Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Something Borrowed, Nothing New

This is the first season I've actually watched American Idol. It's because this season I don't have a choice - I'm running the local affiliate. I decided to take a positive attitude about the situation and try to embrace "Idol Fever" such as it was. A coworker informed me that the real entertainment value of first few weeks would be in watching certain contestants make total fools of themselves, and be on the lookout for the strange. Sure enough, I got the Pants On The Ground guy.

But despite my best efforts, I just couldn't get on board with Idol. First off I quickly confirmed that Ryan Seacrest is there as eye candy and nothing more. He can read that first cue card and that's about it. Watching Seacrest host a live show is like watching a squirrel run across the track during the Daytona 500.

But worst than that, I wasn't all that impressed with the singers who advanced, and as the weeks churned away we only seemed to be left with a series of alsorans. Conversations with coworkers who had ridden the Idol gravy train from the start told me I wasn't imagining things; this season of Idol is lame. The ratings bore this out when they hit their lowest ebb on Beatles Night.

So what's the deal here? After so many seasons has the Idol machine finally run out of steam? Is America's talent pool really that shallow? Or are we slowly realizing that aside from Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson the people who win pretty much get their 15 minutes on this show? (To be fair Jennifer Hudson actually won an Oscar for supporting actress and scored a Grammy for Best R&B Album, but that was in 2009, long after her 2004 win on Idol, so we don't really consider her career to be blooming due to the Idol afterglow.)

After listening to the show during this season, I have noticed one thing that might be the real source of the problem. It occurred to me at a point when Simon was complaining yet again about somebody's performance being old fashioned. Whoever had just performed had just warbled through some '80's drek during a week when the contestants could pick any song that charted at number one on the Billboard charts. That's when it hit me... I'm not hearing any newer music on Idol. Somehow, during number one week all of these contestants avoided anything that topped the charts in the 21st century and pretty much skated by the 1990's as well. One contestant did cover a Kelly Clarkson song in the early stages of the competition. It's pretty hard to not sound dated when you're singing Huey Lewis and the News.

You would think Simon would've done something to bring the show into the digital age, but instead we get Beatles Week. Now I'm a huge fan of the Beatles, and with something like 35 number one hits depending on the chart you follow it was easy to help these contestants who were clearly struggling with their song choices. But covering the Beatles is walking on sacred ground. Who wants to hear Idol alsorans mangle our cherished Beatles songs? There's pretty much only one performance of "Hey Jude" or "Let It Be" I want to hear, the original. That, along with the fact that the most recent composition they could use on the show would be from 1970, helped to sink American Idol to its lowest ratings since season one.

Could it get any worse? Oh yeah. Elvis Night. Ye cats. Get out the fondue forks, babe, because the cheese is flowing. What's next, Louie Armstrong Night?

Resorting to the Beatles in 2010 is like scheduling Lawrence Welk opposite Laugh-In. Again, I love the Beatles, and I consider much of their work to be timeless, but we have to ask ourselves why Idol keeps going back over 40 years for their music. The same can be said of the Rolling Stones week, although some of their best work came along in the '70's. If I were still working at an oldies radio station I'd be eating this up. Give an Idol contestant with any amount of genuine talent a choice of any song they can sing, they keep going back to Whitney Houston, Stevie Ray Vaughn, James Brown, Paul Simon, Janis Joplin, and anything you might hear on an All '80's Weekend on Sunny 95. And where are the country acts? It's not my cup of meat, but Country is today's pop music. Doesn't anybody show up at Idol auditions who knows who Garth Brooks is?

Granted, there may be some hidden restrictions on what songs Idol can clear for broadcast, and that's the real reason more recent hits don't make the show. I wouldn't blame some songwriters for not wanting their songs associated with American Idol, or tainted by a bad performance. Has anyone heard a Carol King tune on Idol? And maybe Idol doesn't want to pay composers what their songs are really worth. Paul McCartney has never had a problem with selling his songs to just about anybody, but he knows the Beatles are an exception to just about every rule in the business, and people will be buying "Abby Road" long after Idol becomes a piece of nostalgia, if it isn't already.

A few nights ago I met some friends for drinks at a local bar. This was not a fancy place and not a redneck dive, just a neighborhood watering hole with pool tables and NASCAR on the TV's. People kept putting money in the jukebox. I was probably the oldest person in the place. Most people looked to be in their 20's or 30's. A few guys in dusty ball caps sporting goatees may have been on final approach to 40. For the two hours or so I was in there, That jukebox never left the 1980's except for one time. At one point Aerosmith's "Dream On" played, and I was in the fifth grade. I don't need those kind of memories coming back to me after a few beers. But I had to wonder why these "kids" kept reaching back for songs older than they were? Did the bar owner simply not stock the jukebox with anything that was produced since they stopped using reels of tape? Maybe I was missing something. I also thought about what would've happened in the 1980's if I had walked into a bar and started punching up Patti Page.

I've been thinking about the exciting new sounds that were out back when I was in high school and college. It was the first generation of MTV: The Cars, The Police, Cheap Trick, The Ramones, The Pretenders, Genesis before Phil Collins became bigger than God, and of course Warren Zevon. It was exciting and new. And most of it was damn good. Why can't I feel that kind of energy when I watch music TV shows today?

Maybe I refuse to grow up. Or maybe the music business did and forgot to teach its children how to dance. Whatever the cause, I'm just glad I didn't have to spend my youth going through my parent's records to find anything worth hearing.


Judy Clemens said...

I'm with you on Idol this year. I have watched in the past, and this year I don't even bother to turn it on. The one week I watched it happened to be Beatles week, and I thought WHAT??? They did this last year, along with another week of McCartney/Lennon songs. Come on, already.

The only reason I watched last year was because Adam Lambert kept it interesting. I never knew what he was going to do, and it was always fun and different. This year there isn't any such person that has that talent and individuality.

Plus, the format of Idol itself has gotten old. Even without Paula, it's the same old, same old.

I do have to disagree with you on one thing -- in fact, I was just thinking today that Ryan Seacrest is about the only thing that makes it bearable this year. He's just cute and silly.

Anyway, I always enjoy reading what you have to say. Maybe you should be an Idol judge.

Greg Oen said...

IMHO there's been very little music produced since the 80's that I'm even remotely interested in. Of course, I doubt that the fact that I'm rapidly closing in on my 60th birthday has anything to do with THAT!!!

stevef said...

That's because all the songwriters moved to Nashville in 1988, Greg. Garthzilla.