Wednesday, March 29, 2006

American Idol (review) Getting Down to 9

On a night that felt more like I was watching “American Valium” than “American Idol”, there were at least three really strange moments.  The first came after Mandisa did a rock-gospel shout out to the Lord as sort of a testimony to her faith amidst the lion's den of American Idol where Simon compared her to a “stripper” last week then called her “sexy”.  

Paula responded, “I worship at the Church of Mandisa”, which to put it diplomatically was probably not anywhere close to the reaction that the Sacramento-raised singer had meant to evoke (some silly business about “false idols”)

Simon then just shook his head at her and said “Nope, not for me. I’m afraid.”

I watched Mandisa stand on stage next to Ryan with her eyes suddenly wide open and sad, saying nothing, while she possibly wondered if spirit and tv celebrity mix.  

Certainly, there have been singers who could go between singing sacred and commercial music without compromising either.  Aretha Franklin’s, Spirit in the Flesh album, comes to mind as does Mahalia Jackson, who might have been better than any singer of the last century at emotionally touching a non-Christian audience without compromising her spiritual roots.  To go back and listen to either makes you question how Christian Music devolved into Amy Grant ( I actually like Amy Grant).  The great Christian music from J.S. Bach on down through Mahalia has always had this transcendent quality that makes even non-believers listen and go “Whatever he or she has, I got to get some of that because I must be missing something in my life.”

Many years ago, I was bicycling across the country and my group was hosted by the Unitarian Church of Roanoke, Virginia.  At the dinner, our hosts seemed a lot like us, informed, good hearted, but ultimately sort of chatty and pleasant.  I know I’m insulting the very fine folk who are serious Unitarians, Universalists, Congregationalists, but particularly in the south, they struck me as people who needed to appear to go to Church, but didn’t necessarily have strong beliefs about any particular doctrine.  These people would never lead you into the Crusades or any other kind of war for that matter, but they quite possibly might never lead you into heaven and certainly not sainthood.  

At the end of the dinner, the Unitarians had invited a Black Gospel Choir to serve as the evening’s entertainment.  The effect in this room full of real estate agents and middle-aged professionals who happily chatted about mortgage rates and healthy diets was palpable.  The Gospel Choir had a deep abiding faith that emanated through their music and haunted the space.  “The spirit matters and really great music tells us that,”  was the only lyric that I remember.

At the end of the performance, I  pulled aside one of the soloists and said “That was incredible.  Do you ever do any secular songs?”

Obviously, it was a stupid thing to say and I guess my only excuse was that I was thinking about Aretha Franklin or maybe like the 1987 equivalent of Idol, almost like “Don’t you want to make big bucks off your voice?”.  The woman stared at me, a la Mandisa at Paula and Simon (talk about weirdly Biblical names for judges) and said politely, “No, we only sing for the Lord.”

To her, God was a real-powerful force that justified and gave her music whatever capacity it had to touch an audience of non-believers like myself.  

Mandisa’s greatest strength as a contestant on Idol beyond her voice has been a sense of emotional centeredness.  It’s very odd, but when she took on the kind of music that mattered most to her personally, instead of amplifying that strength it diminished it.  I don’t know if this was her God’s way of telling her “Not here, not this way,” but it brings me back to Paula’s worshipping at the Church of Mandisa.  The comment was appalling but bizarrely accurate in summing up all that was right and all that was missing from Mandisa’s attempt to transform her stay on American Idol into ministry.  She sang about the Lord but didn’t quite touch the Simons of the world in the way that she managed so well when she calmly told Simon that Jesus would forgive him for making fun of her size.

The two other strange moments on this week’s Idol both involved Chris Daughtry.   It’s apparent that there’s some intern at Fox who tracks message boards and blogs for rumors about the show and the contestants.  So Ryan, the host and spinmeister, now does these one on one chats with the object of our collective pixel-based gossip and tries to “cool down” the buzz.  So, there was Chris talking about how much he loved “Live’s” cover of Walk the Line and how he was trying to pay tribute to both Live and Jaoquin Phoenix all at once, not take false credit for it and to beg them not to sue the show.  The Washington Post then jumped in by announcing that Chris Daughtry was no longer one of the candidates to replace Ben Domenech as the right wing voice on their website.    

