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Under the Table and Scheming: American Idol and the New Payola

Bill Gibron

Gibron considers AI as a blip in the grand historical tradition of corporate music trash.

So, America has itself a new Idol. In an apparent desire to buck the trend for picking the pop chart perfect performer, mob mentality deemed country AND western chanteuse Carrie Underwood the next ready-for-retail star. While many felt conventional cockrocker Bo Bice would somehow hand sign his way to victory, the incredibly persnickety public have spoken, and made it clear that when it comes to these Nielsen novelty acts, longhaired freaky people just need not apply.

Of course, what many fans of this infotainment free-for-all still don't realize is that the final result is fixed. No, not in the friggin' with perky Paula Abdul kind of riggin'. Not a 'Ryan can't read the results' type of trickery. Beyond all the ridiculous re-voting and shadowy scandals, American Idol is really nothing more than public payola. But unlike that under the table double-dealing from years past, there is nary a mafia figure or coked-up programming director in sight. No, instead of prying you with whores (the sexual, not the media kind) and money, it's the press-n-play notion of picking your own poison that has you suckling at the corporate teat like cultureless curs.

Gibron considers AI as a blip in the grand historical tradition of corporate music trash.

Cutting out the con job middleman is something rather recent for the music biz. If one runs down the legacy of disposable pop, the so-called idol holds a special place in the hierarchy of hatefulness. Though its roots can be traced to the boy and girl singers that graced big band stages throughout the pre and post WWII days, the true imaged-based musician found his or her full flower in the 1950s. It would take a gentle gentrification of the white flight suburban mentality before Mr. and Mrs. Deed Restricted Community would trade in their Percy Faith for any manner of Penniman. So as Elvis sold the evil, seedy Southern style of race music sex, the conglomerates decided to tone down the debauchery by carving out their own non-pelvic princes.

With names that today sound like discarded Italian car model types (own a new Fabian today! All the cool kids drive a Dion!) and songs stolen directly from their still segregated brethren, the entire Caucasian picket fence world warmed to these ersatz singers. The hits came fast and furious, and it wasn't long before anyone with a semblance of screen image (Frankie Avalon) or hit TV series (Johnny Crawford, Paul Peterson) was cutting tracks to feed the superstar-making machinery behind the puerile popular song.

Many music aficionados think they finally killed it, but The Beatles only sidelined the teen idol for a few years (and they themselves were not part of the paradigm). Every once in a while, as another Fab Four masterwork was Mersey beating its way to the top of the charts, a minor male with a completely polished persona stole a moment or two of Liverpool limelight. Names like Bobby Sherman, Oliver and those completely hummable manufactured mop-tops, The Monkees, kept the conglomerate coffers overflowing even as the industry waded past "Penny Lane" and into acres of psychedelic acidity.

Perhaps the worse era for manufactured musicians was the '70s. As simple songcraft gave way to perplexing prog posing (with the death knell of disco waiting patiently in the wings), bubblegum begat another wave of bland bands with origins -- like the cartoon creation The Archies -- that suggested that there was nothing behind their Billboard barrages except hollow, corporate musings.Indeed, there was a lot of inbreeding going on here, as the power of the cathode ray was again utilized to make sure image never bowed to ability.

The proto-perfection of The Partridge Family sitcom gave rise to the dangerously dapper David Cassidy. And where there's a success, there must be a sibling, otherwise known as Shaun. Add in the whispery, womanly Leif Garrett, the heavenly hightones of someone called Michael Jackson, and a wealth of obscure one-offs (Tony DeFranco and the DeFranco Family, Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods), and you've got enough NAMBLA inspiring shirtless vealcake to corrupt a whole legion of Scout Masters.

Now, if you think that all record execs are just brain-dead bead counters who could give a ripped-off blues riff about musical talent or career longevity, the congratulatory Cupie Doll for stating the bleeding obvious is currently on its way to you via first class mail. All business is about money, not the charitable awarding of album deals. So naturally, those promoting the less than guaranteed goofs had to find a means of securing that hot single stamp of approval from the once almighty medium known as AM radio.

Naturally, power corrupts, and in the '60s and '70s, wireless power corrupted absolutely. Every DJ or station executive had their finger on the dump button of a nation of eager consumers. So the PR men discovered that "supplementing" these blokes' often meager salaries could get an untried talent a chance at topping the charts (perhaps this explains the success of Mike Douglas' "The Men in My Little Girl's Life").It was called payola and it was a crime. Everyone thought the Alan Freed case from 1960 exposed the practice once and for all, alerting law enforcement to be on the lookout for such future anomalies as Starsky and Hutch star David Soul having a smash hit single ("Don't Give Up on Us" for those with fading memories). But instead of shaking out the dirty dealings, it merely sent them underground, where they became oily and organized. If the Godfather Part II can be faulted for anything, it's that it failed to show Fredo Corleone trying to push Daddy Dewdrop's "Chick-a-Boom" unto uncooperative disc jockeys. Apparently, drugs, vice and murder for hire wasn't enough for La Costra Nostra. They needed to make sure "Eres Tu" got the proper airplay on WLS.

