contestant in Music or Die history still received 150 votes. Was his counter broken? It went up another forty votes as he watched, proving that it wasn’t broken, just slow. Her counter continued to rise – 500,000, 1 million. His counter flatlined at ninety as it started to flash, indicating that the votes were being finalized.
A lump formed in his throat as Emma Mae’s counter locked in at an unprecedented 6.8 million votes. Even though he didn’t want to look at his score, he had to know what the audience thought of him. 105 votes. He slumped in his chair, his body heavy with disappointment, as he sat there stunned. How could he have been so stupid? Why didn’t he submit a better video? If only he hadn’t been so cocky, so full of himself, if only he had taken a moment to listen to what his family and friends were trying to tell him. Not once during the submission process did he think about what being voted off the show actually meant. Of course, he knew. How could he not know? He had been watching the show for years. He knew what happened when someone lost. And yet, when presented with his contract, he signed on the dotted line without a second thought as to what he gave up.
As if on cue, Jake heard the soft shuffle of feet behind him and the click of a gun as it cocked.