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 credibility--Allmusic.com 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.)