Where I work, many of my co-workers are obsessed with “American Idol” — except for me and my co-worker Jeff. And if you’re reading this, you probably have more than a few “Idol Wonks” at your workplace. Who knows, maybe you’re in the minority like me (and Jeff, too).
There’s no doubting the cultural significance of American Idol since not only is this show highly rated, but two of its winners have gone on to chart on the Top 40 — with Kelly Clarkson the only one to move beyond her Idol roots.
I’ve been pretty quiet about my dislike for the show for a long time, but it wasn’t until I read Neva Chonin’s “Live! Rude! Girl!” column in Sunday’s SF Chronicle, that I found a more articulate reason why I dislike this show on so many levels.
But first, let me preface Chonin’s argument with this story…
A few weeks ago I was fumbling my way through a barely heard rant about how Idol culturally conditions us (read: the pop cultural consuming audience) to accept a certain style of singing as great, and discard the rest as crap. People were waving me away with a kind of “You’re such a snob” distaste. Undaunted, I continued with my point by asking if singers like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, James Brown, and Janis Joplin would ever make it beyond the first week on American Idol. The answer was obviously “no,” but the quick retort was “But the show is more about the drama and competition than sheer artistry or unique vocal phrasing.”
But is it?
The recording industry and radio are interested in one thing: money. I know, big surprise. However, since Idol is grabbing market share and making a killing on advertising, then doesn’t it stand to market logic that if rabid Idol consumers are enthralled with the “ClaymationlasttraintoClarksonRubensandwichdon’tyouwantaFantasia” type of singing, then singers and bands who sound like them will be signed to for contracts, get radio play, Disney sponsored tours, and a 30 second video clips played on TRL?
I’m well aware that except for Kelly Clarkson, the other idols have seen their twilight, but it’s not the performers themselves, but the style of singing that becomes elevated in the music marketplace as “good.” When that happens, the kind of cultural pluralism that Chonin was making and argument for becomes a nice pipe dream.
Granted, Chonin was taking phallic-wielding rock stars (and the critics who love them) to task by saying that other forms of music are just as good (if not better, at times) than constantly defaulting to an urtext of rock music as the standard by which we measure all other variations of popular music.
But her critique of “The Standard of the Good” in popular music can easily be used to show how American Idol’s influence in the culture has churned out more Cheez Whiz while calling it Le Sarlet.