To which I ask,”What kind of alt rocker would do Image Control with Ryan Seacrest? Isn’t alt rock about having a sense of independence?”

Daughtry then did a very edgy song by Creed built around the refrain “What if”  which I think you’re supposed to make sound like “What F”.  Daughtry did his rocker thing reasonably well, but how do you make yourself genuinely anarchic and rebellious under a blue and white neon sign that says “American Idol brought to you by Ford and Coca Cola”.  Didn’t the guy see Fight Club?

After weeks of calling the guy uncompromising and a “true” artist, the judges got tough on him this time.  Randy accused him of singing “sharp” and Simon did this “Creed wouldn’t be caught dead on this show, Chris it’s time for you to do a Bee Gees song or maybe some Trisha Yearwood.”

Next week, I hear that Chris is going to come out in a hairpiece and blue suit with tie loosened ever so casually to do an Elvis Costello cover of Burt Bacharach.  Either that or I hope he does a duet with Bo Bice some time soon, so I can watch them play tug of war with the mike stand.

I’m not sure why American Idol’s venture into the music of the 21st century didn’t work.  The judges talk constantly about sounding “new and fresh”, but Idol’s actual musical sensibilities are hardly avant garde. Fresh in Idol terms is like New Coke vs. Classic Coke or low carb Whoppers.  One of the things that hit homepage for me last night was that I didn’t know most of the music other than the Kelly Clarkson and the Gavin Dagrew “I Don’t Wanna Be” that Bo Bice covered pre-Elliot.  In the 20th century, which began with Louis Armstrong being born on July fourth 1900 (at least according to Louis Armstrong), American pop music became the world’s pop music.  Arguably jazz, blues, rock and roll, soul, and country which are all products of 20th century America remain this nation’s most enduring contribution to world culture, though I do realize that some people insist that the Brady Bunch and fast food are a close second.  I wouldn’t really expect to find the 21st century equivalent of Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Frank Loesser, or Loretta Lynn on a show like American Idol, but if this was the music of this century thus far it makes me a little sad.

Part of the power of 20th Century American pop music is that blues, jazz, and rock are perfect expressions of American national distinctiveness.   All three combined African rhythm and improvisation, especially the integral role of the drum beat, with European tonality and instrumentations into something that didn’t exist on either continent.  At the turn of the last century, melody was largely king in pop music.  American music made melody and beat more or less democratic partners.  Eventually, all three forms also absorbed America’s growing role as an industrial power.  Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday were two of the first singers to not only master, but  build their art around the microphone.  Rock and roll combines the twin foundations of American industry, electricity and steel, expressed through the electric guitar.  20th century pop music is quite possibly the basis of our common culture in a country whose people come from anywhere at any time.

I have no idea what the music of the Information Age, post NAFTA, America will be.  I just know that it hasn’t come forward yet and that our popular music has fractured in the quest.  In the meantime, I hear hip hop, but don’t really know it (neither does American Idol which seems to disdain the  most “modern” pop music form going).  I might know who Billy Joe is but I’d never recognize Green Day on the radio.  Similarly, I know what Faith Hill and Gwen Stefani look like but I can’t necessarily name any of their songs.  Yes, the simple explanation may be that I’m just a fogey who remembers Fogerty as a member of Creedence and half expects to hear "Stuck in Lodi" when someone says he’s doing “Creed”.  

At the same time, I think that our music is not the culturally binding force it once was.  Blame it on cable and the mp3, but as a child I might not have liked Sinatra, Elvis, or David Ruffin,but I knew who they were, what they sang, and what they sounded like.  There were three channels on the television and a handful of radio stations, most taking bribes from the same record companies, playing substantially the same “new” music.  Even the dorkiest junior high teacher of the time would know who the Rolling Stones were or even say Hendrix or Cream.  It seems strange now, but the Rolling Stones if they didn't spend the night at least spent some time together and the Doors who never got much higher both appeared on Ed Sullivan next to Senor Wences and a group of poodles who could ride bicycles.  We tend to look back on the 60’s as a time of discord in America, but American music still held America together.  In the words of Kevin Kline in the Big Chill “Sixties music remains the only music that matters” in any culturally resonant way where music remained deeply social rather than a mere path to wealth.

