Thursday, February 21, 2008

False Idols

There are some good things about American Idol.

The contestants can sing - you don't make the final 24 out of tens of thousands of auditioners without a halfway decent voice. Simon Cowell is extremely entertaining, in part because of his zingers but mainly because is the most honest person in a medium where everyone else with a microphone is shading his opinion for either the audience or the producers. And finally, in an era when Mom's upstairs watching Lost, Dad's downstairs watching ESPN, and the kids are on their Playstations and XBox's, any show that brings the family together is a good thing.

But still...I'm not a fan...

A half-century ago most popular music was manufactured. All the record company needed was a voice and a look - they could then build a product around that. Change their hair, pick out outfits, provide them with songs and studio musicians and a producer. Then, start making the music that the record company wanted to hear, and package it for the audience.

In the past year I read a Mick Jagger interview in Rolling Stone and a book on Tom Petty in which each of them said that in the late 50's and early 60's, the whole idea of being a musican was unattainable. After all, where would you get all the stuff you'd need? The songs, the outfits, the whole professional apparatus that came with being a musician.

Then the Beatles came along and changed everything. They wrote the music and the lyrics for their songs. They did the arrangements. They played their own instruments. They named their records and, as they grew more powerful, chose everything from the song order to the album art to the release date. They even chose their own hair styles and outfits. In the course of a few years they changed their looks and their sounds, created concept albums, and changed the whole idea of what popular music could be. With their manager Brian Epstein and their producer George Martin, they were in complete ownership of their art.

Yes, others before had done parts of that, notably Chuck Berry, and before that some of the great country, blues, and jazz stars. But the Beatles were massively popular, and became the band that launched a million bands. From the Rolling Stones to Michael Jackson, from Bruce Springsteen to Pearl Jam, our greatest musicians have been the true creators of their art.

And when they weren't - when they were primarily vocalists like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey - they had some serious other-worldly pipes. Even Madonna, who doesn't have a particularly good voice, is an average dancer, and doesn't play an instrument, actually wrote some of her own hits and was certainly the creator of her persona.

But American Idol is taking us back to the pre-Beatles era of manufactured music. Just show up with a voice and a look, maybe a good back story, and let the record company take it from there. They'll provide the songs and the outfits and the musicians and the arrangements, and they'll build this whole music product around this modicum of fame built on a TV show.

One can make a case that it doesn't matter how the music is made - all that matters is the end result. And I'm sure that some decent music is coming out of the various winners and runners-up of American Idol.

But me? I like the idea of the singer-songwriter, the recording artist. Tom Petty said in a recent interview that he came from a time "before rock stars were invented on game shows." Game show seems like the greater part of the insult, but it's actually invented. Invented by producers and record companies and television shows.

I like music created in garages and basements, bars and buses. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go fire up Guitar Hero III and make believe I'm Stevie Ray Vaughn for the next hour...


Anonymous said...

Although I agree with most of your comments one of the things you leave out is that really good singers make their own arrangements and use their voices as an instrument. EX. Frank Sinatra & Bing Crosby from the old school & Bobby Daren from early rock & roll. Your own ex from recent music also shows how singers enhance music. Like all your blogs.

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Anonymous said...