Is American Idol Really That Bad?


Is American really such a bad thing?

Normally I would say the show is a cultural black hole with all the nutritional value of a pork rind. A bunch of Bieber-era teens singing overwrought ballads to a karaoke track? No thanks. I’ll find a M*A*S*H rerun somewhere.

But you know what? It’s kind of fun when I watch it with my wife and daughter. Fifteen-year-old Speaker is a guitarist, singer and prolific songwriter who will hole up in her bedroom on a Saturday morning and by Sunday evening will emerge with an entire album’s worth of clever, catchy songs that she has recorded on Garageband. Pretty impressive for a girl whose dad will hole up in his room on a Friday night and emerge on Saturday afternoon with nothing but eyes full of sleep boogers and sheet wrinkles imprinted on his ever-expanding gut.

Barb is no slouch musically, sporting the kind of pure, bell-toned singing voice you hear from women like k.d. lang or Amy Martin. It takes a fair amount of coaxing (and occasionally a little sexual blackmail) to get her to sing, but it’s always great when she does.

So it’s become a very entertaining and engaging routine for me and my sheet-wrinkled gut to kick back on the couch every week with Speaker and her mom and take in the 800-pound gorilla of TV reality shows.

The three of us, armed with our own tastes and knowledge of what it takes to carry a tune, have endless discussions about the performances on American Idol. Like other TV-addicted Americans who watch 15 minutes of the Olympics and suddenly consider themselves experts in the field of sport, we go on and on about the technical aspects of singing and performing. Breath control. Throat voice vs. chest voice. Vibrato. Manganese. It’s like watching somebody fish, and yammering on about how you could catch bigger fish with your superior technique if only you were fishing. You know, instead of watching TV.

(Rusty will have nothing to do with this business, preferring to spend his time holed up in his bedroom, reading and doing homework and other complete wastes of time.)

In case you’re not familiar with American Idol, it goes something like this: Auditions are held throughout the country, where 20 million delusional adolescents stand in line for 18 hours in order to sing for 30 seconds in front of three bored professional entertainers. Then they either have their dreams crushed on the spot, relegating them to a life of dead-end service industry jobs or grad school, or else they make the cut and get sent to the next round in Hollywood, where they will have their dreams crushed and be relegated to a life of dead-end service industry jobs or prostitution.

IdolBob (2)

I don’t know, dawg. You really sweat a lot. Plus you’re, like, old.

Once these kids (all contestants must be under thirty because who’s going to download songs by someone with a mortgage?) are winnowed down to the Top Ten, the Hollywood hammer comes down. There is a studio that looks like someone dumped a planeload of glitter and teenyboppers into an NFL stadium. There will be a tour. There is host Ryan Seacrest, an unctuous smart-ass with so many talking-head irons in the entertainment fire he made more money than Canada last year.

There are the three celebrity judges, who are usually under the impression that the title of the show must refer to them. There are superstar mentors who fly in to guide the contestants in learning a song, including such stellar vocalists as Slash and Quentin Tarantino. Last season legendary producer Jimmy Iovine was the behind-the-scenes authority who gave his on-camera opinion about each performer, usually while sitting at a mixing console with a pair of Beats headphones conspicuously hanging around his neck. Jimmy Iovine produced Tom Petty’s “Damn the Torpedoes” so he gets a pass. Also, he is funny as hell.

This year the judges are Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick, Jr. I’m not a big Keith Urban fan, but I find myself grudgingly giving him respect as he continues to display not only a knowledge of rock music history, but also a depth of intelligence that belies his dopey Margaritaville/bro-country musical output. J-Lo? People seem to care more about what she’s wearing than what she’s saying. No one under the age of 45 has ever heard of Harry Connick, Jr., and the people who have heard of him believe he is the announcer for the Chicago Cubs. He seems to be the most polarizing judge, simply because he has no hope of becoming popular and thereby doesn’t have to pander to anyone. His critiques are usually very blunt and technical, drawing boos from the audience and bemused looks from the performers.

Somehow there are a couple of songs from each contestant squeezed into the show between all the Ford commercials, barely-disguised plugs for Seacrest’s syndicated radio show, and Kleenex-filling production pieces taped about each of the finalists featuring their hometowns, broken families, and hard luck stories that typically befall a person on their long hard road from rags to riches at the ripe old age of 15. The songs usually are dictated by a theme, but typically they are either dog-eared classic rock or last year’s Top 40 earworms. Occasionally someone will play an original song in the auditions or early rounds, but as they move along that naiveté is drilled out of them (“Don’t you know we have Jimmy Iovine backstage, you idiot?”)

Last season I predicted the winner, Candice Glover, early on. She’s a pretty, soul-belting black woman who could melt the camera lens with a sidelong glance. A woman among girls. Her album came out this spring. It sucks. They almost always suck. For every Carrie Underwood (whose music sucks but sells like crazy) there are five Lee DeWyzes. In the context of the show, though, there are some hair-raising moments that hint at a brilliant talent.

For example, a girl named Jena (it’s pronounced like Gina but her mom really wanted her to have to spell her name aloud for the rest of her life) played the piano and sang Radiohead’s “Creep” last week. Coming from the giant, lipsticked mouth (I think she has about eight extra teeth) of this young teen who still hasn’t shed her baby fat, it was extraordinarily poignant. Plus the girl can flat sing her ass off.

Speaker, Barb and I figure she’s going to win it all. Either her or Alex, the quirky Jason Mraz-ish coffee house guitar savant anti-hipster doofus, or Caleb, the long-haired rocker from Asheville, N.C. Caleb is built like a linebacker gone to seed, and he lumbers around the stage screaming like Rob Halford in the body of Meatloaf, and the face of Adam Rich from “Eight Is Enough.” He’s usually swathed in black leather, and displays a bit of the Belushi/Farley gift of big guy agility. He acts like he has this thing in the bag, and he probably does.

In the world of a musical pseudo-snob like me, where most of my favorite artists don’t get any closer to the radio than the dashboard of their car, American Idol is a bit of a guilty pleasure. Yeah, it’s cloying, manipulative, smarmy and ultimately meaningless, but as my friend Travis Yost once said, why should any pleasure be a “guilty” pleasure? I wouldn’t be caught near this thing on my own, but having something I can share with Barb and Speaker, something that sparks so many interesting discussions about art, music and culture in general, well, it can’t be all bad.

   Check out all of Bob Wire’s posts in his blog archive.


Have an off-white Christmas with Bob Wire.Think of it as Gonzo meets Hee Haw: Missoula honky tonker Bob Wire holds forth on a unique life filled with music, parenthood, drinking, sports, working, marriage, drinking, and just navigating the twisted wreckage of American culture. Plus occasional grooming tips. Like the best humor, it’s not for everyone. Sometimes silly, sometimes surreal, sometimes savage, Bob Wire demands that you possess a good sense of humor and an open mind.

Bob Wire has written more than 500 humor columns for a regional website over the last five years, and his writing has appeared in the Missoulian, the Missoula Independent, Montana Magazine, and his own Bob Wire Has a Point Blog. He is a prolific songwriter, and has recorded three CDs of original material with his Montana band, the Magnificent Bastards. His previous band, the Fencemenders, was a popular fixture at area clubs. They were voted Best Local Band twice by the Missoula Independent readers poll. Bob was voted the Trail 103.3/Missoulian Entertainer of the Year in 2007.

You can hear his music on his website, or download it at iTunes, Amazon, and other online music providers. Follow @Bob_Wire on Twitter.


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