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American Idol and the classroom

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Friday, Mar 10, 2006

If you’re not a fan of Simon Cowell’s money making machine, you best get over it.  American Idol trounced not just the Grammys but also the Olympics in ratings.  Now other networks are nervously scheduling their programs around Idol so that they don’t have to get their butts kicked in audience share.  But there is some good that comes out of Cowell’s enterprise.
  
Personally, I’ve hated the over-emoting, pseudo-gospel style of singing that the show laps up and promotes.  Other than Fantasia, none of the winners or famous runner-up’s have made any music that I’d want to hear more than once (or even once).  Also, I gotta say that I don’t care for Cowell’s snarky slap-downs of contestants though I’m sure that the shame/indignity/embarrassment is part of what the audience eats up (“Did you hear what he said to her???”). 


Despite all that, it is one of the (if not THE) cultural phenom’s of our time now, like it or not.  Besides the amazing ratings, it has numerous spin offs and an amazing franchise that extends to a lot of successful runs on the Billboard Charts.  And of course Cowell has a piece of all the green in this.  While labels are only happy to sign up his winners and near-winners, surely they’re also thinking that his oh-so-efficient machine can and should be duplicated by them somehow so that they’re have more of the dough.  I guarantee that their knock-off’s will be worse.


One happy sign of something that Idol’s spawned is a renewed interest in the classroom.  In a fine piece by Erik Spanberg in the Christian Science Monitor (Pop! goes the curriculum), we learn that interest in the Idol has sparked students, teachers and schools to emulate the model for themselves.  The end result is that music education is finally getting a boost.  That’s big news because music ed has taken a terrible beating in the last decade or two, despite programs by MTV and RIAA to try to boost it.  While pouring money into these programs is certainly noble, also having something to excite the kids to join these programs and thus further them is just as, or more, helpful.


The downside is, as Spanberg notes, is that this in turn is gonna breed a crop of Idol-wanna-be’s who’ll over-emote in song in a limited amount of music genres.  Not that there wouldn’t be plenty of contenders even without these school programs but maybe it is a little troubling that this further indoctrinates the kiddies that this is the right way to study music, especially if their schools are backing it.


Despite that, I’d say that the schools should continue down this path and encourage kids to get more involved in music.  But… I’d also hope that they teach them that the Idol model isn’t the only way to go or even always preferrable, no matter how star-struck they may be.  Especially when you’re young, you’re gullible about the industry and watch all this and think “that could be me!”  In fact, it’s likely that it won’t be and also likely that you won’t make much money or just flop.  That’s the hard cruel reality of show biz. 


But if you also help foster the kids’ love of music in and of itself, not tied only to dreams of glory, you’ve done them a much bigger favor.  Some of them aren’t cut out for Idol but that doesn’t mean that they can’t or shouldn’t enjoy music or shouldn’t be encouraged.  One thing I’ve learned from gabbing with musicians is that the ones who do it out of compulsion or love of music or determination are the ones who stick with it, no matter what their commercial prospects are.  Even more than teaching young ones to sing a certain way, that’s an even more important lesson for them to learn.

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