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.”