Monday, February 07, 2005

American iPod

I love the TV show American Idol. I don't just like it, I really really love it a lot. My affinity for the show straddles the line between sincerity and irony. On one hand, there's no way I can really really sincerely love it, because it's stupid. It's three no-talents judging a bunch of even-less-talents on nothing but whether or not the person has a good singing voice. Oh sure, Simon Cowell talks about "image" and "stage presence" but when's the last time they passed a person with a mediocre voice onto Hollywood? It's really a big karaoke contest, so how can I truly like it?

But I'm not going to lie to you, I get excited when it comes on. I don't get excited about most TV shows, but this is truly "event television" in the strictest sense of the word. It combines the best of reality TV, which is trainwreck-quality drama that is memorable, but fleeting, since the good contestants move on and the bad ones are dismissed. Since the idiots are sent packing, we are done with them and don't have to deal with any elongated plots over the course of several episodes. It's like the awkward one-night-stand without having to deal with the "walk of shame" since the no-talents are gone before you can tell the guy you're sorry.

On the other hand, it has the purest "reality" competition you can get, which is singing. It's not like contrived contests and games they have on other reality shows. On AI, everyone gets one shot to impress the fickle and inarticulate judges. They usually don't, and we as an audience can wonder how in the world these people can think they are talented.

I know that I don't have a great singing voice, but once in a while in the shower, I will belt out a song that sounds positively stunning to me. I know my friends wouldn't have the heart to tell me that I suck, but you would think that before I went on a singing competition, I would sing into a tape recorder or something first to see if I was fooling myself. After all, your voice sounds different in your head than it does to other people. Still, watching people cry makes me laugh because it's obvious these people don't give a shit about being great singers, but rather about being famous.

If I were going to use a personal parallel example, it would be this: imagine they had a competition for young writers (and by young I mean pushing 30 years old). Well, I have a blog, so that makes me a "writer" doesn't it? (Just as singing at home makes the AI contestants "singers." I just realized how many "quotes" I've used in this post, and I'm not even done yet.) So I enter this writer's competition. And of course, since I can barely complete a coherent sentence, Simon tells me I'm "dreadful" and Randy says "that was terrible dude" and Pauler says "you gave it your best shot but it's not right for this writing competition."

In this example, I would, myself, just say "oh well." It doesn't mean I would stop blogging. I don't do it for any kind of accolades (although, let's face it, it's only a matter of time before a seven-figure, five-book deal comes my way), I just do it for myself because I like it. This is how these failed singers should look at it: maybe I'm not good enough to be a professional singer, but that's okay because I love singing. I'm going to continue singing for myself because I enjoy expressing myself through the beautiful and timeless art of music.

But this doesn't happen. Instead, if I were a typical AI (or in this case, American Blogger) contestant, I would storm off stage crying or swearing (usually not both), saying, "Simon was intimidated by me. Randy doesn't even know a gerund from a dangling participle. Paula was really nice, though, she said I was good enough but they wanted someone with snappier prose."

This proves to me that we as a society are not breeding artists anymore, but budding celebrities. If these people truly cared about art, they would... well first of all, they would start writing songs and learning the craft of creating good music. But after that, they would not give a crap what three judges said, they would still continue to sing and be happy with it. But people want to be famous first, artistic second.

This brings me to the thing that frustrates me about American Idol, and why it makes me more and more in love with my new iPod than ever: the songs on American Idol are generally terrible. Maybe "terrible" is too strong a word, but all the songs are culled from the same style of subpar pop music that has relegated modern radio to elevator music status. It's always something by Whitney or Celine or Mariah. I don't think anyone would say these particular women sing the best songs, even if they do have the best voices.

I should say at this point that I'm by no means an underground or artsy-rock fan. I don't like bands that are weird for the sake of being weird or bands that use a lot of feedback or go out of their way to shock people. What I love is great songwriting, with decent lyrics, good melodies and even a good chorus. And in today's music scene, there are some great great bands writing great songs. Whether it's the Flaming Lips or Iron & Wine or The Shins or Stephen Malkmus or the late Elliott Smith, we are finally coming out of the terrible mid-90s funk (and I don't mean like Parliament funk, I mean like a rut) that caused mediocre groups like the Wallflowers and Matchbox 20 (sorry Jaime) and Sugar Ray to flourish. Songwriting is back and I couldn't be happier about it.

But you wouldn't even know about this modern rock revolution from American Idol, where apparently no music exists outside of R&B crooning. I understand that indie rock and backpacker hip hop don't have a great translation when it comes to singing, but to me they are far more interesting than the heartless crap they sing. Once in a while you'll hear a good Stevie Wonder song on there, but for the most part it's gutless high-register voices singing witless, hokey songs.

So by the time I'm done watching an American Idol episode, I find myself pining for my iPod more than ever before. If you haven't seen an iPod, they are only the greatest invention music has seen since Napster. It's the size of a pack of cigarettes, but thinner, and it can hold like 2 weeks worth of songs. At press time I currently have 2,398 songs on mine. Not all of them are good, in fact, I'd say less than half of them are very good. But the beauty of the iPod is that it has a built-in rating mechanism by which you can rate a song from * to ***** so you can delete them later if you want to. It ranks your highest rated songs, logs the last time each one was played and how many times it's been played, categorizes everything for you... I better slow down, I'm getting excited. Anyway, if you have a spare $300 laying around, go get one. Now. I'm serious. Oh, you should have a computer, too.

But the iPod is so magical because I can put thousands of songs on there. And I have everything from Leonard Cohen to Aesop Rock to Johnny Cash to Company Flow to Mercury Rev to Radiohead to Madvillain and so on and so forth and whatnot etc ad infinitum. I don't list all these bands to brag or to somehow show how diverse my musical tastes are. I'm doing it to prove that when I hear "I Will Always Love You" or "My Heart Will Go On," I can't wait to throw on the iPod, because I crave the diversity that awaits me. It's the kind of thing where I wish they would ask me to select the music for one episode. It would be like the week when they did all Elton John songs in season three, except they would be songs I like, not songs I picked. I figure, maybe if a lot of people watch American Idol, and a lot of people would be exposed to the music on it, maybe those people would hear something they've never heard and those selfsame people would go to the record store the next day and purchase those albums by those great artists and it would become profitable and more artists would be encouraged to make great music. I could be wrong.

What was my point? I don't even remember. I think it's that I love my iPod. Did that come across at all?


d. dunford said...

Clay Aiken's ggggggggay.

I embrace the ideal of universal embrace of music. I've got my I-Tunes on right now. It just switched from Kings of Leon to U2 to David Gray to Survivor.

Hug it out, bitches.

Kathie said...

I love AI as well; however, I have a horrible feeling this is going to turn into serious crap this season. Not because of a lack of entertainment on stage, but because of the drama: judges fighting, contestants fighting and backstabbing. If I wanted that I'd watch "Real World". I just want to hear and see the goofy and the semi-talented alike! Too many tangents will turn it into "The Apprentice".

When is your next installment of Stupid Things I've Done? Inquiring evil minds want to know.

~m said...

Dear Bill,

If you asked, I would definitely tell you whether you sucked, before you packed your bags to audition for American Idol.

Also, I second a second installment of 'Stupid Things I've Done'. K. Thanks.