American Idol is back, despite the challenges of a sudden pandemic.
Last season was abruptly interrupted, returning after a hiatus in which the show’s executives created a system for a socially distanced finale.
Now that it’s time to begin a brand-new season, there are many questions about how the socially distancing measures will manifest, start to finish.
For one MTSU student, the answers to these questions will have a direct impact.
MTSU Musical Theatre major Devin Bowles scored a private audition with American Idol producers this season and currently waits to learn what’s next.
Bowles has been an MTSU student for four and a half years, in the midst of his final semester before graduation. “It’s been going great. I mean, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my time here,” he said. “I’m really, really happy.”
Over the summer of 2015, between his junior and senior years of high school, Bowles attended the Governor’s School for the Arts for Theatre at MTSU, “Which is a great camp if anybody can go,” Bowles advocated. He made connections with many of the professors and department figureheads. In that summer, he realized that MTSU was where he wanted to apply to pursue his higher education in the field of his passion.
“I met a lot of my professors that I still have now and that… was like… I know them; they know what I can do; I know what they can help me with,” he said.
Another draw to the university was its proximity to Music City.
“I knew, coming to MTSU, I could somewhat indulge in the Nashville entertainment scene and that’s worked out so far,” Bowles said.
“Coming to MTSU, I knew that they were going to provide me opportunities that could not only grow… my craft but also expose me to people who can help me level up my craft,” he added.
So far, his instincts about the opportunities afforded by MTSU have been spot on.
The 22-year-old baritone has participated in many conferences, competitions and auditions.
So, when the opportunity for American Idol came along, he was prepared.
He’s performed in Nashville, Washington, D.C., and even New York – a “bucket list home” for him. In 2019, he won a highly competitive regional competition, earning a scholarship to attend a five-day Broadway Intensive in New York. “It’s basically a whole week of… master classes, workshops, mock auditions, auditions… in front of people that are like head honcho in the industry,” Bowles explained. That is where his love affair with New York really blossomed.
“I mean, the first time in New York – it was life-changing,” Bowles said.
“There is where I knew that I could do what I’m pursuing… You know, no matter what level I end up on I just knew that this is what I could do. So, MTSU basically sent me to New York and… I was representing them, and I was so happy.”
Now, he hopes to represent MTSU through an even larger platform.
Bowles is a student of experience. He looks to sources of inspiration from many places and hopes to be that inspiration to others.
“No matter what level or caliber you find yourself on in the entertainment business … you can impact somebody. …No matter what caliber you strive to be on, you can impact somebody. Especially if they have the same interest and passion as you. It can happen. And it’s going to happen, whether you think it is or not, you know?”
“You never know who’s watching… you never know who’s listening, and… part of my obligation as an artist is to be cognitive of that. Is to realize what energy I put out, what vibe I put out. And… in order for me to keep that up is to grow. Is to be influenced. And I want to impact others while also being impacted. So… the impact is definitely the biggest factor of it all,” Bowles said.
His discovery of his calling began years ago, thanks to the impact of local educators in his hometown of Jackson, Tennessee.
Jackson is where Bowles grew up. It’s where his family lives, and it’s where he went to middle and high school. It’s also where his interest in performance was first discovered.
“Mr. Johnny Kimbrough, he was my choir director, and Mrs. Jenna Britt. Those two people… they saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself in middle school and high school,” Bowles said.
The very first time he was asked to perform is still a vivid memory in his head.
“It was a little pop concert my freshman year. And Mrs. Britt was like, ‘Devin, you should… sing a song or something.’ And I was like, ‘I’m good. Thank you though.’ And she kept… getting after me, and one thing led to another, and I end up singing with a bunch of my good friends. And the next year I was like, ‘I’m going to try out for the school musical.’”
Once he got a taste of the musical theatre experience, the dye was cast.
“I played Roger in ‘Grease.’ And it’s when I knew. I was like, ‘Whoa; I like doing this.’ And I see that I can change people’s lives with this. I can put a smile in somebody’s life… on somebody’s face. And I can sing them things that they enjoy. I love that.”
