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2011's Top Newsmakers: James Durbin and Chris Rene
By WALLACE BAINE - Santa Cruz Sentinel
Posted: 12/31/2011 04:46:27 PM PST

SANTA CRUZ - By the summer of 2011, it was already apparent that no one in Santa Cruz County had ever experienced a year quite like the year James Durbin was experiencing.

The 22-year-old native Santa Cruzan had gone from struggling young dad and pizza server to America's most famous new rock star in a matter of weeks, thanks to that most efficient of celebrity manufacturers, Fox's "American Idol."

Many locals who had been barely aware of "Idol" during its 10-year run suddenly became evangelists for the show and willing casualties to a Durbin pandemic, marked by irrational giddiness and obsession with a style of music that had elicited indifference or disapproval before.

It was only in the afterglow of "Durbin Day," a concert at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in May that attracted 30,000-plus idolators to see Durbin sing two songs, that Santa Cruzans were able to reflect on the heady melodrama of what happens when national celebrity strikes so suddenly and so intensely in a town not used to such a thing.

It was all rather dramatic and bedazzling. But then came something that bordered on the miraculous: The same thing happened all over again.

While Durbin was singing to the throngs at Main Beach that lovely spring Saturday, a young man named Chris Rene stood drinking coffee in the parking lot of the drug-and-alcohol rehab center Janus, just a short walk from Twin Lakes Beach. It was close enough that Rene could hear Durbin performing with the Santa Cruz band the White Album Ensemble over at Main Beach.

The next day, he read of the Durbin Day phenomenon in this newspaper. Said Rene in an October interview, "I just said to myself, 'Look at what this guy is doing? What are you doing with your life, Chris?'"

In September, Fox debuted "The X Factor," an American version of a show that had already been a hit in the U.K. The show was created by the famously acerbic Simon Cowell, who had been a judge on "American Idol" until 2010. Cowell played the same role in the new "X Factor," which was fundamentally the same show. It was Pepsi to "Idol's" Coke - and, if you've noticed the blatant product placement on either show, you know that's not a metaphor.

In the audition phase of the first season of "The X Factor," there were two Renes from Santa Cruz, Chris and his sister Gina, also a singer.

Chris Rene offered up a song he penned called "Young Homie," a warm, mid-tempo confessional rap ballad that nicely showed off Rene's whispery sweet vocal style. By year's end, "Young Homie" had collected an astonishing 10 million hits on YouTube, and had become the unofficial theme song for the show's first season.

And just like that, Rene began his climb

The differences between the two performers - the two do not know each other - are obvious once they open their mouths to sing.

Durbin, whose aesthetic interests lean toward WWE-style wrestling and heavy metal, is possessed of a singing voice of hurricane-force power and range. As "Idol's" resident hard rocker, his genre of choice nicely fit his singing style.

If Durbin's voice is a bear hug, Rene's, by contrast, is a caress, by turns sleepy and streetwise, which works best with the neo-R&B/rap sound that is his calling card.

Still, it is the similarities between the two that approaches spooky.

A year ago, both were struggling to make ends meet in menial

Durbin's father, Willy Durbin, is still remembered by many in the Santa Cruz music scene as a jazz bass player of uncommon talent, and his maternal grandfather played in a long-running Watsonville Band.

Rene's father, Googie Rene, was a blues and R&B recording artist of the early rock 'n' roll era. His grandfather, Leon Rene, wrote the song "Rockin' Robin."

But what more fundamentally tied Durbin and Rene together was their respective back stories, potent narratives of overcoming potentially crippling conditions, both played up by "Idol" and "X Factor" to the point of exploitation, yet both very real, at least on the ground in Santa Cruz.

As a young man, Durbin struggled with an eccentric personality that led to his being ostracized by his peers. Eventually, he was diagnosed with not one but two personality disorders: Asperger's, an often high-functioning form of autism; and Tourette's, which, in Durbin's case, took the form of uncontrollable facial tics.

Because of the publicity generated by his appearance on "Idol," Durbin became a symbol for transcending mental disorders, a role he took seriously. On Durbin Day, with a schedule full of rallies, meet-and-greets and high profile activities, not to mention a live concert, Durbin took the better part of an hour to meet with a small group of developmentally disabled young people in an event closed to the public and the media.

In November, during a local autograph session at Streetlight Records to celebrate the release of Durbin's first album, the line that reached around the block featured several such mentally disabled people, most of whom saw Durbin as a heroic figure who had, against all odds, risen from their own ranks.

A month later, Rene had his own hometown event, a live viewing and rally at the Catalyst broadcast on "The X Factor" finale show. Just as in the army of "Durbinators," this army of "Reneliens" featured more than a few people with an emotional connection with their hero's back story.

Rene's story of addiction was repeated many times on "The X Factor" over the course of the show's run, such that it was the fundamental part of his celebrity profile. But in Santa Cruz, where Rene had emerged from the local rehab community, recovering addicts and alcoholics saw in his crazy, unlikely journey a moving metaphor for the rewards of staying clean and sober.

Other cities and towns in the U.S. can claim a local hero rising to national stardom on much-hyped TV shows in 2011. But how many towns can claim two such heroes? And how many can point to their star as not just an amazing talent, but a walking, breathing, singing symbol of transcending what can often feel like hopeless circumstances?

In the end, James Durbin and Chris Rene turned out to be not just celebrated young performers who happened to live in Santa Cruz. They represented a specific kind of Santa Cruz orientation to the world, an individualistic different-drummer approach, and they did so on their respective shows in a way that sparked a visceral sense of civic pride.

On "American Idol," Durbin staked out his role as the hard rocker in a show that preferred vanilla country crooners and leather-lunged divas. On "The X Factor," Rene dared to perform original material and really found his best performances in the songs he wrote himself, when others were content to sing others' hits.

"I don't know what Middle America thinks of us out here," said one fan in line for the Rene viewing party. "We're all just a little funky here."