Friday, January 30, 2009

Kill Your "Idols"

This may be the make or break year for American Idol. With its eighth season underway, the producers are scrambling for anything they think might inject some fresh blood into the show and pull it out of its three-year slump in viewership. With the economy in crisis and music industry CEOs starting to feel the pinch, the prospect of losing one of their biggest cash-cows is horrifying indeed (at least for them), and they are clearly desperate for anything that can help them bridge the ever-widening gap between profitability and substance.

Look closely enough, and the contradictions have always been there. On one hand, American Idol puts on display the fact that there lies an immense sea of talent and creativity in the masses of ordinary working people. It's precisely why millions of folks tune into the show every week hoping to see a little bit of themselves becoming a star. On the other hand, it's obvious that the AI producers would have no idea what to do with most of the talent out there.

Last season saw the show constantly criticized for being out of touch. Critics grew tired of the same old formula. They took to task the monotonous, stale litany of celebrity guests, each of which only seemed to cement AI's disconnect from current popular tastes (Dolly Parton and ZZ Top? Really?). That America's best-known judges predicted the barely pubescent David Archuleta's deep-fried Disney voice would beat out David Cook--even as the latter's impressive stage presence would gain him the victory by over 12 million votes--further confirms how out of it the show has indeed become.

And so, recent years have seen the show try to "shake things up." First, they allowed contestants to play their own instruments. Then they allowed original material to be sung during auditions. Now they've upped the team of three judges--Simon, Paula and Randy--to four by adding record producer Kara DioGuardi. It's a bit strange to think that DioGuardi, one of the most established figures in the record industry and daughter of former Republican Congressman John DioGuardi, might somehow be more relatable to middle America.

DioGuardi is certainly in good company. Watching Cowell, Jackson and Abdul stretching to bring in people with "originality" is quickly becoming the most entertaining part of the show. That's because no matter how much AI attempts to widen the pool, it still ends up shoving all the contestants into the narrowest of funnels. One has to give show creator Nigel Lythgoe credit; he certainly realizes that every groundbreaking musical act has come from among the masses. What he's completely missed is that none of them--from Billie Holiday to the Beatles to Grand Master Flash--made their name by dumbing themselves down or fitting into a "type."

Despite the show's stabs at genuine populism, its very existence as part of an increasingly out-of-touch music industry means that American Idol will never truly be able to fill the gap between top-down and bottom up. In fact, one could even argue that AI represents not an attempt at opening the gates, but tightening the industry's grip around music itself.

Think about it: other than Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson none of the crowned "Idols" have had a visible recording career lasting more than a few years. Though some have gone on to successful theatre and movie gigs, most have faded from the public view rather quickly. Given that most record companies keep close tabs over artists' first two or three albums, American Idol has definitely given the industry a renewed sense of control over some of their biggest stars.

Veteran rock critic and historian Dave Marsh framed the dynamic quite well in a recent interview:

"You go on American Idol and what's your run? Your run is 18 months to three years... you ain't getting to the third album, you're certainly not getting to the fourth! By the third album the curve is down and they [the record company] are gonna go work on somebody new--which is a new phenomenon... Why is that? The record companies figured out something that is very basic to their economics, which is that if you're going to build a career like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen who makes more than fifty or a hundred albums... [you're going to start] really getting paid for them... So the record companies, I think, made probably a fairly conscious decision at the highest levels not to have long-term stars anymore because it's too expensive."

This is, in essence, what American Idol is. It is a machine built for churning out quick, ready-made stars who can be discarded at will after all the money has been squeezed out. Though the show may drape itself in some vaguely democratic American dream, it's really run by the same short-sighted bottom line as any mortgage company or shadow banker.

Perhaps this is why the ratings for Idol's season premiere have declined for the third year in a row. It's hard to revel in the success of "one of your own" when so many others are losing their homes, jobs and any basic sense of certainty in their lives. And therein lies the crux. Tapping into the massive amounts of talent and creativity among folks out there would require a lot more than a contest. It ultimately means doing away with the system that pits us against one another in the first place.

This article first appeared on



Krisna Best said...

Wow, man. You killed it with that one. I'm definitely a fan of the show even though I am aware of some of its limitations. But you really touched on something towards the end when you talk about why artists get dropped after two or so albums. It is the standardization and mechanization of all social life, including the recording industry. You got the wheels turning bro.

You are also absolutely right about the fact that it has hinted at a genuine populism at times. We see this in the range of folks who audition (and who we many times bust up laughing at).

What we also need to consider as part of the dynamism of the show is its direct democratic aspects. Keeping in mind the slipping viewership, more people turned out to vote in the final show of Season 5 than they did in the 2005 presidential election. This is very telling that people find more legitimacy in AI than they do in the government.

There is no electoral college in American Idol and the artists, in a way, represent a valid tendency within the American people. Archuleta had a huge following indeed, but we can't forget that he lost to a much more original and "relatable" artist.

I was blown away in Season 5 that Taylor Hicks won over Katherine McPhee (clearly the more marketable choice). It was a testament to the fact that while folks may not download Taylor Hicks music (some will, but I sure won't), they thought he was a better representation of the sentiments and spirit of this country. The dude was completely open about his emulation of Ray Charles.

Lots more could be said about this, but I really dug this piece. Thank you.

Joye said...

Great article. And great comment form KB. We at least feel that we have some say in who makes it. And so many of us want to be doing our dream job that we do tune in to watch others reach their dream. Today, that may be easier for others to get to their dream job than we know. Recording COnnection has been for more than 20 years putting people in the music business who really want to be there. No, if it was me and I could sing and I didn't get on American Idol. I would so go to RC for 6 months and work hard while I tried to get the singing noticed. Learning an extra music industry job would be a bonus to getting the singing noticed Or any musical talent. It's a door and those doors should be open to all.