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Okay, Let’s Talk About American Idol

May 27, 2011

Cynics, spare me your barbs. Naysayers, hold your tongues. Too-hip-for-the-room Brooklynites, just wait a second. I’m going to defend this past season of American Idol.

Yes, really.

I am not the natural demographic for American Idol. But as many of you know, when you live with someone who watches a program religiously, sometimes to foster a sense of community in one’s home you’ll indulge them in their own likes and dislikes. Such became the case with American Idol in my own home about five years ago. It wasn’t terribly interesting to me, but as in any competition one grows his own favorites, and from a contest standpoint it was fairly tolerable and reasonably interesting. I’ve never really been invested in any Idol contestant in the years I’ve watched the show, and realize that the confession of watching American Idol is one best kept to one’s self at parties and in mixed company. It’s not particularly cool to say one watches American Idol, even though by all ratings statistics there are more of us secretly watching than would let on.

American Idol is, first and foremost, a talent show. And while the talent in past seasons has run fairly consistent (the rocker! The soulful one! The balladeer! The country girl!), this season seemed…different in some way. Maybe it was shaking things up judge-wise and bringing in recongnizable stars like Steven Tyler or Jennifer Lopez. Maybe it was the need to up the ante in light of the recently-departed Simon Cowell’s upcoming UK-remake juggernaut The X Factor. Or maybe they just decided to pick a nice variety this year, rather than simply leaning on what’s worked.

In case you were wondering (but don’t worry, I won’t expect you to admit it out loud), it did work. Though the finale boiled down to two country singers — which can’t hurt the Idol brand, considering former victor Carrie Underwood’s runaway success — this season saw perhaps the most diverse group of young singers in the show’s history. Many of the pre-established contestant stereotypes were gone, and in their place a pretty varied selection of talent across several genres. In short, it seemed a lot fresher than past seasons.

There was burly, bearded Casey Abrams, whose affinity for jazz — a musical genre which, I might point out, is virtually non-existent live on television in 2011 — prompted the judges to try to keep him around despite the fact that he’s not any semblance of a pre-packaged artist. There was Naima Adedapo, an ex-custodian who sang reggae, another genre not particularly popular with mainstream teenage girls these days. Jacob Lusk sang gospel, for the love of God (literally); and rocker James Durbin took the rocker stereotype, formerly populated by Chris Daughtry and last year’s lackluster winner Lee DeWize, in a completely different direction: he was all 80’s hair band and classic metal.

The interesting thing is that these aforementioned eclectic contestants got quite a few votes. Durbin, Lusk and Abrams all three made it into the top five. And you have to admit that as much as you’d like to believe that only sheep and morons watch American Idol, that’s a promising surprise from the middle-America voters who, it’s believed, are the ones dialing the most. The truth is that this season of Idol may have done a lot of actual good for young music listeners. If only twenty teenage girls downloaded Nat King Cole’s forgotten jazz classic “Nature Boy” on iTunes, that’s twenty more than would ever have been exposed to it. If songs like this, or Durbin’s rendition of Badfinger’s “Without You,” can open your average thirteen year-old’s eyes to the fact that there’s more out there than Rihanna or Maroon 5, we should consider it a huge success.

I know what you’re thinking. It’s rigged. It’s canned. It’s over-produced. And you may be right about any of these things. I can’t speak to how the voting situation works, nor will I attempt to do so. But you know what you watch on television that’s not over-produced? Nothing. This is a tentpole show; Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe isn’t going to build a wooden stage and have kids sing on a Radio Shack microphone. Of course there will be corporate sponsors. Of course the judges might have ulterior motives in the best interest of the show. This is all part of the game, like it or not.

In the end, country crooners Scotty McCreery and 16 year-old Lauren Alaina were the last two standing, which of course ensured a country personality for this season’s winner. McCreery, despite whether you appreciate his style of music or not (I can’t stress this enough to endless numbers of snarky message board commenters — just because you think it’s terrible doesn’t mean it is, or that someone else doesn’t), has the type of rare country voice that appeals to both female fans (he’s so dreamy!) and male fans (he sings about trucks!). He’s infinitely marketable. Lauren Alaina, if marketed as a “young country” Bieber to tween girls, can and would probably make a fortune. But at the end of the day, the truth is that these two young people are actually very good singers. And if the winner reflects a music-listening population of country music lovers who it’s proven actually still purchase CDs, it’s icing on the cake for the producers. If the goal of American Idol is to create the nation’s next marketable singing sensation, guess what? The mission has been accomplished. 

I’m not here to say you should watch American Idol. Hell, I’m not even sure why I continue to watch it outside of a willingness to please my loved ones, but I am saying that you can feel free to denigrate the show, what it’s become, what it is now, and what is has been in the past. But Idol’s season ten, which threatened to be the last death throes of the franchise, in fact brought some interesting things to the table. The variety of thought-long-gone musical styles and artists (Carole King, anyone? Leiber & Stoller?) on display this season was pretty refreshing — as well as encouraging for the next generation. 

Will I run out to buy any of these  young singers’ next album? No. Will I follow their careers? Nah. But for what they brought musically to a nation who may not have otherwise even heard of some of the genres represented on this season, they should be commended. Many of this season’s contestants insisted upon staying in wheelhouses that aren’t particularly popular in mainstream music right now. In the end, even though an admittedly popular style of musician won the contest — these contestants may have pointed out to a teenage audience that there’s more out there than is being fed to them, and hopefully it encourages a few of them to go look for more of what they’ve never heard. If that happens, all of us are better off as consumers of music, and perhaps the next young breakout star — even if he or she never appeared on American Idol — may have been influenced by the individualism many of these contestants portrayed. And maybe that’s not something we should just so vehemently and blindly hate, but rather appreciate a little bit for the small steps it took this season.

One Comment
  1. Walter permalink
    June 2, 2011 11:10 am

    Why does no one ever point out the fact that the McCreery kid is Alfred E. Newman’s doppleganger?

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