American Idol and popularity

Do you ever watch American Idol? I’d say it’s the best reality tv that you can find, unless you prefer one of the other performance shows where people sing or dance.

There are really two parts to it. At the beginning of each season we watch a series of auditions to determine who will be on the show. Whether you’re a fan of country or opera, jazz, broadway, hip-hop or rock, the dynamics of auditions are wonderful television, the astonishing drama of judges assessing performances.

While I’m speaking of this, let me just mention how much I hate competitions & judgment as it is sometimes done. Simon Cowell, the former judge on American Idol, sometimes had the most detestable way of dismissing performers, rude beyond belief. Of course people love this drama, a modern kind of gladiator combat, except instead of lions chewing on Christians, we have a judge like Simon biting pieces out of vulnerable performers, and it seems that people still love to watch such blood-sports. Not me. I hate that, and wanted to mention it. I also dislike (rather than hate) competitions, because I don’t believe they really honour art & artistry, they turn virtuosity into something like circus performance, a fact that Wagner & Debussy both picked up on & mocked in their writings. Thank goodness that the more recent incarnations of American Idol with a new cadre of judges has outgrown the slimy snake-skin of Simon & now are supportive & loving as they mentor the performers, teaching them & pushing them to grow as artists.

This I can endorse. Heck, it’s great television & often leads to warm fuzzies.

These performances are a wonderful laboratory. Popularity has been one of my hobby-horses on the blog & in courses that I taught. I haven’t talked about it in awhile, but tonight after watching American Idol, I thought I’d bring it up. There is much we need to think about, to digest and/or dissect, whether we’re watching Eric McCormack and Chilina Kennedy as Gatsby & Daisy as I did last night, or Angel Blue & Eric Owens in the Met’s award winning production of Porgy and Bess.

I’m not sure we really know what the word even means.

The current panel of judges consists of Katy Perry, Lionel Ritchie and Luke Bryan, although for tonight Simon’s old nemesis Paula Abdul subbed for Luke, who apparently has tested positive for COVID19. Each has a way of celebrating excellence, offering advice, and, while the rest of us in the TV audience look on, teaching.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that these three are conservatory teachers. But they do get the candidates to improve, they do offer good advice. I can’t recall which young singer it was who seemed to want to set fire to the stage every second of her singing, but was admonished to save something, to start softly & build. That advice seems to have been taken up by at least three different singers who didn’t previously think to perform that way.

Some of the lessons come from the students. Tonight I saw one singer address another, reminding us that whichever one of them was selected, winning was less important than their relationship. They were friends and I felt the generosity of the sentiment. Indeed I wish there were enough jobs for all the students studying voice, although I think we know that nope not even close. Right now the arts are rebuilding in the wake of the pandemic’s disruptive effect on performance & the music industry.

We watch people sing who are told to be in the moment. I know that nerves are helpful, that being too relaxed can lead to mistakes while a bit of nervousness helps us focus. This is not the same as opera or broadway but the drama is ultimately the same. And from the screams of the audience you can’t tell what they’re listening to. Okay, not opera because no one says “bravo” although lately opera is getting more woots and fewer bravi’s.

There’s a lot more to the question of popularity, I’ve not even scraped the surface here. Why are Puccini & Richard Strauss somehow suspect because of their success at the box office? Are Pinter and Beckett better than Stoppard, because they don’t attract as many people? Does Oscar ever get it right? But it’s fun to toss some of this out there, a divisive topic. If someone gets rich they’re sometimes accused of selling out. Starving may suggest your artistic motives are pure, but excuse me, nobody wants to starve. It’s not a crime to get rich. Mozart & Shakespeare & Handel are popular, but lucky for them they’re dead so nobody holds their popularity against them.

I enjoyed watching Katy Perry pull herself together at the inauguration concert. While singing her big hit for the Bidens & the rest of America her voice seemed to tighten, perhaps as the emotion of the moment blind-sided her.

But as the show reminds us, she’s a professional & she showed that she has technique. I was right there with her, terrified as she squared off with that passage leading to the high notes: and pulled it, redhot right out of the sky like part of the fireworks display.

That moment (you want Gesamtkunstwerk? Biggest fireworks display ever to go with the song), alongside the election was one of the highlights of 2020.

And I’m grateful.

This entry was posted in Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Opera, Politics, Popular music & culture and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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