Idol Loves Idol

One More Sanjaya Hair Joke for the Road
Obsessive analysis of American Idol.
May 22 2007 4:40 PM

Idol Loves Idol

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Dear Jody,

It is an equal pleasure for me to have such a distinguished Idol buddy! I've told you this before, but I owe my interest in the show, and therefore nearly my entire "career" to date, to your 2003 editorial ($) in the New York Times on the melismatic singing of aspiring Idols. Yes, that's right. A Pretentious Dissertation: 290 Pages And 2 Lines About American Idol (since you stole my original title with the Fugly Sweater Vests) is your fault. With great power comes great responsibility. Be more careful in the future or live with the possibility that someday a sociologist will thank you for her thesis on the epistemology of Sanjaya Malakar's hair.

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Re: your theory of Simon's failure to provide a truly diverse cast this year—I agree that the stylistic range was pretty narrow, though I'm not sure that the casting was any weaker than it's been before. I feel like this year's array of contestants was something of a return to Season 3, with the obligatory pink-haired "rocker" chick, single mother, church-grown soul/R&B singers, conspiracy theory about Hawaii, and 'tweener heartthrobembarrassed at his inability to be eliminated from the competition. It's as if the last two seasons were just a dream and Bo "The Real Thing" Bice and Kellie "Just Shoes?" Pickler never existed at all! I don't want to live in a world like that, do you?

We did see a few things this season that we haven't seen before. Phil Stacey was less a country singer than a scarily chameleonic impressionist (he would ace Impersonator Idol) who was able to magically make himself sound like he should be singing Keith Urban or, for that matter, Sting or Bon Jovi. That was new. It was his gift—and his downfall, since a viable Idol needs a clear-cut musical identity. In another new twist, Jordin went back to her naturally curly hair, defying the Idol-transformation rule that you can't be a star until you've gone straight for good. What else? A contestant got scolded for seeming too sweet and humble. Idol "Gave Back." In a perhaps inevitable convergence between Idol politics and American politics, the President of the United States was on the show. The President. And there was, you know, that Elvis thing, which apparently everyone in the United Kingdom has totally seen before(watch this!). Blake made with the fancy sounds, something that other contestants have not really dabbled in. Well, except for him. And him. It gives Blake an earnest, liberal-arts-college-talent-show vibe that I find appealing, maybe just because I've never seen it before among American Idol finalists.

But even as you prophesy Blake's victory, you might be right about Jordin's ballad advantage. I didn't hear any finalists in the songwriting competition that made me think "Blake." The songs posted briefly on AmericanIdol.com were mostly suitable for Jordin, with some sounding slightly more Melinda-appropriate. Can you see Blake performing with the perennial Idol-finale gospel choir? In the end, though, as you've suggested, it doesn't really matter who wins. The singer with the most votes isn't necessarily the most marketable. A strong identity and an enthusiastic niche audience might get you elected American Idol, but even a person who votes for you 3,000 times probably won't buy 3,000 copies of your album. So, it's usually the contestant associated with a large, preexisting market—Chris Daughtry's rock, Carrie Underwood's country-pop—or at least the flexibility to go there (Kelly Clarkson) who has the best hope for an instant career. I'm not really sure what Jordin's main genre is, besides nostalgia-pop ballads, and I hope Clive Davis is careful with her. I'm a little afraid that her glorious voice might be pushed into Diana DeGarmo bubble-gum territory. I wouldn't be shocked if, of the two, Blake had a stronger start. Where do you think Jordin belongs, and, regardless of the votes, who do you think will prevail in album sales?

Clarkson, Underwood, and Daughtry are three very successful Idol alumni, all currently major players in their respective markets. Former Idols are everywhere these days, in pop, in rock, in country, on Broadway. And other signs of American Idol's far-reaching influence are plain, too, with audience-voting shows nearly de rigueur for every television network and consumer choice suddenly disguised everywhere as democratic process. You can vote for your favorite celebrity dancers, your favorite ice cream, your favorite Star Wars stamp idea, "vote" on the fairness of Paris Hilton's jail sentence (classy, CNN!), or even—and I don't know what this would accomplish—vote for your favorite shark. What's next, "Vote for your favorite presidential candidate"? To me, these trends indicate that even if American Idol isn't going anywhere special just now, it isn't going away, either.

In the meantime, as we await the season's final performance show, I have a few more questions for you. Forget the sweater vests—what was the symbolic significance of Blake's tuxedo T-shirt? Is making turntable sounds really "beatboxing"? And when did Chihuahuas get so dangerous?

Still in school,
Kathy

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

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