Don’t Idolize

Millions of Americans tune in weekly to American Idol. Millions will tonight for its premier. I’m still trying to figure out why.

I know, I know. The TV line-up is thin right now. Unless you’re watching the stellar 5th season of The Wire, indulging your senses in the L Word or devouring the new and improved American Gladiators, life on TV during the writers’ strike is hard. And while Fox may want you to believe it, buy into it, and worship them for it, American Idol is not the solution to your problems. They thought we’d forget that we aren’t getting 24. For years now, Fox has taken the show from over the pond and fed it to you with a sense of smug satisfaction. I mean, think about it…millions of Americans audition, meaning that the job of casting is never difficult (unless you consider that three people actually have to sit there and listen to millions of Americans who think they can sing), it doesn’t take any writers, so that cost and hassle is eliminated, and millions of Americans not only tune in, but actually call and text in to vote. People…they’re laughing all the way to the bank! And now, with the writer’s strike, they’re anticipating running up the viewer count because there is nothing else on. I give you fair warning here, gentle readers…if you really like Idol, or you’re not interested in a prolonged rant against it, this isn’t the post for you. For all the rest of you…read on!

There are numerous reasons not to waste your time on this show. Of course, enjoying wasting your time isn’t one of these reasons. But the reasons, when it comes down to it, need to be split up and addressed differently to both music lovers and people who don’t really care about music. First we’ll tackle the people who don’t really care about music…

You don’t like music or really care about it. You view Idol as pure entertainment, something to throw on the tv while you eat your dinner. In the beginning stages of the show, you like watching horrendously bad people who think they can sing. There’s a certain sort of sick fascination here, like watching a train wreck or taking pictures of a car accident as you drive by. I can almost understand this part…it can be humorous, entertaining to watch people as incredibly bad as the beginning contestants. But as humorous as it can be, what does it say about your taste that this is a good way to spend your time and viewing hours? Is laughing at other people’s misfortune that fun?

Then, you get into the regular show and listen to Simon, Paula and Randy talk about these people as if they’re actual artists. However, the entertainment value here is again derived from watching the contestants get beat up on. What the judges actually say doesn’t have any bearing, because the viewing population is the one who votes on the winners, so why even have judges to begin with? I will point out here that you can basically watch this sort of thing in any local karaoke bar. I recommend here American Gladiators, any National Geographic program, and movie watching as great alternatives to the “entertainment” value of American Idol. You can also spend 45 minutes reading a book and use the 15 minutes of commercial time in a TV hour to go for a walk. Of course, in the end, if Idol is that entertaining to you, you’ll still watch it, but my point here is to get you to sit there for a minute, think about it carefully, and really determine if you’re gaining anything, even real entertainment that couldn’t better be found elsewhere, out of this pursuit.

Then you have the people that enjoy or claim to enjoy music. This is a much easier group to attack. The entertainment goers have some excuses, as in the end what counts as entertainment is a matter of taste, and if you like it, you’re entitled to it. But in my mind, any self-respecting fan of music should have serious problems with this show as American Idol, for all its posturing as a musical show, is virtually devoid of any sort of actual musical quality or content, aside from the few guest appearances throughout the year by actual musicians. The program is supposed to crown the next pop music star, giving label execs a bankable star to sell albums because they have already won over the viewers who vote, so who wouldn’t buy the album?

Well, when you look at the fact that American Idol basically tests to see if you’re able to give a strong karaoke performance on national television, why should you expect any sort of actual musical talent from these people, let alone a decent album? People come on the show that have never made it as musicians, never made it in a band, and haven’t had any luck making it as a singer. These people aren’t just the most absolutely talented singers who happen to have really bad luck getting signed. There’s a reason they haven’t made it! They make the show based on their ability to carry a tune solo, and then progress based on their performances of other artists’ songs. Sure, as a singer you make each song your own, but not in any way that isn’t identical to what happens in millions of karaoke bars the world over. They don’t write their own songs, they don’t make their own music, and they need only the capability to captivate an audience of millions of “average Americans” (and we all know how smart they are from their election choice in 2004) for five minutes at a time. Finally, when the Idol is crowned, someone else usually writes the songs for the album, and the album sales usually flop due to either a) the fact that the Idol watchers have short attention spans and have moved on to other Pop Top 40 hits between the finale and the record release or b) the album exposes them for what they truly are: a glorified winner of a nationally televised karaoke/popularity contest. There are of course exceptions to the rule here, but the last Idol winner, Taylor Hicks, failed to break 1,000,000 album sales and lost his contract. Where were the millions of fans that voted for him when it came time to buy his album on the record contract they helped him get? Even a former Idol contestant (and loser to Hicks), Chris Daughtry, thinks the process is silly. “It’s funny at first, but come on,” he said. “They spend three weeks on people that can’t sing, and that’s what they’re banking it on. (They should) find some people that you can really invest in.”

