Wednesday, January 16, 2008

American Idolatry

So, tonight's the big night that the new season of "American Idol" starts (or maybe last night, by the time I get this posted), and everyone will be tuning in to see wave after wave of people who really want to be stars. I seem to recall that I attempted to write about this topic at the beginning of last season, when a young woman came on the tryouts with (like so many) virtually no singing ability whatsoever, but unlike most of the other bad singers, she knew that she could not sing! She explained to the judges that it would be really cool if the next American Idol was someone who had no singing ability at the beginning, but in the course of the show, learned how to sing!

Like so many who are clueless in other ways, she was tossed out. The thing that's odd about these people to me is how surprised they are to be tossed out! I mean really, don't most of the people watch the show before they try out? I consider myself to be a pretty good singer, but I know I'm not destined to be famous for my singing ability, because it's slightly above average at best. I know I wouldn't make it, because despite being not awful, I have a realistic view of my own abilities, and a realistic view of Simon Cowell. How do these people not know that they're horrible singers? How is it that they think they can stand before those judges and be praised when even many good singers get booted, and more than a few of those who are good enough to make it on the show get told by the judges that they've got some serious work to do have a chance to be the winner? So many people come out of the room with the judges with tears streaming down their faces, crying out something along the lines of "I can't believe that they were so mean!" Seriously, have you watched the show before you tried out?

But as usual, I'm taking a circuitous route to my main topic. While my first admonition for would-be idols is a tiny dose of realism in the form of (1) realize you probably don't sing as well as you think you do, (2) expect to be told that you are the worst singer in the world and be made fun of on national television, there are some things I would also like to say in comfort to the losers.

What portion of the people in the world today who are famous for their singing got their start on "American Idol"? I think I heard it said that this is season seven, so at most, if everyone who made it as one of the 12 contestants (I don't watch the show, only the tryouts, so sorry if I'm getting details wrong) became famous, that's only about 70 people out of hundreds and hundreds of recording artists. Being on "American Idol" is not the normal way to become famous. Just a few years back, the show didn't even exist, and there were still people singing for a living. If you really want to be a professional singer, and you really have the talent to do it, you don't need reality television to get there.

The thing that I pause to mention, but only a little because in some ways it's the most important point of all, is that you don't even really need singing talent to become a star. I remember back in the '90s, I heard many a deejay comment after playing a Sugar Ray song, "Crap, if that's what a rock star sounds like, I could do it!" That was just one band out of many that could be listed. Rage Against The Machine, Cake, Bob Dylan, Violent Femmes, all of these and many more are great bands/musicians that don't sing pretty, but it's not about singing pretty, is it? I'm a big fan of Johnny Cash, and towards the end of his life, when health problems caused his voice to start to fail him, he did some powerful work in the studio. Sure, you can't be completely tone deaf (well, a rapper could be, I suppose, but that's a musical form with its own challenges), but what really counts to most people who listen to music is that it speaks to them emotionally. Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins has the ability to sing beautifully, but a lot of his songs are little more than screeching and yelling into the mike, and his fans love it all.

Last year during the tryouts, there was also a teenage boy who when kicked out complained through tears that all he wanted to do was "be famous". This is the biggest mystery of all to me, and yet, it is the thing that makes the title of the show seem so particularly apropos. In the end, although one has to be a great singer in order to be the next American Idol, the show isn't about people who want to be singers. No, the show is people who already are singers trying to show that they are better singers than other contestants. For both those who can and cannot sing, the show is about people who want to be famous. Face it, there are a lot of people in the world today who would much rather be the next William Hung than be an unknown face who sings beautifully in their church choir or local musical theatre. There's this odd draw to being a person who, when they go down the street, people point and shout, "Hey, it's that famous person!"

Why? Why do people want that? Because it works out so well for Britney Spears? Because fame brings out the best in Amy Winehouse? Because of the great way that fame changed the life of Kurt Cobain? When I look at the way famous people live their lives, it seems like the definition of it is having thousands of people in the world who care about the way you live your life, but don't really care about you. Famous people have the whole world following their every move, but never really knowing them in a personal way. As for me, I would rather be given a hug by one person who really knows me than have a standing ovation by 50,000 complete strangers. Does that make me weird? How many famous people are there that not only have a successful career, but a stable personal life? It seems pretty rare.

I guess what I'm saying is that for those who really want to be a famous singer, don't bother with "American Idol" unless you're prepared to have your ego crushed. And if you think you are truly willing to lay down your life as a sacrifice on the altar of fame, be sure, because you may very well have to give up your life. As for me, I'm just happy if my kids like my singing.

1 comment:

Brucker said...

I suppose I should clarify that I may be implying something that is not necessarily true. This morning, I heard Dr. Drew being interviewed about his new show "Celebrity Rehab", and he was asked if being a celebrity drives people to pathological behavior. He replied that while there do seem to be a lot more people with personal problems among celebrities, informal studies seem to show that most of these celebrities had these problems before they became celebrities. However, for some people, the power that celebrity gives you may lead to behaviors based on your personal problems that you would not have been able to do as a non-celebrity.