Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Death of Music, Part One: American Idol

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.


Gerry Schramm said...

I disagree. Not about the inherent suckiness of AI alums or about the inherent suckiness of the show itself (I rooted for that McKibbin girl the first season) but about AI's effect on "good" music (in quotes because, you know, it's hard to tell what "good" is).

Since recorded music began there have been awful performers backed by big money, and yet great musical innovation has taken place. The next great musical genre is right around the corner.

Problem is, we'll be too old to recognize it and will hate it, like we hate Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance.

NiteOwlz / Glenn Page Music said...

Hey there Gerry. Thanks for the comment...

Yes, I agree with your premise that there have always been awful performers backed by big money. The question in my mind, I suppose, is one of balance. While I am not ruling out creativity and innovation in the future, what I am challenging is the juggernaut-like effect of something like AI, which makes it even MORE difficult for the innovative voices to be heard or recognized than in the past.

Even though the past had its share of hacks and commerical abominations, there was also room to nourish and support burgeoning artists over a period of time. Many of the artists who we consider icons nowadays would have been dropped after their first album had the AI mentality been totally prevalent back "then."

So I'm not saying some innovation and creativity CAN'T break through against all odds, I'm just saying that the philosophy and business template of AI, when taken to its logical extreme and applied across the board, makes it harder and harder to find a wide platform for doing so.

Likewise, the question still lingers in my mind: Is it possible, in a society where AI becomes THE dominant influence on commerical music, for us to gradually lose (bit by bit) our capacity for RECOGNIZING the next great, innovative genre that you speak of?

And is it not possible, hypothetically, for those who DO recognize greatness (or create it) to someday lose the ability to have any meaningful influence in such a society?

Sounds extreme, I know. But is it any more extreme than thinking MCR might be a great band?