Connecticut Post (Sunday)
Putting ‘Voice’ to good use
Sasha Allen, 19, doesn’t flinch when recounting threats, harassment, slurs and online bullying after coming out as transgender in high school.
Having been through all that, I ask if he ever considered taking the easy way out and not sharing his story in front of millions of people while performing with his father, Jim, on NBC’s “The Voice.” The only person Sasha fears, it seems, is himself.
“My future self would have been angry at me now if I had been too nervous to use the platform the way I wanted to. So I’m really glad that I did,” he says.
Not a bad song title, I jest: “My future self.”
Sasha and Jim, who live in Newtown, already see a future I can’t as we chat via Zoom. I am speaking to them with my fellow opinion editor Carolyn Lumsden after their “Voice” debut, harmonizing on “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” earned them a spot on pop superstar Ariana Grande’s team, but future episodes have already been taped. Every time there’s an opportunity to spill secrets, they reflexively revert to Mona Lisa smiles.
There’s another future they could not have foreseen. Just days after Sasha accurately observed “you only get so much trans representation on major television networks,” trans staffers at Netflix are planning a walkout. Comic Dave Chappelle’s trans-phobic “jokes” in his new special sparked a tone-deaf response from network coCEO Ted Sarando, who noted that Netflix showcases lesbian comedian Hannah Gadsby. If he had actually watched Gadsby’s first special on his own network, he would have known better. She promptly kicked both their butts on Instagram.
Which only made me admire Sasha’s choice even more. He has faced bullies. He knows the risk. So when he says, “I think it could help families a lot,” he’s thinking about the payoff. Not for himself or his dad, but for strangers.
Jim Allen sits next to his son as Sasha shares some ugly life experiences, including being ignored by educators who should have been the adults in the room.
He has faced bullies. He knows the risk. So when he says, “I think it could help families a lot,” he’s thinking about the payoff. Not for himself or his dad, but for strangers.
Sasha gestures air quotes when he recalls staff requests to “prove the existence of transgender people.” This would be challenging to share with anyone, let alone parents, journalists, the world.
“You do meet all kinds of people in life and sometimes you have to get through these things,” Jim remarks.
They both seem to simultaneously recognize the absurdity of the shorthand “these things.”
So they laugh.
Their body language is as in sync as their harmonies. When Jim makes a point to acknowledge teachers who were supportive, he turns for confirmation. Sasha nods gently.
There are also moments when Sasha checks in on his dad, such as when we mention the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy. When they were introduced to the studio audience as hailing from Newtown, it’s not hard to imagine the thoughts in the minds of audience members as they cheer. The Allens are clearly sensitive about how their hometown is represented, and appreciate the way NBC responded.
“It wasn’t turned into something that was drama for the story,” Sasha says.
It’s not all drama. This is a musical competition, after all. Given the stress of trying to hit the right notes in front of the judges (Grande, John Legend, Blake Shelton and Kelly Clarkson), it seems remarkable that Sasha, a visual artist as well as a performer, brought along his drawing of the Allens forming a trio with Shelton to present to the country singer.
“That was like the cherry on top of it all,” Sasha says. “Standing there and singing and knowing that I would have to deliver a picture to Blake Shelton.”
Things got a little easier during that blind audition when Grande and Clarkson spun their chairs to advance the duo.
Sasha acknowledges they might not even have auditioned if not for the pandemic. They know their choice of John Denver’s mellow “Leaving on a Jet Plane” was something of a gamble in this arena. Jim, a longtime performer and music teacher, notes that “it’s evocative and resonates across generations.” It also bridged their own gap, as they’ve sung it together for years.
Sasha points to Joni Mitchell’s “Carey” as the first song his father taught him on guitar as a child (there’s been a Jonissance of late, but I haven’t heard a teenager mention her since ... ever). Then he learned Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind.”
They are now avid members of Team Ariana. “What’s really exciting for both of us is to experience how the process of working with Ariana Grande really is starting to push us in terms of expanding our range in terms of the repertoire and ... vocally in terms of pitch,” Jim says.
These days, they swap songs from their generations, while writing their own. Jim is something of a musical journalist, reporting on true events in lyrics. Sasha described his own catalog as love songs or “inner teenager turmoil songs” with a “little bit of emo in there.”
What they haven’t done is write together.
“I don’t know why,” Sasha says, turning again to his dad as though in search of a reason.
There’s still time for that. Even his future self can’t predict a story that’s still being written.