So who’s watching the new season of American Idol tonight? Anyone? Bueller?
The answer is probably “millions of people,” if I’m honest, but try that question around the water cooler tomorrow and you’ll likely get a lot of silence. Idol is perhaps our guiltiest of pleasures, because it tells us so much that we don’t want to admit to ourselves about our country. Let’s start with the fact that Candice Glover, last year’s winner, is the first female winner in six seasons, and the first African-American to make it to the finale in the same amount of time (in this span, only two others even hit the top 3). Considering the wide swatches of America that watch, it says something disturbing about our preferences (and arguably proves why the Electoral College is such an important bit of our national elections). Then again, we don’t need to get into the social lenses to be disturbed: just one results show, with the obligatory cheesefest group number, leaves the viewer wondering why the show continues to exist. The guest performances regularly expose the over-production in recorded pop music. The theme weeks suggest that every voice is suited to every genre, which is why some themes become little more than slapstick performances. Above all else, though, Idol is like any other reality show, in that it’s inherently a guilty pleasure (and in that it’s scripted more than you expect). Most of us have seen it, some watch with regularity, but we’re not about to admit to it. Whether we awkwardly notice the societal trends or simply wish to not associate with an incredibly high budget vaudevillian production of high school popularity politics, we keep our viewing close to our chest.
“Oh, but it’s not about that,” says everyone who didn’t understand how their senior prom court was selected, “it’s about who sings best!” Except that is rarely really true, either. Affable though Season 8 winner Kris Allen seems, runner-up Adam Lambert was inarguably a better technical singer. Season 9′s Crystal Bowersox even more clearly outmatched the victor, Lee DeWyze; while Lambert’s theatrical persona and style could easily have lost him fans, Bowersox had an honest bluesy voice that would have given her every chance to share a fanbase with DeWyze. How about more obvious instances, though, like the impressive ride Sanjaya Malakar had despite being a mediocre singer at best, or the way Blake Lewis got through to runner-up on minimal singing cred simply by being a passable beatboxer? What about Kellie Pickler (6th) and Chris Daughtry (4th) each selling more albums than the top three of their year combined? What about the fact that you don’t remember the top three, or over half the names in this paragraph, do you? Idol is based on divine whims, judge coercion, and singing orders proven to maximize likelihood of safety or danger. To really put the nail in the coffin, however, consider the fact that last year’s winner tried twice before, made it to the Hollywood rounds, yet failed to make the voting rounds. If every season is supposed to be the top 12 singers in the country, this seems a bit problematic.
Now, I am the last person to imply there’s anything wrong with glorified karaoke, but it does seem a weak way to determine a superstar. The best voice in the room still needs decent songs, and since Idol tends not to reward the unique, the tracklist matters even more for the future success of the winner. In an ideal Idol world, then, perhaps there would be an outlet for singers to showcase their own writing chops, instead of forcing us to hope that just because they covered “Imagine” well, they’re going to be able to hold a candle to a songwriting classic in their own debut collection. That is why, in an ideal Idol world, Leslie Hunt won season six.
Leslie Hunt was admittedly not an “Idol package” on screen. She was sold as a bit dull and awkward. She didn’t give off the confidence that some (worse) singers did that year, nor did she embrace the glamor of Hollywood. She famously scatted during the performance which got her eliminated, and even more famously lamented on her sing-out “why did I scat? America don’t care for jazz!” That elimination, by the by, was right before the top 16. It might be hard to understand what was so great about someone based solely on a minute and a half of jazz standard after they had the wind knocked out of them by learning their dream was over, though, so that’s why I’m providing you with this further musical information.
See, we can all love songs, but it doesn’t mean we were meant to sing them. Writing one, we tend to be more aware of our own capabilities, and far more connected to the content. You get that when you hear Leslie sing her own work. It’s the sort of confessional music that used to be the defining line between a singer and a songwriter. It allows her to showcase competent piano playing along with her voice. It shows a woman who understands not only how to wrap her voice around a melody, but how to create one, how to flesh it out with words, and frequently beautiful, haunting ones. The song ends and the listener has the certainty that we just heard something private, and that we learned something about the woman singing. It never feels trite, and yet it would fit snugly in the catalog of any number of similar songwriters. It’s professional grade stuff, and Leslie’s early work simply doesn’t disappoint on this level.
So, if this is the sort of work we have the potential to get from the losers, maybe Idol gets it right on the grand scale. Probably, if we dug deep, there’s a meaningful, vital new artist showing up every season on Idol… it’s just nearly guaranteed that person didn’t end up winning. The important thing is that we can find our next big thing anywhere, even if the rest of the country gets it wrong. Maybe it’s time to go back to your favorite and see if they’ve been recording over the last few years: given the power of the internet, the likelihood is high you’ll find something. We won’t tell anyone where you found them.
Comments are closed.