In addition, you have merely to surf Billboard’s Top 100 or scan the radio airwaves for 5-10 minutes to realize that what the “average American”/radio listener/American Idol watcher knows about music is pretty much nothing. Saccharine singers like John Mayer and Jack Johnson, talentless “rappers” like Soulja Boy (all the people that came to this post from the Soulja Boy tag are now ready to throw me under a bus) and musically bereft bands like Nickelback saturate the entire popular music scene. Sure, there are different musical tastes, and I don’t deny anyone the right to their opinion, but when did the aggregate musical taste of the masses get so bad that a song telling you to “superman dat ho” could spend 26 weeks on the Top 100? Is anyone out there listening anymore? Meanwhile, amazing groups and artists like k-os, Throw Me the Statue, Immortal Technique and Jean Grae make music for years without getting noticed by the masses.

If you’re a “music fan” that’s spending time watching Idol, I suggest to you a visit to a listening station to find an unknown artist, a trip out to see a live performance somewhere, or simply an exploration into the collections of Hall of Famers that you aren’t familiar with. There is so much great music out there that you haven’t heard, I promise.

My Mom loves Idol…she’s of the entertainment crowd that enjoys watching Simon plaster contestants. Whenever I get caught up on my anti-American Idol rant, her constant argument revolves around the millions of people that tune in and call or text in a vote. “30 million people tune in,” she tells me, “they all like it.” I leave you here with the words of a wise person…”what’s right isn’t always popular and what’s popular isn’t always right.” But in the world of pop music and a show like American Idol, it should really be, “what’s popular isn’t always good.”

10 Responses to “Don’t Idolize”

  1. 1 bananatree January 15, 2008 at 6:22 pm

    wonderful argument. Idol has done a lot of harm to the music industry. I’m fully opposed to such cheezy repackaging of beautiful music to sell coke.

  2. 2 mandm January 16, 2008 at 6:26 am

    Good article, but this is why Taylor was the right winner.Think about it.

  3. 3 Alex Blo January 16, 2008 at 11:38 am

    Hi,you’ve got a nice blog,let’s exchange links. Yours is already on

  4. 4 Pam Triick January 17, 2008 at 9:52 am

    Can’t we all just get along and have fun? I love American Idol, and do waste my time on it whenever possible. 🙂

  5. 5 Pam Triick January 17, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    ACtual, I was just trying to lighten the mood. I “waste” my time on American Idol, like I waste my time on House, or Bones, or the WWE. They’re just TV shows to “take me away” so to speak. I’m not upset by your words here, but thought you sounded a little too upset. Just trying to bring some humor, that’s all.

  6. 6 David February 19, 2008 at 11:59 pm

    Honestly, all this article proves to me is that you don’t understand very clearly what defines a musician. You seem to treat musicians that made it without Idol as royalty while almost completely ignoring the legitimate musicians that have come from Idol. Also, if you consider Throw Me The Statue a great band, you really must hear my nephew hitting a cat with a trash can lid. It’s got a similar sound.

    In all fairness, I can’t judge k-os, Jean Grae, or Immortal Technique, because hip-hop and rap are not really my thing, but the samples I listened to did not endear me to them or even make me want to hear more. At the same time, I wish I could un-hear Soulja Boy.

    American Idol isn’t just a karaoke contest. Plenty of professional and semi-professional musicians make it onto the show. If you know any karaoke singers that sound like Melinda from season 6, or Chris Daughtry or Elliott Yamin, I’d like to know where this karaoke club is, because it beats the hell out of the ones I’ve been to.

    And yes, other people write songs for the albums for winners. If they’re able, they will have started writing their own material by their second album. Are you saying that in order to be a great singer, you have to also be a songwriter, AND write every song on your albums? Aretha Franklin didn’t write Respect or Natural Woman. Elvis penned almost none of the songs for which he is famous.

    I’m not saying American Idol ISN’T a waste of time, because, like all television, and, in fact, entertainment, it is, but I do think you should give it a little more credit. It’s not completely virtueless.