I’ve often wondered about American Idol as a cultural phenomenon.  The vast majority of viewers don’t actually run out and buy the winners’ music or even download their mp3s.  My current theory is that in this very politically and culturally divisive time in America where  middle ground seems virtually unachievable, American Idol holds out the promise that a middle is still somehow possible.  Millions of people vote, in an election sponsored by a cell phone company, and the show itself is one of the last icons of network TV’s power to reach the full cross section of America.  In fact, I don’t know of any other show that gets followed by grandmothers, teenagers, gays, soccer moms, NASCAR  dads, etc.  I suspect, though, that the bulk of viewers who actually vote tend to be teenaged and female.  

The hard thing about watching the 21st Century theme night was to see how far apart all the contestants really were.  There was along with Chris and Mandisa, Kellie Pickler doing Suds in a Bucket, Elliot stretching out with “I Don’t Wanna Be”, Bucky doing Tim Mcgraw, and Katharine taking on Christina Aguilera with most of the high notes missing until the end.  I found myself looking at 10 singers as each tried to define a niche, but none made a case for the proposition that all of America should listen to and talk about him or her tomorrow. In its way, the show was an eloquent expression of the rise of Ipod culture.  We don’t listen together nearly as much as we listen to what we want when we want by ourselves.

Where things stand for me,

Taylor dialed the tick and whoo meter back a lot.  It was nice to see that they’re options for him not compulsions.  

Katharine didn’t sound almost as good as Christina Aguilera to my ear.  They criticized Lisa Tucker for taking on a song that was too big for her voice, but that also might apply to Katharine who took on material that might have been too rangy. Just as bad, there was no emotional connection to the lyric.  

It wasn’t painful to hear Lisa Tucker take on Kelly Clarkson, but it was painful to watch her encounter with the judges.  She clearly thought she had done pretty well before Randy went at her.  She appeared caught between trying to laugh it off and crying in dismay and both emotions seemed oddly unfamiliar to her. I wish her well, but she’s not long for the show.  I personally don’t think it’s the size of her voice, but her lack of apparent dynamics.  She doesn’t seem to have fine control over the loud/soft thing that sends off a sense of ease and command from the singer.
I’m surprised by the number of Bucky fans on the internet.  Why did the black cowboy hat  remind me less of Tim Mcgraw and more of the Brokenote Cowboy group from the Hollywood segment of the auditions?  

I kept thinking that Paris was auditioning for one of those Motown Revival Specials. Part of me wanted to react with, "Well Dick, I give that one a 71 because it had a great beat and it's good to dance to."  This is a song Fantasia, who appears to be a non person in Idoldom these days, would have killed.   Paris certainly was credible, but I’m not sure she was memorable with Beyonce's anthem to aerobics class.  

Kellie also dialed her act back a bunch.  This time she went for the wholesome country girl just singing the music she likes and away from Minnie Pearl meets Jessica Simpson.  One of the dangers of singing in your zone though is that people actually expect you to be good at it.  

Ace didn’t perform well, but he struck that note of defiance when Ryan asked him if he had regrets about his song choice and I liked that hint of independence from a guy who's come off a bit too soft-edged both as a singer and a personality.  

I’m not sure who dressed Elliot with the hooded jacket, sort of Eminem as lounge lizard, but he continues to sing pretty well.  

Simon and Randy kept saying “This is the night when we get to see what kind of music you guys might actually record.”

First I wonder what Ayla Brown was thinking as she watched at home between timeouts of the NCAA Women’s final four which appears to be a rerun of the ACC tournament.  Poor kid is probably muttering something under her breath that should stay “unwritten”.

Second, maybe it wasn’t the singers.  Maybe last night just reminded us how stagnant, insubstantial, and non-transcendent our pop music has become. Does anyone remember when music literally did move people to change their society for the better?  

Chancelucky out.

Other Chancelucky Idol Reviews


At 3/30/2006 12:33:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Pastor Steve,
thanks for dropping by. If I ever worked for a tv show, it would probably lose its entire audience inside of 3 weeks.

At 4/01/2006 12:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

American Idol Blog

At 4/01/2006 10:14:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks Moonchild and thanks for dropping by anonymous.


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