America, You A'ight, Dawg
Sure, that sounds harsh, but just look at the evidence. They tune in to Yes, Dear in great enough numbers to keep it around for four excruciating seasons while Freaks and Geeks is left, unloved, to wither and die on the vine after only one. They've let pop music become a wasteland of tepid, boilerplate R&B and third-generation Pearl Jam imitators -- now featuring all the bad playing and pompous lyrics of grunge, but sanitized of all that unpleasant aggression and inspiration! They turn out in droves to see movies that are nothing more than schlock seventies television shows chewed up, partially digested, and squirted out the dirty bunghole of Hollywood onto a roll of celluloid. And, despite the repeated efforts of the McDonald 's corporation, they refuse to embrace the McRib sandwich with enough enthusiasm to warrant adding it permanently to the regular McDonald's menu.
O, McRib! You delectable conglomerate of pork and pork-by-products, lovingly stripped off the bone (or what-have-you) and pressed into a rib-shaped slab such that the consumer may recognize its origins, then slathered with a glistening, barbecue sauce flavored gel! Why hath my countrymen forsaken thee? Must I be doomed forever to wait nine months to a year between opportunities to indulge in your fatty goodness?
One thing is for certain. The very last forum in which I ever expected to reconcile my differences with the teeming masses would have been Fox's American Idol. Idol is like a four-month long "Up yours" from the music business, the equivalent of the recording industry saying, "This is what you like, whether you like it or not." If we're to believe American Idol, the future of music is the status quo, and the performers we should most idolize are the ones who can best mimic the by-the-numbers pop of their forebears. What's worse, up until now Idol's phenomenal ratings have suggested that the audience agrees.
The contestants, for their part, play right into it, stripping themselves of all individuality to better fit the mold the marketing department has cast for them. Take last season's winner, Ruben Studdard, and his performance on this week's results show. When Ruben drifted ominously onto the Idol stage like the shadow of the Hindenburg, I knew the crushing weight of tedium couldn't be far behind. Ruben has a silky smooth voice and a seemingly bottomless well of likeability, but suffering through one of his inert renditions of a song that wasn't very interesting the first hundred times it was written is about as stimulating as staring at a wall and thinking back fondly on how fun it was to watch the paint dry. True to form, Studdard unleashed three minutes of the most derivative R&B imaginable, so boring that it seemed expressly crafted to lull his audience into a catatonic state so that they wouldn't struggle much when he ate them.
And so it was for the first half-dozen weeks or so of American Idol season three. Bereft of a better option -- Whoopi? Be serious. -- the wife and I tuned in each Tuesday to watch the clones roll off the assembly line and to assess their ability to meet the requirements of a mass produced pop icon. Got a voice that warbles like a horny alley cat, that may not actually be capable of holding a note, but that can flutter rapidly between all the notes around it so that it's hard to tell? Check. Got enough manual dexterity to point vaguely at members of the audience while bending slightly at the knees at rhythmic intervals? Check. Got a non-threatening demeanor and the willingness to let the people in wardrobe dress you up like a manic, colorblind Liberace? Check. Congratulations, kid, you may have what it takes to be the next American Idol! Yawn.
But something funny happened on the way to the foregone conclusion. Somewhere along the way, America veered off course from its pre-packaged pop destiny, thumbing its nose at the will of its corporate masters and simultaneously restoring my faith in the common man.
The first sign of rebellion appeared during the fourth semi-final round. Nestled unassumingly among seven attempts to replicate the mating call of the rose-breasted grosbeak were the vocal stylings of John Stevens. Stevens is a skinny redheaded kid from New York with a penchant for crooning and a deeper voice than he looks capable of. Remember Rick Astley? The little white man with the big black voice who insisted he was Never Gonna Give You Up on MTV in the mid-'80's? Swap Rick's Member's Only jacket for a dark suit coat and you've got John Stevens.
Midway through the show, young John stood up and crooned Billy Joel's "She's Always a Woman." Not very well, as it turns out. Quite badly, in fact. But unlike the other singers that night, he treated the song with respect -- meaning he didn't decide to change the notes he couldn't hit -- and, more importantly, he looked like he meant it. What Stevens lacked in vocal talent he made up for with a simple sincerity that, coupled with the bright orange patch on top of his head, has probably earned him more than one accidental visit from the Great Pumpkin on Halloween night.
Naturally, I was sure he was doomed. He had not selected an R&B standard. He had not dressed as a mannequin from the store window at The Gap. He had not pretended, against blatant evidence to the contrary, to be black. So when Stevens was pulled aside as one of the top three vote getters during the results show, and when he was soon afterwards revealed as the owner of the highest vote total, I had to have TiVo replay the moment several times just to convince myself that I hadn't gone insane as a defense mechanism against Ryan Seacrest's infernal mugging.
What was this? Could it be that America had become fed up with the endless parade of wannabe Mariah Careys? Had they, in fact, chosen a mediocre performer as their champion simply because he dared to step outside the confines of urban adult contemporary? But no, that couldn't be. Simon Cowell had stated the night before that he hoped Stevens would do well because he was different. Obviously the proletariat, mindless automatons that they are, had simply latched on to his comment and voted accordingly. This was, after all, the same tribe of unwashed heathens that had held Jessica Simpson aloft in the Billboard 200 for 29 weeks and counting.
Then came Jon Peter Lewis. Already a failure during semi-final round three with his painfully mannered rendition of "Tiny Dancer," the 24-year old pen salesman from Idaho decided to pull out all the stops when he was brought back for the wild-card show. And pull out the stops he did, if by "pull out the stops" you actually mean, "stop taking his epilepsy medication." JPL got up and belted out Elvis' "A Little Less Conversation", and though his singing was marginal at best, he backed it up with a ridiculous, spastic boogie that looked like the sort of jig the Fat Elvis might have danced once or twice when he inadvertently misplaced his stash of bennies. It was embarrassing. It was undignified. It was, in short, the single most entertaining performance American Idol has ever seen.
This time, Simon was not amused. And as Lewis was in the company of a number of expert Whitney Houston-alikes, I wistfully bid him adieu. I mean, come on. America's not going to give a guy their collective thumbs-up just because he had the cajones to emulate a seizure on live national television, are they?
And so I've had to rethink my opinion of my compatriots. On balance, maybe we're not so different. After all, it was not the American public, but the recording industry itself, that turned FM radio from an actual entertainment venue into a twenty-four hour advertisement for the musical flavor of the month. And maybe, just possibly, the reason album sales are flagging is not so much that ten-year olds with no disposable incomes are downloading MP3s of music they couldn't afford to buy anyway, but because the record-buying public has just about had it with the tasteless, processed slop they've been force-fed in disc form for over a decade.
It still doesn't exonerate my people for their wanton rejection of the McRib. But it's a good start.
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