Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Universe of Vanilla

Fifty years ago today, the first Eurovision Song Contest was held. Tonight, the amped-up American descendant of that contest, American Idol, crowns its fifth winner.

The Eurovision Song Contest crowned its winner earlier this week when the Finnish rock band Lordi took the honor with a song called "Hard Rock Hallelujah." Lordi is probably the most unusual winner in the history of the contest. Unlike America's idols, who have to be amateurs or unsigned professionals, Lordi has had a couple of hit albums in Finland already. They're often compared to American acts like Kiss or Twisted Sister by elderly types like me, although a better metaphor for younger fans might be Korn or Insane Clown Posse.

I've never watched American Idol, but it's one of those cultural phenomena that's impossible to avoid even if you don't care, so I've got some opinions about it. First, if the Idols are all very much alike, that should surprise nobody. American Idol winners are the ultimate triumph of the mass market, and familiarity always trumps uniqueness in the mass marketplace. Not that there haven't been some variations on the theme: Kelly Clarkson was the generic white diva, Ruben Studdard the generic R&B lover man, Fantasia Barrino the generic black diva, Carrie Underwood the generic country diva. (The fact that I can remember those four names without having ever seen the show is evidence of its cultural reach.) Add in Clay Aiken, second-season runner-up, as generic country boy, and you've pretty much covered the universe of vanilla.

If anyone edgy ever auditions for the show, they don't make it to the end. A band like Lordi (whose website proclaims, "Bringing the balls back to rock and rock back to Eurovision") would cause Idol's talent coordinators to run screaming from the room. Last season's runner-up, Bo Bice, apparently came the closest to real rock-and-roll describes him as "a throwback to a time when cleaned-up hippies like Three Dog Night and the post-Al Kooper incarnation of Blood, Sweat & Tears dominated the charts, AM radio, and TV variety shows, acting the part of rockers to an audience that didn't quite like rock & roll." (So he didn't get all that close to credibility, really--but as close as an Idol contestant is permitted to get.) But the album he turned out in the wake of his second-place finish contained nothing of the charm that had gotten him to the last round. It was--wait for it!--generic and bland.

I could go off on how rock and roll, which at its best is outsider music, is contrary to Idol, which, despite its democratic aspects, represents the triumph of mass taste pre-shaped by music industry insiders. I could go off on how Idol winners can't really be termed "artists," based on my premise that art is supposed to show us and tell us things we can't see for ourselves. But I'd have a problem doing that, because of a little voice that starts scolding me whenever I do:
"Wait a minute. You have admitted to a fondness for bubblegum--and wasn't that stuff created by insiders, people like Jeff Barry and Ron Dante and Tony Burrows? How are Kelly and Justin and Ruben and Clay and Fantasia and Carrie and Bo and Taylor and Katherine any different from them? The Idol winners at least have to be judged before they become famous. At least they're real human beings. 'Bands' like the Archies and Edison Lighthouse and Brotherhood of Man were strictly studio creations. It wasn't like they were discovered by a talent scout at some Holiday Inn in Kansas singing songs about how bad Nixon was."
There's not a good answer to that little voice. If American Idol contestants don't have artistic authenticity (as I define it), they've got something else that has been critical to pop music for most of the last 100 years: the ability to make money for somebody, some for themselves, but far more for other people.

So here's the way to approach American Idol--as a money machine in the form of a diversion for millions of people who care passionately and who are entertained deeply (kinda like I am about bubblegum) and something that's not remotely intended to support high-falutin' expections involving art. (I hope someday to make an effective case for bubblegum as art, but it's not going to be today.) Also, given the current dynamics of pop music, the generic stars Idol creates would be extruded from other sources if the show didn't exist, so its net addition to the spiraling vapidity of pop culture is zero. It's harmless. So if you'll be watching tonight, have fun. That's what it's there for.

(And if you'll be watching, click "Comments" and tell the class why. I'd really like to know.)


At 1:58 PM, Blogger The Stepfather of Soul said...

OK, so I'm first to admit I'll be watching "American Idol" tonight. Shame on you for all of you who will watch it but won't post here!

You're absolutely right across the board about the type of "generic" acts the show creates and that it's a marketing machine. And indeed each of the prior winners fit neatly within a "fill in the blank" category of generic artist. Every season I get mad at myself for getting sucked into it and swear "this is it," but then there I am again.