This theatrical proclivity took him by surprise.
“It was weird because my brother played football, SEC football; my uncles played college football… my cousins played college football. And football was… that was the life. It was sports. And I don’t regret growing up that way because I still love sports… don’t get me wrong. I just knew that I wasn’t going to have that future like they did. And I’m just so happy that the arts created a path and God created a path for me that I can just… soar in. …It’s been awesome so far,” Bowles said.
“Sports was a big part of my life, but I’m glad that God, like, said, ‘Go to the edge,’ and put me in the arts. So, I’m happy. It’s been great so far and hopefully, His plan prevails, which I know it will.”
After graduating high school and beginning his education at MTSU, Devin Bowles never lost sight of the things that were important to him. He stayed humble and has been consistently delighted at the barrage of positive feedback and encouragement that he’s been met with along his journey.
He’s also been receptive to trying unusual or fantastic opportunities that have come along. That’s how his American Idol quest began.
“I received an email from my professor, Kristi Shamburger, who is the head of MT here at MTSU,” Bowles began. (MT stands for the department of Musical Theater.)
“She sent me this email that was forwarded down… and it originally came from a guy named Odie Blackmon. Odie Blackmon… is a professor over at the RIM department – Recording Industry Major – and… he is a recruiter for American Idol.”
“And so, she was like, ‘Hey, Devin… he is looking for a few MT singers to do some submissions. You never know… just send something in.’”
But Bowles’s initial reaction was hesitant.
“Honestly, when I first got it, I was like… singing shows? I’ve always watched them in the past, but I’ve never been like ‘I want to be on that,’ you know? I was never like that. So, I was like… I don’t know about this.”
“The next week, I found myself making some video for some other projects and I was like… let’s just go ahead and just knock something out. And let’s just go ahead and put something together. So, I went in the dance studio at Murphy Center and I recorded about two or three songs – I, like, went in iMovie and I… customized them and everything,” Bowles said.
“I sent it to Mr. Odie that night.”
According to Bowles, the choice yielded very immediate results.
“The next morning, he was like… ‘Devin… we loved your voice. I love your personality. I’m going to send this to our producers ASAP.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, wow!’ You know? It was like ‘Wow!’”
“I was expecting, I don’t know, a week or two or a month’s response; it happened so quickly,” Bowles said.
Then, events continued to progress at a rapid pace.
“The next day, after he sent me that response, I get put in this email thread… and it’s, like, attached to like four or five people, and it’s… American Idol producers.
“It was just like, ‘Hey, Devin,’ you know, ‘we loved your video, we love your energy, your personality.’ And at this point, I’m just like, ‘Y’all got the wrong Devin.’ You know? I was just like ‘there’s no way.’”
Contained within the email were logistics about the audition process, including a request for a private audition, with the intent of getting to know him a little more personally.
“We want to have a private audition with you, we want to know who you are as a person, what makes you tick, and just take it from there,’” Bowles summarized.
Before he even attended that follow up audition, he’d become the talk of the theatre department. Odie Blackmon had asked Bowles for permission to make a flyer spreading the word of his good news, and it was distributed via email very shortly thereafter.
The positive feedback and reinforcement from his teachers and peers started to roll in, but Bowles never lost touch with his humility.
“I’m so grateful; I’m so supported. It was awesome,” he recalled.
Then, the day of the follow-up audition came. An American Idol producer named Peter Cohen was one of the members of the show’s team to connect with Bowles and get to know him. He turned out to be incredibly supportive of Bowles’s bid for consideration, encouraging two separate callbacks on the same day.
During that busy Friday, Bowles filled out personality questionnaires, met other auditioning singers in a virtual waiting room, and sang several song choices to different groups of producers.
“I think I sang a total of like three times that Friday. It was like from 1 p.m. all the way to like 4 p.m. It was all on Zoom.”
Bowles sang four different songs for the producers – “A House is Not a Home” by Luther Vandross, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” by the Four Tops, “Feeling Good” by Michael Bublé, and “Ain’t Too Proud” by The Temptations. Most of these songs are in the Motown/R&B genre, which Bowles said is his favorite. The contemporary choice was sung on request.
