The first time I saw American Idol was probably during it’s first season-the same year Kelly Clarkson,the shows first (and one of the view) bona fide commercial success stories was competing in the talent contest. My initial opinion of the show was that it was completely farcical. The auditions for the show had the flavor of a weak episode of America’s funniest home videos. The show itself,created by the founder of it’s UK peculiar Pop Idol name of Simon Cowell,also placed him in the role of main talent judge. Even in it’s first couple of seasons,which were also massively commercially successful,it was in fact Simon Cowell’s cynical and often cruel attitudes towards the contestants during auditions that made the show so popular with it’s viewers-at least the ones I talked to. Of course,number one fact of American Idol to me was that Randy Jackson,former bass player for the likes of jazz-fusion greats Jean-Luc Ponty and Narada Michael Walden,was obviously the judge with the most musical experience. And is still portrayed in the character of a catch-phrase spouting nincompoop. Why has such a program so deeply affected how the public perceives music in the post millennial world? And what’s happened within the show itself during that time as a synergy of this?
The most significant element of American Idol to me has been it’s consistent emphasis that popular singers,as opposed to songwriters or musicians,are what is supposed to be propelling the music world and industry forward. Even during the contestants auditions in Hollywood,they are portrayed singing rock,soul and country standards from the golden age of singing and songwriting in the 1960’s,70’s and 80’s. Yet once the contest is over,and the winner of that particular season releases their first album,it’s again only their vocals that are emphasized. Musicianship and song writing are almost always afterthoughts and therefore a lot weaker than the enduring songs they interpret on the show. Some of my personal favorite Idol contestants from the few times I actually watched the show,such as Taylor Hicks and Fantasia Barrino, suffered a great deal from this problem. Fantasia in part because she was only a singer and not a writer/publisher of her own material due to her semi literacy. And Hicks due to the fact his songwriting,while strong,simply doesn’t have the enduring quality of Michael McDonald’s or any of the other talents he clearly admires.
One of the most obvious elements of American Idol,and probably it’s most negative in terms of it’s effect towards music,is it’s celebration of high level sensationalism. A good example of that occurred just recently when the gender bending contestant Charlie Askew,whose emotionally charged rendition of Genesis’ “Mama” earned him criticism-especially from current judge Nicki Minaj,over his passionate and angry interpretation. Having been originally conceived by Cowell (himself no longer a judge on the program) as a combination of a reality show and talent contest,the show came to emphasize the personal issues of the judges and the contestants more than their actual function on the show. This was particular true to first incarnation judges Cowell and Paula Abdul. That sensationalism extends into the function of the show just as much. During auditions,singers with a jazzy or soulful phrasing who are inspired by vocalists such as Nina Simone,Phillip Bailey,Chaka Khan or Stevie Wonder are vocally dismissed (both literally and figuratively) as “old fashioned” and even “corny” by judges such as Cowell. This points to the programs continual advocating of musical neophilia.
In the past four or five years American Idol has changed a lot. Only Randy Jackson remains of the original judges,as Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez were generally seen as failures during their time as judges on the show. Many of the shows detractors in it’s original incarnation spoke of Simon Cowell’s legendary meanness towards contestants as shattering their hopes and dreams of music careers. While many of the contestants of the past have in fact been next to talentless,auditioning only for their fifteen minutes of televised fame,American Idol at it’s core seems to be a continual reminder of the fact that society remains completely cynical about music’s ability to change people’s lives-through instrumentation or lyrical message. The show makes it appear as if music’s glory days are only part of a museum exhibit and history books. And the only way music can function at all now is for new artists to be seen,make a lot of money,and be influenced only by music’s more creatively productive past. If American Idol is to be a significant force for music,it really should start to emphasize the idea of musical futurism a bit more and less to none of the interpersonal reality show-cased media hyperbole present largely to receive ratings. It’s solid proof that in terms of presenting creative talent,that the line between television being a force for change or a force for the status-quo is a fine line to walk.