  7. 7 actualmusic February 20, 2008 at 9:16 am

    David – Thanks for reading the post and taking the time to comment. We enjoy dialogue and discussion over here! If my response seems piecemeal, it’s due to the fact that I want to address each of your points as you bring them up to give them each their consideration. Again, thanks for reading. – AC

    You start with the premise that I’ve proven that I “don’t understand very clearly what defines a musician.” Before I go further in responding to your comment, let’s first lay the foundation for the discussion and actually define a musician. According to Merriam-Webster, a musician is: “a composer, conductor, or performer of music.” That’s a very broad term that covers a lot of ground and basically encompasses anyone who in any manner becomes involved in the act of writing or executing music. For the moment, let’s also recognize that this definition carries no qualifications for quality of result of said music, it merely states that they play, conduct or compose.

    As for your assertion that your “nephew hitting a cat with a trash can lid” is a “similar sound” to Throw Me the Statue, I’d say you better get him signed up to a label, because with reviews like this:

    from USA Today:
    “As for my biggest musical discovery this week, it might’ve been a one-man band called Throw Me the Statue. This guy is from Seattle, and, good lord, he is good! He sounds sorta like Guided by Voices — listen to About to Walk on his MySpace page, and you’ll hear the similarities. The song Lolita is also really strong … heck, they’re all great. Play ’em at your Fourth of July barbecue, and spread the word.”

    And this from Pitchfork Media:
    “The one-man project of multi-instrumentalist Scott Reitherman, Throw Me the Statue blends a variety of recent indie-rock and indie-pop strains on debut Moonbeams. This standout track has the straightahead bedroom vocals of Guided by Voices, the lilting pop instincts of fellow Seattleites the Long Winters, and chutes-and-ladders melodies recalling the Shins. All are in service of a breezy July-afternoon song full of ramshackle bells, electronic beats, and simple, chugging guitars.”

    it sounds like you, your nephew and Fluffy have got an album about to hit radio airwaves on your hands. Which isn’t at all to say that you’re not entitled to your own opinion with regards to how much you personally like or dislike Throw Me the Statue’s music, but it certainly raises questions about what you’re hearing and your judgment of music if you think a kid on a cat with a trashcan rivals a guy who writes his own music and lyrics, plays his own instruments and self-produces his own album to sell to an indie label, all before being lavished with growing critical acclaim. I haven’t seen an Idol contestant do those things…

    While it’s good that you admit before critiquing that hip-hop and rap aren’t really your thing, I’d point out to you here that the problem in your comment is one of over simplification. While Jean Grae is a female hip-hopper, many of her songs delve into poetry. While Immortal Technique is a rapper, he is also a noted spoken word artist and heavy political activist. And while k-os does have hip-hop in some of his songs, a majority of his songs span the spectrum of reggae, pop, rock, rap (no, not the same), soul, funk and even at times gospel music. But these nuances of both the musical and lyrical breadth and depth of these artists isn’t the sort of thing that can be absorbed or understood through a sample. David – let me tell you, you’re not alone – I wish I could un-hear Soulja Boy too.

    Your comment about hip-hop and rap not being your thing, combined with your initial comment that I “don’t understand very clearly what defines a musician,” and followed with a judgment of those three artists based on a series of samples leads me to point out something here in regards to the different experiences with which you and I are taking into our subjective Idol contestant judgments. Of all the musical genres I’ve ever heard, country is pretty much the only one that I don’t enjoy listening to. And even that I partially blame on an old babysitter of mine who played it incessantly, and not on the actual shortcomings of the genre. My point being that of the over 9,000 songs in my music library, almost any genre you can think of is covered, musicians of every make and model. So when I offer my opinion on a musician, or on the lack of exceptional talent a particular musician possesses in my mind, it comes from a very broad examination of music in all of its forms and interpretations, not from a view that discounts certain genres because they’re not my thing.

    Now to your paragraph asserting that plenty of “professional and semi-professional musicians make it onto the show.” I defined musician earlier, so now it only makes sense to define “professional,” and while there are a few, I think this one addresses our conversation best: “participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs.”

    While Daughtry and Yamin are talented singers, and I’m not saying that every karaoke bar has 10 Daughtrys, I’ve heard individual performances in karaoke bars on random occasions that have been right up there. But really, how many, out of all the contestants, in all the seasons, have really earned their livelihood by endeavoring in their music careers to an extent more than an amateur? Having a fantastic voice, and even singing in a local group for fun, or a choir, is not the same as being a musician that I find viable for stardom or worthy of my limited listening time.

    To the credit of your argument, almost, and I stress almost, every American Idol winner had some sort of semi professional career. But the majority of the final 10 or so contestants, and certainly not all the ones with the golden tickets, were not professional musicians before getting there. I’ve regrettably watched enough episodes of Idol to know how many hours they spend on vocal, performance and presentation coaching for these contestants over the course of the season. When a contestant makes it long enough to be in the final ten, they have a better chance of going on to actually succeed professionally as a musician. To look at all of the coaching they receive, and the huge difference in a contestant from acceptance slip at first judging to making the final ten, and say that in all those seasons, “plenty” of those contestants were professional musicians before they got on the show, we’ll have to agree to disagree on standards of professionalism. While some contestants are the semi-professional you speak of, many many more are simply end products of a cookie cutter show designed to cater to the widest segment of the viewing population, week after week molding them into something sellable to a mss consuming public.