So what do I watch? Because it's entertaining. It's Major Bowes Amateur Hour and Star Search brought into the current times. It's the fact that there's a competition and that you can pick a favorite (and an alternate favorite, and another alternate favorite) to root for. Sure it's mass entertainment, blanched for consumption for the masses. But like a "Big Mac attack," sometimes you just need that product, even if it's not good for you.

I think the reason "Idol" is so tough to swallow on a "recording artist" level is that the show serves two masters: it's a TV show, so the show has to provide mass appeal (therefore blandness), but since the winner actually gets a recording contract the desire is to find a winner who can fit in with one of those recording industry niches, however stereotypical. I think it's safe to say that you, me, and many readers of this blog aren't madly in love with most of the stuff played on mainstream radio, so all we can do is take (or leave) "American Idol" for what it is: an entertaining(?) TV show where folks sing for their supper.

At 8:23 PM, Blogger jabartlett said...

Many thanks to the Stepfather of Soul for his perspective.

Homework for everybody reading this: Visit the Stepfather's blog: You will find many, many great tunes and much knowledge.

At 8:31 AM, Anonymous David Federman said...

I don't mean to be snobbish, but "American Idol" is the consummation of matrix living. It's just that simple. No Thelonious Monk or Johnny Burnette will ever be allowed to appear on the show. No true peyote song will ever be sung there. No Robert Johnson blues will ever rise from the depths in the Kodak Theater. Do you think the powers that be will ever hand over the keys to the city to a young Mick Jagger or Billie Holiday? Taylor Hicks will always win the keys, the girl and the Caddy. Don't get me wrong. He's a nice, inoffensive, pleasantly talented guy. But he belongs to the matrix. He lives and dreams in a rock and roll gulag--a prisoner of corporate control. He is never going to pull Excalibur out of the rock, never see the grail, never sing my blues for me and never storm the ramparts with the merciful defiance and subversion of great music. I pray I am wrong about him. But until I am, his win is our great, tragic loss.

At 10:11 AM, Blogger The Stepfather of Soul said...

David, great remarks (nothing wrong with snobbery sometimes) re "American Idol." I think the reason why you'll never see a Thelonious Monk or a Mick Jagger on a show like "Idol" is because the creation of transcendent music is always from the ground floor. "The powers that be" are totally unable to create that type of art. They are able to steer public taste, etc., by using their wealth and media control, but in the end it's always a case of someone creating something and then "the powers that be" coming along to assimilate it. Therefore, all that a show like "Idol" can do is create an assimilated product.

I must say, however, that snobbery about such "grass roots" musical artistry can be a trap. Charles Keil's Urban Blues discusses how music critics heaped immense praise on the old country bluesmen but turned a tin ear to B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and their contemporaries. The critics were so consumed by the "raw, primal" nature of the old guys, romanticizing those artists' poverty and lack of education, that they failed to recognize the King and Bland were leading the way in the black community and producing excellent music along the way.

At 12:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

American Idol is like any other phenomenon. There's an enormous number of people who love it and a lot of people (like me) who really don't give a flip about it. On the other hand, I'm a HUGE Green Bay Packer fan. To their fans, the Packers are an incredible phenomenon. Fans from all over flock to their games, buy their merchandise, and never miss a minute of action. Still, there are lots of other people who really don't care. The same is true for NASCAR, Opera, Barney, Howard Stern, and polictal candidates...never mind that more Americans participated in voting on American Idol than the 2004 Presidential election.

At 2:12 PM, Blogger Willie said...

Except on Idol, you can vote mutiple times. Not so in the Presidential election, unless you live in Chicago. LOL

At 8:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said... the 2000 Presidential election, I'm sure there were some people who voted at least more than once, perhaps in Florida. ---Shark

At 11:40 PM, Anonymous Charlie Shill said...

Poor bohemians that cannot find dead men playing music in their living rooms. It's TV, guys, don't expect too much and your world will remain on it's tracks. Jeez, for people who never watch the show (or, if you are a true believer, don't own a TV), you sure can crank out many column inches of dissection. You have a life you enjoy, fine, but do not belittle anyone who enjoys their different lifestyle. P.S., while I heartily endorse the concept of the national talent show, American Idol as a program sucks a mighty wind.


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