The real life, legitimized mobsters (lawyers and MBAs)eventually moved in, and took over the territory. Suddenly, Gordon Gecko was deciding what made it onto MTV's heavy rotation list. Yep, video killed the radio star. The FBI cracked down on promoters with last names too ethnic to tolerate, and something called 'new wave' gave anyone with a reverse mullet hairdo and a supply of eyeliner a shot at their Warhol 15. Since then, the first piece of the modern payola puzzle, the so-called Music Television cable channel, made the mixing of visual and auditory elements mandatory for pop stardom.

American Idol is just an extension of what channels VH-1 have mastered -- that is, the art of style over substance. Fox's formidable hit is really nothing more than Ted Mack with Tourette's, a talent show tricked out with all manner of rotten reality show stigmas. With its tainted trio of judges representing the total ethnic makeup of America, that is, how TV sees it (hip-hop homey, pissed off white dude, mixed race eye candy) and its tendency to divide music into one of two categories (soul and everything else) the entire show belies its sham. It melts down a huge national talent pool of multi-cultural and diverse dimensions into an assembly of TV friendly faces, all shockingly bowing to the same musical muse and ready to sell out for the sake of a soft drink, a cell phone and a poorly made American car.

And once they've provided you with the particulars, once the rivalries have been manufactured and Simon's baneful bon mots have been honed to catty perfection, Idol turns the tables, and makes you responsible for picking the ultimate pre-fab falsetto. How democratic, you say. How high tech, and interactive! How foolish, one should really lament. If Big Brother has taught us anything (and trust me, it hasn't) it's that someone as obnoxious and as reprobate as "Chicken" George Boswell can get a whole town behind his pointless campaign for TV stardom. Fame should, apparently, never be determined on ability or worth. It's the old applause meter taken to ridiculous cellphone extremes. So why should Idol be any different? This is not a true gauging of skill or future success. This is Fox, and BMG Records asking you to ballot with your calling plan, purchasing habits and definitive demographic statistics with each call.

The difference between Idol and the payola practitioners of the '50s and '60s is there is no one in the middle between the public and the product. All the pressing of flesh and kissing of babies is being done by the viewer, slobbering over themselves to determine whose CD will be next on their file-sharing download list. Indeed, the show itself has become the new corruption, and not just for giving Ryan Seacrest yet another paycheck for his Blade Runner replicant personality. By teasing you and taunting you, carefully coaxing the potential outcomes like lines of blow on a gatefold LP jacket Idol is tempting you, getting you to succumb to the dark side of mindless music manufacturing. And while you wallow in the shallow shoals of baseless value judgments, the show's creators sit back and laugh, as free from guilt as a certain Skywalker was, even while mowing down little underage Jedittes.

American Idol'scriteria for picking the next so-called pop star is no more valid than Vito pushing a few fins inside the sleeve of Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky". Everything about American Idol is gauged in knee-jerk reactions. If a performer bats a few eyelashes, just watch the phone lines light up. Someone bares a midriff and the Pavlovian audience squeals in pre-teen delight. And if you're lucky enough to get someone to squirt a few, damp tear ducts working overtime to sell some cheesy lyrical sentiment, you are well on your way to a tour sponsored by some pseudo-liquor that is as watered down as the artists they pimp.

While one might have a point about the longevity of some post-Idol careers (Clarkson and Aikens? Ok. Justin and Rueben? Ummm...) it's all still based on personal, not professional reason. You're involved. You've made the calls. You've watched every episode. You even silently cheered when that war crime as novelty act, William Hung, found a way to prove Simon sadly wrong about the sucker birth rate declining over the last several decades. Indeed, one can never go broke, or look like an idiot, underestimating the tact of the television audience. Add in the perceived chance to change the course of music history, and the lowest common denominator lines up in droves.

So you see, you're all guilty. You've bought into a system that for more years than you were born bought and sold tenuous talent like so many pork belly futures on the options market. And you actually could care less. Maybe you shouldn't, at least not for now. But if you plan on living another 40 years or so, and you also plan on procreating, you may want to have your excuses preplanned and at the ready. Let's face it, someday, a child or grandchild is going to come up to you and ask the very sensible question, "Who in the HELL ever thought that horrible Carrie Underwood was talented?" And instead of sitting there like a doe about to be bulldozed by a Peterbilt, here's hoping you have the wontons to say "It was me, honey. I thought so". While the ridicule might seem unwarranted at first, you'll soon warm to the sobering reality. After all, you are part of a very large, lamentable family. And who knows, maybe you can start a support group. The promoters behind those wussie one hit wonders Coven ("One Tin Soldier") and Looking Glass ("Brandy") probably need a shoulder to cry on as well.

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