AmericanIdol wants artists, not contestants.

Obsessive analysis of American Idol.
May 13 2010 12:06 PM

Idol Wants Artists, Not Contestants

Specifically, artists who can work with the Caddyshack soundtrack.

Time was, there were no artists on Idol. "Art" has typically been the province of rock, and the show used to so unabashedly embrace its poptimist slant that Simon once cheerfully warned an auditioning Seger acolyte, "You may have to sell yourself out a bit."

But now Idol is making the word its own, selling out its celebration of the commercial and aspiring to an aura of indie authenticity. All of Season 9 has set up this sea change, a deliberate campaign to legitimize Idol as more than just a music machine, and to remind viewers that the lines between pop and rock and art and schlock are about as real as reality TV.

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The judges have told us, over and over—as if we were small children or a little hard of hearing—what they want us to want this year, heaping praise on those who "know what kind of artist" they are, throwing the term around as if Randy just invented it. (Artist is the new pitchy.) And this season's Idols were selected to show us what an artist is meant to be. They play the guitar. They dress like the kids in the "alternative" dorm at my (or any other) college in the 1990s, and display body art, and sing with didgeridoos. Then this week, Jamie Foxx spelled the situation out for us as literally as possible. On top of the "Michael Mann" plan he introduced last year—the disconcerting boot-camp-sergeant tactic in which singers must face up to Foxx as he gets up close and personal enough to make their eyes cross—his new pedagogical shtick involved ranking the singers as "Contestants" or "Artists" and making them wear the label, like the name of some kind of sadistic fashion line, on a T-shirt. The idea (from what I could gather through Foxx's muddled explanation) seemed to be that by this point in the long Idol rite of passage, everyone should have graduated from Contestant to Artist, ready to go gold and fill arenas.

Incongruously, Foxx raised the question of artistry on a Movie Night that paid homage to a not-quite-Golden Age of cinema, with songs from Caddyshack (in which a gopher dances to Kenny Loggins' "I'm Alright") and Free Willy (in which orcas frolic to Michael Jackson's "Will You Be There"). Prepping for the whale song, Michael Lynche was having none of the T-shirt folderol, and maybe signed his own walking papers when he politely but firmly refused to be a Contestant. What with that, and Ellen calling him out for lacking ambition, plus the protracted panel discussion about freeing willies, he was pretty much destined for dismissal this week.

But he made a statement about the absurdity of Foxx's gimmick, an approach that might have been more effective with singers less confident than Big Mike. On the other hand, maybe not even then, since it didn't help the chronically under-confident Lee, who responded the way he might if his seatmate on the L got a little too friendly. In any case, his Batman Forever theme did bring us one step closer to solving the eternal mystery of what the hell Seal is talking about. (After an hour of intense Facebook debate re: "gray"/"grave," I watched Lee's performance again and am 99 percent certain that at the end he sang "kiss from a rose on the grave.")

While everyone's solo performances seemed a little thrown off by the demented mentoring—even the even-tempered Crystal was flustered into cussing during her training montage—they all shone in their unexpected duets. I had my suspicions about those pairings, to be honest; putting front-runners DeWyze and Bowersox together for one of the hits that made Kris Allen Season 8's Idol, and Mike and Casey together for the most irritating song ever written (really … really, really ever) written sent a Crystal clear message. At this stage in the game nothing on Idol is accidental, not the duets, not Fantasia's (fantastic!) speech about the authenticity of her album, and not the well-timed return of the original Art-estant Daughtry.

And timing is everything—I wonder whether the continuously popular Casey might have benefited especially from his recent Facebook post marking the anniversary of his near-fatal motorcycle accident. I've been checking out the contestants' (I mean the artists') wall posts lately and loving the little glimpses of actual personhood they offer. There's been introspection, nervous chatter, begging for votes, and gratitude to fans and, of course God, plus—my favorite one—the post where Mama Sox lived up to her maternal moniker and used her status update to chide Idol-bashers. She has good reason, too; the plentiful posts are littered with mean-spirited (not to mention bigoted) comments like the Wednesday one to Casey reading "go home, faggot." That outrage, and the poignancy of his survival story, made me unaccountably glad his nine lives extended to Idol this week.

But I'm still loyal to our Ohio homegirl. In fact, I'll be spending this Friday at "Bowerstock," where Crystal will make her triumphant Top 3 return to Toledo, sing, and apparently hang out in an AT&T store. Here's hoping she'll sing "Holy Toledo!"If that's not art, I don't know what is.

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Katherine Meizel is the author of Idolized: Music, Media, and Identity in American Idol and a visiting assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Oberlin Conservatory.