Wednesday, March 18, 2009

American Idol

It’s country week on American Idol, and nothing can show up the judges to be as completely unhinged, inarticulate, and clueless as a genre they don’t know and have all kinds of assumptions about. Namely, country.

I will go on record here as saying that I am an unabashed lover of country music. Yes, its politics at times make me change the station, or get annoyed at the artist (I’m talking to you Toby Keith, Aaron Tippen, Lee Greenwood and Darryl Worley), but then, like an annoying relative, you can’t really dislike them totally because there’s always something you do they like. For me, country is about stories, voices, and harmony. And it’s pretty catchy. So yeah, I consider myself an aficionado.

But when country week rolls around, it’s like listening to bakers talk about making missiles, because those judges just flip over themselves to sound like they know what they’re talking about. And between their assumptions about what country stands for, what each contestant “is”, it’s more fun than the rodeo.

My tipping point came this week when Adam Lambert sang “Ring of Fire”. I’d already been primed by Michael Sarver’s downright shaky bordering on bad rendition of “Ain’t goin’ down til the sun comes up”, where he tried to excuse himself by saying “it’s fun, it’s country” as if that excused him from any kind of breathing, phrasing, or even staying on pitch. And Kara, she of seemingly no knowledge of country music at all, more or less agreed. (!). But what got me was the thing that always does with this show—the judges ask for something—this time, originality—and when they get it, they hate it. No sooner had the last contestant performed and been told that he had to be more “original” and himself than Adam Lambert came on and completely blew everyone away with a re-imagined version of “Ring of Fire” that completely suited him. And of course—he was criticized – I love this--for being weird, by Kara, and was insulted by Simon. Because what the judges mean by “different” is “same as what’s on the radio right now” and “put your spin on it” means “make it sound like what’s on the radio right now as you would sound doing it”. God forbid anyone like Lucinda Williams, John Prine, or Steve Earle would have to stand up in front of Kara or Simon.

Case in point, Matt Giruad. Nice, not earth shattering, and very contemporary. But it got one of the best responses of the night. I know this is not new to this show. What the judges are figuring out how to do is encourage these people to figure out who they are while at the same time remaining a salable commodity--not an easy task (and they did earn some respect for calling out the over-sung version of Jolene, which Alexis Grace wielded like a baseball bat and thwacked it against a wall a few times, and then was told by Kara that she lost her edge and should sing one of two Carrie Underwood songs). It really gets my hackles, up, though, when someone goes out on a limb artistically and gets called weird and strange. ESPECIALLY on a Johnny Cash song. He friggin’ covered nine inch nails! And even more, Adam kind of nailed it. If there’s anyone who probably would’ve appreciated that version, it’s Johnny Cash. And to lambaste someone for doing what you’ve asked, mainly stay true to himself and his sound, well, that’s just not country. Be original, but please, don’t do anything we haven’t seen before.

And an Idol PS from Yahoo:
Paula Abdul had six #1 hits between 1989 and 1991, when she vied with Madonna and Janet Jackson as the hottest female singer in the business. That means that Abdul has had as many #1 singles all by herself as every Idol contestant who has ever competed on the show, combined. Think of that the next time someone (Simon Cowell, perhaps) suggests she's an airhead.

Who knew?

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