    All of that being said, it again comes down to opinions of worth, value and talent and how each individual listener defines that for themselves. You’re right…I do view musicians who made it without Idol as royalty. Those musicians, using only their own skill, ability, motivation and talent have managed to get themselves heard over all obstacles. They’ve made it on their own with the only thing to speak for them being the product of their musical endeavors. As for your assertion that other professional artists have songs penned for them, this is without a doubt true, however, there are differences between a winner of a viewer voted on tv show and musicians who succeeded because of their raw talent and ability.

    Are you really going to compare Elvis or Aretha Franklin to Taylor Hicks? McPheever? Hicks was an Idol winner, has yet, of this writing, to break 1,000,000 sales (not to be confused with the fact that he’s technically certified platinum for SHIPPING 1,000,000), and was dropped from the record label that signed him. Somehow, that says to me that he doesn’t possess the same level of talent as a top-tier musician, let alone one who can pen their own material. Here’s a guy who has been attempting to make music all his life, had never been discovered based on his style and talent alone, was catapulted to a major record label through American Idol and STILL couldn’t remain relevant or popular. Maybe, despite going on Idol and having a decent voice, he’s just not that good when the cameras stop rolling and the Soul Patrol stops voting.

    Most of the musicians who have made it without Idol that I treat as royalty didn’t get the pre-packaged royal television time, commercial breaks, a 10 minute biography to tell their touching life story, or coaching and professional help in developing themselves that Idol gives contestants while pumping millions into Fox’s coffers. I view their success as far more earned than a contestant who goes to an audition, is chosen for the show by a majority vote of three people, and then succeeds thanks to 74 million viewers who vote, often eliminating who the judges deem to be more talented, and even in some cases one who goes on to be more commercially successful as a professional musician.

    Of course, in the end, any discussion of music usually hits a wall when it comes to subjective opinion and personal taste. While I won’t disagree with you that some of the Idol contestants are good singers, and maybe even a few very good ones, to me that doesn’t justify a record contract for what amounts to a popularity contest winner, and it certainly, in my mind, doesn’t justify critical acclaim for their use of voice. There are thousands of very talented and perhaps even excellent singers out there who can belt a tune. That doesn’t mean I think they should all have record contracts or deserve to be on TV.

    We’ll have to disagree on entertainment being a waste of time. If it’s wasting your time, it hasn’t entertained you very well and therefore ceased to be entertainment. I find a vast number of artists, movies, tv shows and other created entertainment that captures mind and imagination. Idol, in all the time I’ve ever watched or been forced to watch it, does not carry any sort of worth in my mind.

    Again, thanks for reading and commenting. I appreciate any opportunity to defend my stated positions and opinions. I hope you continuing reading and have a great day!

  8. 8 David February 20, 2008 at 11:40 am

    AC, you argue well. I’m probably going to backpedal on some of my previously stated opinions simply because I was wrong in stating them. A good deal of my argument was fueled by the fact that it was late, I was tired, and I had just finished writing a post to my own young blog which was entirely about last night’s episode of American Idol. I have decided to make my opinions on American Idol a regular feature there, partially because I do enjoy American Idol (sometimes a guilty pleasure) and partially because I have difficulty finding topics on which to write sometimes, so it’s nice to have a guaranteed weekly topic.

    So any hostility that came across was likely a product of defensiveness. I don’t watch Idol because I think everyone on it is professional or semi-pro quality talent, I watch it because there are indeed occasional diamonds in the rough. In the meantime, I judge the contestants on the level of the best contestant in my own opinion. Truthfully, I think I watch the show not expecting great things, but if someone rises above, I enjoy it even more.

    I also don’t care for country, and in fact actively avoid it, though I try to place my personal dislike outside of my judgments when a contestant on the show is a country singer. I will freely admit, the comparisons to Elvis or Aretha really don’t apply to any of the winners of the show, or indeed almost any of the various flotsam and jetsam of the show. Daughtry and Yamin are honestly the only Idol alumni I have in my own library, and since each have only produced one album, it remains to be seen if they will continue to be creatively relevant.

