PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Television

Bad Hair and Rad Fashion: How a Jaded Hipster Can Heart Idol and Keep His Lengthy

Justin Cober-Lake

A world weary music critic admits his guilt-free love of AI.

I know I'm not supposed to like it. I'm supposed to be snarky and somewhat hip about quality. But here it is: I unabashedly love American Idol.

Let's be honest, though -- the show isn't about talent. This year's finalists were a parody of a '70s rocker and the most vapid, mechanical performer of the year. While I've got no problem with Carrie's voice, I couldn't stand to watch her move, or her always expressionless face. Early on, I laughed at Bo's performances -- he's just a parody of a rock star. The crowd loved his efforts to look like an Allman Brother, but that says more about the audience's lack of experience with rock and roll than it does about Bo's ability to get it on. Maybe I'm just an old cracker, but I've seen more original and less comical frontman acts from many a JD-swilling karaoke-er. Beard and cocaine bust or not, Bo ain't the real thing.


A world weary music critic admits his guilt-free love of AI.

The judges? Paula: utterly clueless, but fortunately she adds an element of love to the show that's sweet. I like to believe that she really did sleep with a contestant (or several), and at the end of each conjoining, she raised her hands and said, "That was incredible. I don't even know what to say, you're an amazing performer." I like to think her "straight up" men believed her. Randy: I don't think his ears work. Putting the word "pitchy" into the vernacular of our times certainly doesn't mean he's capable of hearing it. Dog, you need to get one of those back-of-a-magazine perfect-pitch courses. Simon: I love him; he's a self-mocking, highly entertaining commentator, and his ridiculous analogies are far more often spot on than the crowd's revved-up booing would suggest.

So why do I love a show that doesn't reward talent and features mostly worthless commentary? First of all, I like to hate, to feel smug and to feel like I'm not really being an elitist because, heck, at least I'm watching. I'm trying to get over hating. ( I'm keeping the smugness because I'm smart and have been well-learnt in the arts of music). Every time there's a results show, I get to sit in judgment not only of the contestants, but of all of America (or at least the millions and millions who vote). Every time someone I like gets voted off, it's further proof that I have better taste than the general populace. The more I disagree, the better I feel; the better I feel, the more encouragement I have to disagree. Give me a few seasons and I'll be applying for my own show.

Admit it with me: it's good TV. There's drama, there's confusion, there are heroes who lose and underdogs who rise up, bad fashion, rad hair, people whose families are crying and week-to-week plotlines and I have to watch. The two-hour season finale went so far over the top that it came back around to good again. I'm reminded of Umberto Eco's explanation that Casablanca succeeded as a film because it piled up cliches and archetypes so incessantly that it became a new, great thing. That's what happens when Idol adds red carpets and confetti.

The quality of the television viewing has nothing to do with the show's creators, performers, executives, or anyone. It happens in spite of all that, which probably adds to the pleasure of it all. To criticize the show for being goofy or stupid or unmusical is to complain that a comedy was funny, but not in the right places. Who cares, as long as you're having fun?

Sure, there are levels of enjoyment -- I won't pretend otherwise. Some people like the music (really, they do, they must!), while others only find the cheesiness entertaining. Some people are swept up in the carefully-revealed and -developed narratives. I've zero interest in claiming that only shows that work on a certain level are good.AI is a show that simply entertains; whether it does so in the way intended or not, is immaterial.

And if you people are so sure that the contestants aren't any good, prove it. These people aren't about being musicians, but about being stars. If people like the contestants (whether they're technically good or not), they've succeeded. They don't need to write songs or play instruments (we can do this Brill-Building style if we have to), they just have to make people want to see them. It's like Paris Hilton without the night vision and morning-after itch. Nothing could be more American than an idol whose fame is based only on his or her ability to establish fame.

Of course, some of these idols can perform, and don't forget it. Kelly Clarkson just dropped a single -- "Since U Been Gone" -- that's making even the indie kids stop and listen. Okay, critics, I'll give you that the song's strength lies in its production, but Clarkson lends a talented vocal.

Don't forget this one, either: Fantasia singing "Summertime."

It's moments like that one where millions of people don't just hear the same song, but see and hear the same performance simultaneously that make AI such a powerful phenomenon. These shared experiences mean that we have a thing -- a text, an event, an artifact -- to make talking about music more inclusive and socially useful. What makes a performance good? If I see Bo waving his mic stand around and laugh at the spectacle, reminded of too many bar bands and major acts I've seen do this (and neither with any greater or lesser amount of effectiveness), than didn't Bo just connect? Is he relying on cliche or is he referencing well-known codes of rockdom? Is it real, a simulation, or the simulacrum? And shouldn't anyone who would ask questions like those be banned from talking about pop music?

American Idol, in all its component parts, pretty much blows. But put together, it's this giant, entertaining spectacle that opens up a world of conversation among any people with access to a television and an Interweb. It's stupid, it's fascinatingly boring, and it's a cultural dream, like Ryan Seacrest's fauxhawk.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.