Monday, February 22, 2010
American Idol Killed the Subtle Star
When MTV came on the air 1 August 1981 it played the song “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles as their first song. Now in 2010 we have American Idol and I think “Idol Killed the Subtle Star.”
Simon Cowell, of American Idol is quoted to have said something like, “If you've got a big mouth and you're controversial, you're going to get attention.” He should know. Though I think he is probably the most honest, non ass-kissing person in the entertainment industry his delivery is absent of tact because people don’t watch tact—they watch conflict and drama. Plus the millions of singers he’s heard in Europe and the US, well, anyone would cave. What has come to mind is how singers with understatement and subtlety never seem to show up on American Idol and rarely get our attention except for the “critical recognition,” translation: only reviewers who have the sophistication to get it about an artist mention them before they recede back into the spaces between overkill and laconic.
Subtle and understated performances are not so easy to define. To me they are the artists, be it painters, actors, musicians who have what I call headroom. Meaning they have the skill or chops to wipe the floor with what they do but choose to keep it in check like a helium balloon fit into a pill bottle. In understatement you hear the depth of the player—just not all at once. It is measured because the music is more important than the skill. Make sense? I know it when I hear it and I play it. Think of Whitney Houston’s version of the Star Spangled Banner as she aggressively let the world know that she could fit more notes into a single pitch than we could. Should have been the Star Mangled Banner, with all due respect Ms. Houston. American Idol has been great that it is giving singing and music a spotlight as well as the creative process. It is also sort of giving people a critical ear if you will. You ask people why they like one band over another or Mozart over Beethoven and they will not be able to articulate more than…well it just makes me feel good. So while it has helped sharpen our ears it has also homogenized what we think is good or not. You are forced to decide you like one over the other. And while music is a competition for listeners that step of discovery and discrimination is out the window. Who says 1 of these 12 is the best singer with potential in America? Well three over paid judges and the people who watch then vote supposedly.
I can guarantee that if some of my friends were to walk into a coffee house and hear and see Susan Boyle singing they’d either turn and walk out or sit really far away. I watched her audition over and over trying to figure out what it was people were weeping and having religious experiences about. Granted I’m a trained musician who makes a living entertaining people, but that wasn’t it. It was that people seemed to be more gullible than I give them credit. If something is packaged and presented to the public the bait is taken and eaten willingly. I’ve seen it myself with listeners and fans. We artists know that nothing, and I mean nothing, is more powerful than friends telling their friends about their music! It’s met a filter for them. As I’m in the throes of recording an album I’m trying to not think in terms of what is commercial but I’ll admit feedback and criticism has steered me. I never, ever give a shit what anyone thinks of what I do musically. Seriously. I’ve been insulted directly by my heroes to my face and after I scooped up my stomach I gave it thought. Regardless of the music I’m thinking how will I market this? Who will I hire? What is the back story and angle? Trust me friends everyone does this. We have to. I want my music to reach as many people as possible just not in obscurity.
It isn’t about the fame or money—that is such a hallow goal I see so many Flute players pursuing. My music is straight from my heart but I’ve been told it needs to reach as many people as possible. It comforts, it heals and it brings joy. That is always a good thing. Stay tuned for more info on the CD. I am excited, humbled and overjoyed by the music that comes to me. Thank my parents for indulging me and letting me take lessons and by a drum set. Thank everyone who ever called me weak or fag that drove this talented, skinny, sickly, overly intelligent, overly sensitive boy to channel the creative force inside to hear Creator’s whispers in dreams and bring them to light. I love what I do and if it takes 300 years for my understated style to catch on so be it. American Idol will be gone and I’ll still be in the gravitational orbit of Earth. Because that’s where the people are.