“One of the producers in the room was like, ‘Do you have anything contemporary?’ I was like, ‘I think so.’ So… that was… not a challenge, but it was something that was unexpected. They suggested what they wanted to see, which was, you know, that’s how auditions work.”
Bowles has had lots of experience with auditions of varying degrees of renown, but this was certainly one of the most iconic broadcast opportunities that’s come his way.
“It was great – the American Idol logo was there and everything.… Now we’re playing the waiting game.”
Bowles said that most thoughts first turn to the possibility of his appearance on TV, as a result of everything so far. But he says that this conclusion is not a given, yet.
He’s also not certain what the in-person auditioning process might be like, though he does believe there will be an in-person stage.
When the pandemic first upset the show’s regular process last year, everything – even the finale – was made entirely remote. How showrunners handle the evolving landscape of a COVID-threatened world is still to be seen.
Though he can make no guarantees about getting cast, he feels that he has represented himself well up to this point.
“I feel confident about… what I sang for them and how I brought myself to the table, and that’s all you can ask for, you know? Bring yourself and then the rest of the cards will fall in place as they deserve,” he said.
Bowles’s positive attitude is infectious. It is little wonder that he was so well-received by his talent scouts.
“Peter Cohen… the initial producer… talked to me about personality, and he was like… ‘Your personality and your energy really shines through the Zoom.’”
“Even the initial video that I made for Mr. Odie; he had made a comment about how he loved the… comfort that I brought in the video. How I was just like, ‘Hey, this is me. And this is what I love to do, and I hope you enjoy.’ And it was more of that mentality instead of ‘Hey! This is why I should win!’ You know? It was more like ‘Hey… thank you for allowing me to be here and make this video, so now I can show you what I love to do best… Hope you enjoy.”
“I think that was more the energy that… Mr. Peter and Mr. Odie liked… well, at least I hope they did!”
He admits that he did experience an initial excitement at the prospect of a national television credit, but then he recentered himself.
“At the end of the day… this American Idol audition is the same as any other audition you’ve done in your life. You go in, you perform what you’ve prepared,” he said.
“I think the best mentality to go in with it is like, hey. I’m going to bring myself to them. I’m going to show them what I can do, not what I can’t do, and then their job is to take it and run with it, you know? I mean… that’s the only thing I can control, is how I react and how I act.”
As he experienced it, he recognized that he’d been practicing for this ever since that first show in high school.
“The thought that came into my mind was like, ‘Okay, a little different feel, little different arena, but the same game.’ And that’s what I had to continue to… remind myself. Like, this is just the same thing… treat it like a performance, you know? And, yeah that was my thought. It was definitely exciting and exhilarating to try to dive right into that.”
“I just know that if it ended today… I’m happy that I got to sing in front of some American Idol producers. But if not, let’s keep going! Like, it’s one of those things where I feel really, really chill about it… and I’m happy to be just where I am, having that opportunity to be exposed,” Bowles said. He noted that it’s especially incredible to be presented with such opportunities at his young age. He’s 22 years old.
“No matter how the results turn out, the artist in me is going to want to know what can I fix to continue to grow?” he said.
“When the results do come back… will I get passed or will I get cut? I don’t know.… I do know that I will have that moment of… ‘what could I have done better?’”
“I’m just trying to make everybody proud,” Bowles reinforced.
Most importantly, he wants himself and his community to grow from this experience. His focus isn’t on the personal glory that the future may have in store for him.
“If I were to win American Idol, a year from now… I want to still give back to people. I still want people to know that they could do what I… did. And all this is a big theoretical if, but… I would still want to continue to grow my craft so I can touch other people who want to grow the same craft. That’s basically, literally all… that drives me,” he said.
The thought that someone could see him thanks to this national platform and feel inspired? “That lifts my head off my pillow in the morning,” said Bowles.
Author Darby McCarthy is currently an undergraduate student at MTSU, majoring in Journalism in the College of Media and Entertainment. The views and opinions expressed above are her own.