Wednesday, April 04, 2007


I watch American Idol. It’s not because I really like the show but once in a while somebody does a great job singing a good song. More often than not mediocrity is the best you can hope for with most contestants falling below that bar. At least Simon Cowell is there to properly humiliate the offenders.

Although it’s a highly subjective casting call sometimes real musicians make the cut. Maybe producers resign themselves to the necessity of having real performers on the show to lend a little credibility to a process that clearly favors looks, curiosity and faux charisma over true talent. Once in a while somebody nails it.

Among the better performances, Bo Bice established himself as a savvy rocker who had the guts to be judged without music or backing vocals when he belted out the Allman hit Whipping Post. Chris Daughtry never compromised his hard rock roots and delved deep into alternative rock archives to uncover a dark version of Walk the Line when American Idol inexplicably forced Johnny Cash on the ears of a pop music audience. No offense to Cash, he was great, but most people butcher his songs and end up sounding like trailer trash (Carrie Underwood). Taylor Hicks overcame a propensity for tomfoolery and Phil Donahue’s hair with a versatile, soulful voice that is wasted on the bubblegum crap American Idol has forced him to record.

Kelly Clarkson stunk on ice when she released her first album and she stunk even more when she starred in that awful movie with Justin the Weenie. Why didn’t Uncle Samuel L. Jackson sign on for that? At least Kelly’s got a little more junk in the trunk than Christina Ricci. Maybe it was the PG rating. Samuel L. apparently won’t sign on unless he is guaranteed at least four f-bombs or one “I hope they burn in hell”. For a while Kelly seemed like a wistful cocktail waitress with a decent voice and no personality, destined for a phot spread in Playboy for a quick payday before her 15 minutes expired. Fortunately she found herself and became a musical force after getting the cheese out of her system. She still might knock out a Playboy centerfold.

American Idol is designed to be cheesy. Gwen Stefani has limited talent which was hidden behind the eclectic talents of No Doubt. On her own she is a gangly, less talented version of Madonna. Her solo hits are indulgent, made for video exercises in musical futility. If I could escape, I’d leave Gwen Stefani’s music behind. Still, American Idol had to have her as a guest. After giving contestants bad advice, possibly to ensure they wouldn’t out sing her, she delivered a horrible performance of one of her awful songs.

Diana Ross night was equally cheesy. Ross was always a fine entertainer but her vocals paled in comparison to the likes of Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin. Today, Diana Ross simply isn’t relevant and her performance showed the world that her voice has taken a few steps back. We can’t take anything away from her, but forcing performers who could be her grandchildren to perform her catalogue of dated material results is bad entertainment.

Today’s performers understand cultural fusion. Modern pop music is a combination of everything. Tim McGraw performed a duet with Nelly that went to the top of the charts. The HOT 100 is peppered with songs that are either raps or feature heavy hip hop hooks. Times have changed. Guys like Barry Manilow have always been punchlines but now they are out of touch. Peter Noone might have made teenaged girls swoon back in 1960, but 47 years later nobody really cares what he has to say. Now the guy writing the songs that make the whole world sing is Timbaland.

Most musicians are influenced by who they listened to while growing up which means that today’s American Idol performers relate to people who were cranking out hits 10 or 15 years ago. Sometimes really dedicated musicians explore much older music but most don’t care to make that connection. There’s nothing wrong with that. There is a lineage there so the stars of the 1960’s still have some genetic material floating around in today’s music but aside from a select few, most of that influence is indirect. Instead of Smokey Robinson or Quincy Jones, American Idol needs to track down Teddy Riley and Babyface.

Last night was a classic example of a really bad American Idol idea: Tony Bennett. There are plenty of people who love the guy and you have to respect somebody who still loves performing at 80 years of age. Tony Bennett is worthy of respect but he’s so far removed from today’s music it’s not a good connection. The performances revealed two things: the songs and music were boring, and that type of music is really forgiving to mediocre performers. Tony Bennett sings a bleached version of jazz. Vocals are subtle, smooth and restrained. The music is light and lively but never raucous. Nobody gets to bust loose and show any soul or personality.

I’m 36 and I don’t like Tony Bennett. My parents don’t like him much either, which is bad news for Tony because my father owns a Captain and Tennille album…maybe two. On the list of lame music that’s got to be top three. You have to go back to my grandparents before you touch the generation Tony Bennett relates to best and I can only assume my grandparents didn’t like Tony either because they couldn’t stand Sinatra. Tony Bennett is like a less energetic version of Frank Sinatra. It’s lounge schmaltz.

People try to avoid saying anything bad about Tony Bennett because he’s such a venerable pop culture figure. Most people don’t care for his music at all but they like the fact that he’s still got a little vitality. It’s heartening to see a guy his age still active and able to perform. His shows are a novelty to most people.

It’s not my desire to offend Tony Bennett. He’s never given me any reason to dislike him but I can’t stand his music. It’s just slightly less objectionable than country music. His music and style isn’t timeless at all. He has a career because he is a living historical exhibit and that’s not a bad thing, but he’s got no business telling 20 year-old kids how to impress a younger audience.

It’s unlikely any of the contestants were thrilled to sing his style of music and I wasn’t excited to hear it. The only possible way to salvage the evening would have been for somebody to arrange the songs with all of that big band sound trashed in favor of stripped down guitars. It’s hard to put a rock edge on something like I’ve Got Rhythm but somebody should have tried.

And it’s not as though Tony has any real appreciation for today’s music. He took subtle shots at the performers as they tried to inject a little youth into his tired old play list. He told Beatboxing Blake that one song was written before rap and he should stay true to it. He complimented one of the singers because she could carry tune and added that it was rare these days. Isn’t that a version of “you kids these days”?

American Idol would have you believe that Tony Bennett and the style of music he represents is loved by all…that there is no generation gap, but there is. Sure people still applaud for him when he sings but are they applauding the performance or the fact that the old coot lived through it? Are they truly entertained or are they entertaining him?

We don’t have to like it. That’s what entertainment is all about. I know what I like and Tony Bennett is not on that list. I wouldn’t go to a Tony Bennett concert unless I was paid to be there and there is a very good chance I ‘d balk at a paid appearance. Tony Bennett probably wouldn’t bother going to a Fallout Boy show unless he got six figures so it’s all good. Even Steven. There’s nothing wrong with a healthy generation gap. It’s only too bad American Idol didn’t see it that way before they dusted off that tired old list of songs.

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