The Musings of

Something full of magic, religion, bullsh*t.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Does democracy really sound like Clay Aiken?

I have never watched American Idol for the simple reason that I am not impressed with the "talent" of the contestants. As I understand the concept, the A.I. folks are in the business of creating pop stars. Toward that end, they pick a group of regular people who can sing and bring them together to see who can sing the best. People watch, people vote, and, voila, you have a bona fide pop star or two at the end of every season. To win the show they don't have to play an instrument or ever write a song; they just have to sing.

Boiled down, A.I. is nothing but a huge karaoke contest with the contestants singing lifeless, warmed-over songs. After a season ends, each winner (or perceived winner) is pulled into the studio by the A.I. production company where they get to pick out a group of songs that are written by other people, played by other people, and specifically tailored to a particular niche in the music market. Kelly Clarkson? Girl pop. Clay Aiken? Adult contemporary. Fantasia? R&B. It is cookie-cutter music production for unsophisticated listeners, from performers who have not been forced to work their way up from obscurity. It is music stripped to its lowest common denominator. It is Celine Dion covering AC/DC. It is the essence of uncool.

Mind you, I'm not saying that the contestants are not talented. They can sing. But can singing alone make you a musical talent? Sure, there are stars in theater and opera whose voices are so refined and whose and range are so impressive that we view them as "first tier" talents -- singers who are also actors who can fill their voices with emotion and power. But can Ruben Stoddard be compared to Pavarotti? Hell no. The voices on A.I. are pop star voices. They are what I think of as a "second-tier" talent. The American Heritage Dictionary has two useful definitions of "talent": (1) "A marked innate ability, as for artistic accomplishment," and (2) "Natural endowment or ability of a superior quality." I'm sure there is a guy out there who has ridiculous accuracy when he spits. He can nail a dog between the eyes from 15 feet almost every time. Under most definitions of the word, this guy has a talent, but can we compare his talent with that of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Irving Berlin? Once again, hell no. It does an injustice to the "first tier" creatively talented people to compare them to pop artists. The trillions of people who voted for the latest A.I. winner need to recognize that the talent on A.I. is just a more popular form of a "second tier" talent such as juggling or performing magic tricks.

When I first heard about A.I., the question in my mind was, can a Bruce Springsteen ever come from such a format? No. A.I. is grading for technical proficiency, not real musical talent, and Springsteen's singing isn't a technical matter. It's his stories sung in a personal and emotional way. To my mind, really talented musicians -- whether you're talking Rush, Aimee Mann, or Lyle Lovett -- write most of their own material. They practice it over and over until they can perform it in their sleep. They don't memorize someone else's song for a week and then go out and succeed because they can hit a high C.

I know I'm being a bit of a curmudgeon and a music snob, but there are thousands of hard-working, talented musicians who are playing clubs and bars for little to no money every weekend, writing their songs, paying for their own beers, and setting up their own equipment, while A.I. grants instant credibility on some girl who passed an audition by singing a Cher tune to some middle-aged British egomaniac.

Isn't there something inherently wrong with that?
Centinel 11:32 PM #


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