In this series of posts, ("The Death of Music") I will ruminate about music, both at the commercial level and at the meta level, and discuss factors I believe contribute to the death of music, and possibly even reasons why I think music should "die." I'd like to kick off the series with one of my favorite topics (what else?): American Idol.
The Death of Music, Part One: American Idol
Woo-hee! Only a month to go before the public, televised execution of American music resumes on national tv! Yes, that's right, American Idol will be back, and I will once again get my perverse jollies (is there any other kind?) watching American pop culture slide down a slippery slope of genre cannibalization, diminishing returns and safe, amorphous, blobs of balladry. You can confidently let your two-year-old run around the AI original songs for hours without fear he will fall and puncture his tender little noggin on a sharp corner.
As far as the covers, most of the songs that American Idol so gleefully plunders were spawned by genres (rock, disco, new wave) which were the result of a confluence of factors and came into being for very specific reasons at a very specific time in the ongoing narrative that is/was popular music. American Idol strips away any contextual meaning these songs might possess, and does so without a whit of irony, commentary, or artistic innovation. The result is usually either unwitting parody or a pointless pastiche. In other words, AI brings nothing to the table other than some (questionably) pretty voices. AI has an awful lot of singing, but, ironically, not a whole lot to say.
There’s only room for SO MANY pretty voices, and you need something more than vocal chops if you're going to endure and have a long, meaningful career outside of Vegas. You need either (a) some kind of artistic vision, (b) some kind of compelling, innovative style, and/or (c) super-phenomenal songs to sing. So far, there haven’t been many of those attributes coming out of the AI camp, and that is precisely why most of these “idols” won't have music careers that last beyond 5 years or so (unless they shrewdly divert into film, broadway, journalism or fast food).
But the big picture is even bleaker than that. American Idol, by design, is a self-defeating venture, doomed to implode on itself, or just make American music worse and worse. Without artists and pioneers to push music forward, music becomes stagnant, irrelevant, and non-vital. If every artist in the 70’s was exactly like Barry Manilow, where would music be today? Nothing wrong with Barry, but eventually, something (like punk and rap, for example) will always come along and make waves. American Idol, by constantly looking back and distilling musical history down to its blandest, safest elements (without adding anything new to the mix) is a dead-end enterprise.
Sure, they claim they’re being “edgy” from time to time by superficially mimicking (the worst) trends of “only” 10 years ago or so, but if American Idol continues to dominate the music industry and the billboard charts, who will the AI contestants of 2017 mimic? Chris Daughtry? Shudder to think. Chris Daughtry is ALREADY a watered-down amalgam of Fuel, Live, Nickelback and a few other latter day grunge-lite bands. Can you imagine an even MORE watered-down and derivative version of Chris Daughtry? It’s like getting a copy of a copy of a copy.
Without the true artists, you can’t have listenable or remotely amusing imitators. The problem is, American Idol is trying to dominate the landscape and a lot of potentially interesting music is getting short shrift. If AI has its way, the landscape will be littered with metaphorical Barry Manilow’s, and it doesn’t matter if they’re wearing “edgy” clothes or singing country tunes or shaving their head to disguise their Manilow-like status.
Yes, Chris Daughtry is the Barry Manilow of 2007. In a very, very real sense (except I think Barry probably has a little more talent, to be honest). Don't agree? Think about this: The guy won the adult contemporary award at the AMA's this year. That was something we used to give to people like Celine Dion. There's no shame in that, per se, but if this guy becomes the template for music's future, then man oh man is music dying.
On the one hand, that makes me sort of sad.
On the other, it just tickles me pink.