Friday, May 23, 2008

On American Idol

A COUPLE OF PEOPLE have inquired as to why The Weekly Rader has shied away from reality TV, citing American Idol as an example of the intersection of media, pop culture, and the arts. True enough. Idol is like no other show on television--or better or worse--and it is an odd melange of commerce, criticism, and camp. I've not written about it in part because I don't keep up with it as religiously as one might if he, say, wanted to come off as an expert, but I have been following this year's competition, mostly because of David Cook.

Though David Archuleta seems like one of the sweetest closeted boys ever to come from Utah (and that's saying something), he really brought very little to his songs except his big voice. In general, his renderings of those songs were pleasing, but vanilla. He has no bite, no gravitas. On the other hand, Cook not only seems to know music and music history, he also clearly understands the art of arrangement. Every song he sang, he made his own. He, too, was a bit too earnest at times, but I liked how he tried to expand the range of what American Idol talent might be and perhaps even upgrade the musical palette of the loyal Idol viewer.

What I don't like about American Idol is how narrowly the show defines what "American popular music" is. Most of the singers are young, not particularly interesting, and almost entirely without edge. Nearly every performance, and the subsequent judges' comments, reward bombast over nuance, power over precision. What turns me off the show is the now ubiquitous closed-eyed, fist raised and clenched, I'm-so-overcome-with-the-power-of-my-voice trumpet blast of a singing. Who ever said such drama, such over-the-topness, is or should be American music? Belting out power chords may be American, but that doesn't make it good.

A critic at Entertainment Weekly recently said that one of the problems with Idol is what he calls its "forced spontaneity." That's less of an issue for me. What I object to is linking a powerful singing voice with being an idol.


  1. I agree...I grew quite weary of those who could belt it out with their powerful, shouty voices mainly because we all know they can sing...alright...why shove it down our throats? Now, when hitting a powerful note adds effect to a performance, then that's one thing, but belting just to belt is like talking just to hear oneself speak. If it doesn't add to the it.

    There is something to be said for brevity...who said it, oh I forget his name.

    On another note, David Cook did offer something to this competition...artistry.

    Alexa K.

  2. Blog-meister,

    This is not indie-music idol or college radio up-and-comer idol, it's American Idol and it's on Fox no less. So of course those who are bombastic and "branded" will have the edge.

    I did not watch much this year but it seemed the young African-American woman who came in third (?) had talent out the ying-yang and was a song bird. Contrast that with the clod Taylor Hicks who won last year. He had the car-crash factor going for him--so hideous you could not take your eye off it/him.

    The motto for many things in the public eye could be "just because it's popular doesn't make it good." (Just check most baseball and soccer games as proof....)

    This is not art. It's about ratings and marketing crud to the demographic that buys the stuff. Bombast sells in the USA.

  3. The Weekly RaderMay 27, 2008 at 10:40 AM

    True dat, Pi, but I wonder if there is a middle ground between "art" and "bombast" that is both accessible and enjoyable?

    Alexa is right that bigness for the sake of, um, bigness, is just overkill.