SNELLVILLE AND THE STONES
Thank God for the summertime. On top of its other assets – swimming at the beach, pennant races, breaks from multiple-choice exams – it’s a time when Americans rediscover life away from the idiot box. When the weather gets colder, certain habits come back to arrest our development. I’m thinking for the moment about one growing tradition in which record numbers of Americans huddle in front of a television and prop up a group of monosyllabic entertainers who routinely do violence to our aesthetic sensibilities. No, I’m not talking about the National Football League. (I’m in on that addiction, remember?) I’m referring to American Idol.
I live in a household that actually watches that show. Both my daughters have considered voting; one may even have done it. And while I wouldn’t exactly call my wife a Claymate, the fact remains that she has actually purchased a Clay Aiken CD. I kid you not. Finding it in the house was a shock – I might have preferred coming upon a gram of cocaine. Listening to Aiken won’t give you nosebleeds, but cocaine (at least in small doses) probably isn’t as toxic to your brain.
I like to confuse Clay’s name with another great American Icon, “Clay Henry” – otherwise known as “Jared Lite.” You remember: “Clay Henry, Clay Henry. He got real big on burgers and fries, but now he’s down to a smaller size.” As far as I’m concerned, Henry’s one-minute commercials for a fast food chain have offered the American music lover every bit as much quality as Aiken. And I also enjoy stumbling around with the name of Fantasia Burrito, or however that’s spelled, the 19 or 20 year old bellower who actually won the Cup, or the Trophy, or whatever item goes to the winner of that competition – other than the right to cause really insipid music to be played on radio stations all over America.
But my favorite Idol – or, to be more accurate, Idol Runner-Up – is none other than Diana DeGarmo. She came onto the scene as a wide eyed 16-year-old ingénue from the metropolis of
My favorite indictment of American Idol is to ask people to consider who would win the thing if we could enter a time capsule, bring back in their prime every pop singer who’s ever lived, and then watched them compete in front of Randy, Simon and Paula. Personally, I’d like to vote for people like Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, or Bruce Springsteen. And as for women, I’d vote for someone like Janis Joplin or Carol King. You know, people with real talent – singers who put soul into their music and were associated with great songs, most of which they wrote themselves and performed with a sensibility that only the songwriter can fully appreciate. But you know that those guys and gals would be smoked. The winner, I predict, would be that great songwriter, Whitney Houston. Or maybe that other great songwriter, Linda Ronstadt.What? You mean
Wait a minute. I forgot for a moment that I’ve never cared for Whitney Houston. Or Linda Ronstadt. In fact, I never cared much for any pop singer who had little hand in the writing process. I don’t just want to hear pipes – if I wanted that, I’d convert to Catholicism and get my music from cathedral organs. I want to hear soul. I want to hear intelligence. I want to hear that the song is being sung by someone who can evoke what it really means to fall in love or to be rejected in love, because they’ve experienced it themselves. Just as importantly, I want to hear that the song is being sung by someone who’s spent time introspecting, who has gathered a little learning, and who has become adept at creating images that tug at both our minds and our emotions. Perhaps that can be said for Houston or Ronstadt. Then again, perhaps not. I sincerely doubt it could be said for DeGarmo.
The point of this rant is not to take shots at a 16-year-old girl from a small town. DeGarmo did just what she was asked to do: sing her little heart out. She should be applauded for having the guts to do that week after week in front of millions of people. And whether or not you like her music, she’s done nothing to disgrace herself, her family, or the town of Snellville (whose entire population would periodically disrupt phone services by voting for her as often as a Chicago Alderman under Mayor Daley).
My problem isn’t with DeGarmo, but the concept of American Idol. From a marketing standpoint, it’s genius. Give
My suggestion for the people at Fox is that if they ever stopped caring about the bottom line and started considering aesthetic quality, they would make American Idol a competition for singer-songwriters. Then, you might actually find a group of people you’d consider seeing in concert. That’s right – that’s the kind of competition in which a young Bob Dylan wouldn’t have been laughed off the stage. Or a young Bruuuuuuce Springsteen. Or even a young Mick Jagger. Mick is no dummy, you know. He was schooled in the prestigious London School of Economics. It just so happens that he recognized that he had a greater gift than drawing supply and demand curves. He had a gift of conveying moods through song – the moods were as often savage as they were romantic, but they were always moods we could understand and, for better or worse, relate to. And thanks to his buddy Keith, who truly had soul, he was able to give us music more powerful than anything you could ever hear from a Whitney Houston album, no matter how strong her pipes might be.