    The judges’ place may be rather pointless given their lack of influence over the result, but at the same time I think they keep some of the more arrogant contestants in check. Simon’s opinion is usually the only one worth listening to, since Randy is fairly sunny about it all, and Paula is usually so drunk that my nephew hitting a cat with a trash can lid WOULD sound brilliant to her.

    On that note, I decided after reading your response that my judgment on Throw Me The Statue was perhaps too swift, and I went back to their MySpace page and listened all the way through all four songs on his player. Three of the four songs actually impressed me this time, although I’m not greatly fond of his vocal style, which leads me to feel that when I’m tired, I shouldn’t pass judgment.

    As for Jean Grae, k-os, and Immortal Technique, I’m sure they’re extremely talented, but I’m not qualified at all to praise or decry them, since my knowledge of rap and hip-hop is just as extensive as my knowledge of quantum theory.

    The FOX representatives paid to push Idol for all it’s worth often talk about it’s starmaking power. I actually have serious doubts about this. The only people really remembered from the show are Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, and possibly Elliott Yamin to a much lesser degree. That’s three or four people out of six full seasons, two of which didn’t actually win the competition. Taylor Hicks was always a joke, and as I understand it, he’s back to playing dive bars these days.

    Entertainment as a waste of time is another subject I’m going to completely contradict myself on now. I don’t think true entertainment is a waste of time. I’m not entirely sure what prompted me to say that last night, since I completely agree with you on that topic. After watching an exceptional movie or show, or listening to a brilliant album, or reading a great book, I always feel fulfilled in it.

    As a musician myself, I honestly have to say that I would not try to go the American Idol route to stardom, since it seems to have far more hits than misses, and since me and my bandmates write our own material, we’d rather try to get there on our own merits.

    In the end, I really can’t find a logically defensible position to explain why I enjoy the show, other than that I genuinely do enjoy the show and overanalyzing weekly performances. I concede the argument to you at the same time as I assert that I love the show, no matter how few musicians have come from it that legitimately deserve their success.

  9. 9 actualmusic February 20, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    David – I appreciate your response. As I stated in the original post, I recognize that a great number of people watch Idol for a vast majority of reasons, and everyone deserves their own process when deciding what is worth their time. You’re not the first I’ve spoken with that enjoyed the guilty pleasure aspect of the show.

    I definitely agree with you…there are some diamonds in the rough on that show. And by belittling Idol contestants in general, I would certainly never argue that I could sing better, or that there aren’t talented singers of different degrees on the show. In the end, even if a bit hostile, I do enjoy spirited conversation and debate, especially when two parties in that debate feel strongly on an issue. Your approach of watching it without expectations probably does a lot for your enjoyment of the show.

    I agree with you on the judges here…I’ll say that when I have watched American Idol, hearing Simon tear into someone is about the most enjoyment I find. I could get up there and pour my heart into “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and I’d be Randy’s “dog” and Paula would congratulate me on taking a children’s song to the next level. We have common points of agreement here. Let’s be honest…her lasting musical tribute was “Straight Up,” and I harbor suspicions that she’s only on the show because of her physical appearance, limited pop music history and the lack of other singers in a similar situation willing to do the show. I do love that she’s faded all the time.

    I’m glad you took a second listen to Throw Me the Statue…for me personally, I have to hear things a number of times to get the full effect and really know how it makes me feel. I can understand the vocal style thing…some people just aren’t for everyone…I routinely listen to a few bands where I have to suspend my dislike of the vocals because I enjoy the music so much. But I’m glad you took another listen and liked the songs…I think TMTS is very talented and poised for some good things down the road.

    I’d invite you to listen to the following tracks: Jean Grae: My Crew, k-os: Dirty Water or Man I Used to Be, Immortal Technique: Caught in the Hustle, Freedom of Speech.

    I agree on the “starmaking” power Fox likes to tout being worthless. From what I’ve read, Hicks is actually doing mall performances in the Philippines right now. Of course, you can’t overlook the overseas markets, but malls? He’d probably be better off in dive bars! I think Daughtry is an excellent example of someone who should have a music career, yet was denied by voters, supporting my point that they don’t know what they’re listening to half the time.

    In the end, you don’t need to defend your enjoyment of the show…the fact that you enjoy it is enough. Even though I have very strong entertainment/musical feelings against it, I wouldn’t try to deny anyone else their fair share of enjoyment, even if I’m strongly opposed. I might think less of your personal tv watching habits (mine are fairly stringent, as you might imagine from this dialogue), but that doesn’t change my strong feeling that you should like and enjoy what you like and enjoy.

    I hope you’ll check out (if you need a beta invite, email me)…as a musician who’s writing your own material and willing to make it on your own merits, it’s certainly a site I think you’d enjoy!


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