Thursday, February 01, 2007

American Idol Defense.

CONCEPT

I'm not feeling quite as energetic about this post as I was yesterday.
It's my day off, and with my revision finally finished, I don't want to spend it in front of the computer. So here's a short version, and if I get some bites, then I'll wade in a little deeper.

- People complain that the program is mean to entrants.

But the show requires substantial initiative all along the line... getting in front of the judges requires registering, waiting in line for a long time, a preliminary screening in front a set of judges that weed out the mediocre and leave the good and the horrific. Without doubt entrants have to sign disclaimers. Given so much initiative, I don't buy that any entrant is unable to acquaint themselves with the show, and see how they treat people. From a viewer's perspective, I'm not a huge fan of the ridicule, but there are many more outrageous things worth my concern and anger.

More globally, there's even a redeeming aspect of this part of the show. I don't think it's necessary a bad thing if America develops a better sense of how difficult performing can be, of the subjectivities involved in judgment and audition, and the subtlety and nuance of the skills involved.

- People complain that it is a product of Fox, and thereby conservative demon Rupert Murdoch.

I don't like the guy either. He's actually really creepy, and Fox News is out-and-out scary, but when was the last time this prevented you from watching The Simpsons? It certainly doesn't stop me from watching The O.C., which itself has a decidedly liberal bias.

This is actually a difficult point to make in a little space, because it involves a lot of subtleties in how we interpret Fox as an entity and what action we could consider to be in support of Fox. The fact that Fox and Fox News are not strictly synonymous shold not be completely comforting, but it is at least mitigating, in that prime time network programming is held up to a different set of criteria, both generally and by Fox specifically, than their selection and presentation of "the news." Even if we reject this logic, however, the issue has to revolve around influence (the hypnosis argument) and support (the boycott argument). A short version of a response might go something like this: watching a television station is not like buying tickets to a play or a CD or a Happy Meal or whatever. They generate their revenue through advertising as influenced by ratings. Unless we're actually calculated in the ratings ourselves (of which the odds are some 1 in 700, and I think any network is required to notify of you this) and unless you go out and buy the products, you could watch Fox morning noon and night without contributing a cent.

There might be something to be said for the idea of influence... that we watch Fox and absorb the news (even in only in advertisements)... I do not have a complete and ready answer for this, except that to say that by scrutinizing our information and its source, we will probably come closer to objectivity than a lack of scrutiny. In other words, the scrutiny itself is necessary, whether we get our information from Fox or the New York Times or the Onion. Knowing that I take what I see on Fox with a grain of salt probably does more to keep me circumspect than simply avoiding all contact.

Very incomplete arguments here, but I didn't really want to wade into semantics, and here I have anyway.


The point I feel most passionately, however, is that this contest has a positive effect on popular music in this nation. Which brings me to the third point-counterpoint, and the most interesting.

- People complain that it benefits the recording company's status quo.

It certainly profits the recording industry, by very effectively generating massive advertisement to new arists that supply and market themselves. In fact, the relationship between the performers, the network, and the recording industry is probably delicate and weird.

The problem with this complaint, however, is that it creates a binary (public control vs. music industry control) that is not representative of the actual situation. What we have is an increased amount of public input.

The usual program for "manufacturing" a pop star involves talent agents, recording execs, and a very small percentage of performers who not only fill out a formula by style, expreience, skill, and subject, but also physique, age, status, and dress. It is a closed door process.

An oversimplified rebuttal might then state that American Idol is an "open door" process, but this is not true. It is, in fact, a heavily mitigated and edited encounter, especially early on in the process. But some level of compromise does not mean that the whole project lacks merit, and frankly the word "compromise" itself implies at least two parties with some measure of influence and a stake.

However we might criticize the judges for their (and ultimate selectors), I have been surprised at this shows circumspection in choosing a contestants with a wide range of styles, experiences, backgrounds, physiques, and abilities. Last year's Kelly Pickler was exactly the sort of annoying dumb-girl stereotype that most of my friends probably identify with this show. Yet the program also featured Mandisa, a marvelous singer, a heavy-set African American woman with a full-out style that seemed to suggest gospel meets Vegas. Perhaps even more to the point, when the competition reaches the point of voting, the public is more circumspect than we might expect.

In five seasons of American Idol, one winner was a very very large black man, one was illiterate, and the most recent winner had salt-and-pepper hair, a face a couple degrees shy of Jay Leno, and a style that seemed like a very over-the-top karaoke. Stylistically, the music at that level has been just as varied. Kelly Clarkson had a straight-on pop appeal. Taylor Hicks sings soul. Last year's running up will soon release her debut album which features heavy electronic sampling. Other performers have done very well with gospel, country, rock, and even showtunes. And another aspect of the show are the "genre series" that dominate the second half of the season. It essentially weed out one-trick ponies by requiring singers to be truly versatile. Last year the contestants sang Stevie Wonder and Queen, for godsakes.

The final word is this:

The Apollo Theater in Harlem, which anyone in her right mind regards as sacred ground, has for twenty years featured a singing competition that might fairly be seen as American Idol's predecessor. The audience is the judge, but they are downright merciless in their treatment of contestants, and sometimes their taste seems to be incomprehensible. This forum, however, has helped to launch the careers of Salt N Pepa, Patti LaBelle, the Beastie Boys, Mary J. Blige, and the Digital Undergronud, as just some stand outs on a long long long list.

So stop hating.

American Idol is not the ideal of populist adjudication, but it gives listerners a more engaging and committed stake in who and what they listen to.

END OF POST.

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