Les Idols Reunis

Phil Ford

I’ve been holding off on following up my American Idol live-blogging in the last couple of weeks, because they’ve been doing separate evenings for the boys and girls, and two AI posts a week seems a bit much. So I’ve been waiting for the idols to be reunited in The Final Twelve. So here commenceth the idol live-blogging, although delayed and somewhat touched-up, as before.

But first, I have some spleen to vent. The Onion AV Club blog (which is great, don’t get me wrong) had a thing on AI a while back, but since its readership is largely made up of sneering rock hipster douchebags, Noel Murray had to write a sad little plea for understanding:

Personal Plea: I know some of our readership can’t believe that we deign to write about American Idol every year. But whatever you think of the talent the show unearths—or
doesn’t, depending on your point of view—and whatever you think of the value of this little yearly experiment in pop music kingmaking, a lot of us still find it fascinating and relevant on many levels, from its kitsch appeal to the way it takes the temperature of the contemporary music market. So if you’re not interested in the topic, I’m going to politely ask that you skip these posts/crosstalks/what-have-you, rather than complaining about their very existence in the comments. Thanks in advance.

Of course, in the very first comment post the hipster douchebags couldn’t restrain themselves:

American Idol is a cancer on this society, and I’m pretty disgusted that I now know the name of someone associated with it.

Thanks AV Club, you sure are high society!

It’s the usual wannabe-rockcrit thing. It’s seldom actual musicians who write stuff like that, usually the guys who just really care about the music, man. Guys for whom music is a part of some ideology, some cherished mythology of self. (Galen Brown and I had an interesting cross-talk on this subject.) They bitch about the narcissism of pop but are themselves the ultimate narcissists: the music is all about them, their identity; they are drama queens who use music like a Kleenex to mop the tears bubbling up from their “issues,” be they personal or personal-dignified-by-the-political. Real musicians — you know, who actually work hard at the craft of playing or singing, in whatever style — tend to be a whole lot less apt to judge entire genres of music, because they know that whatever genre you work in will demand a lot from you, not least a sense of humility.

And there is no better school for humility than the master class. I’ve paid my dues in a few horrible masterclasses myself, though the
real scrotum-tightening moments of public humiliation I’ve seen have
happened, by and large, to someone else. (The worst [best?] line of
masterclass abuse I ever heard of was “listening to you is like walking on shit and broken
glass.”) One of the less commented-on aspects of AI is the way it sets itself up as a masterclass  — it was notable that Ryan Seacrest actually used the term to describe the one-on-one sessions with Diana Ross. Now, all the musical guests tend to lob softballs, so that’s not like a real masterclass. But the ritual humiliations heaped on the singers by the judges, which civilians always think is the contrived made-for-TV lions-at-the-colosseum part of the show, is actually the one aspect of it that’s pretty true to life: this is what it looks like to be in music. Much of what makes this show interesting for me is watching how a bunch of largely unseasoned kids take their medicine. Some take it like pros, inclining their heads at a civil angle and giving a show of attentiveness, thanking the judges afterwards; the worst try out that sassy in-your-face attitude, which I think most viewers have by now figured out is the disastrously wrong approach. (Rule no. 1 of the masterclass: once you sass back, it’s over for you. No-one will have any respect for you, least of all the other music students in the room, to whom you have revealed your weakness.)

Diana Ross is a Pop Diva. Interesting how much her manner of speaking to the camera is the classic style of what Wayne Koestenbaum calls divaspeak:

Divas aren’t afraid to praise themselves. Divas talk like Oscar Wilde. Or Oscar Wilde talked like a diva. The diva turns a phrase and reverses it—substitutes praise for blame, pride for chagrin, authority for vacillation, salesmanship for silence. I long to imitate this language, if only to inhabit, for a sentence or two, its sublime lack of respect for the truth. . . . Divaspeak, a language of vindication and self-defense , works only because we know the tale’s moral. The diva is always right. And she assumes we share her interpretation of the event. (The Queen’s Throat, p. 131)

Ross alludes coyly to her forty-year career and assures the audience that, imparting her wisdom, she will help the little idols, “in American Idol or life.” Life, after all, is all most of them will be left with when this is all over.

Brandon: Sucked. Looked like he was trying to dance with his feet nailed to the floor. Nailed to the beat, too: following the beat too slavishly paradoxically makes you sound like you have no rhythm at all. Chris Franz, the drummer for Talking Heads, had this same problem, which I suppose is why they packed in so many Congolese drummers and whatnot. No such help for Brandon tonight, though.

My daughter Alice (age 4 3/4) has a thing for Chris Sligh. She notices he’s not wearing his glasses tonight and is a little disappointed.

Melinda: Sings something that begins in the low, chestal range and with a complex, speechlike line. It has a long build and slow payoff, and it takes some dramatic ability to pull it off. These are all things that most of the contestants aren’t very good at. The younger ones don’t have the chest tones and have to swallow the microphone to be heard in these kinds of passages; they can’t negotiate the parlando lines without going out of tune; there is an audible crunch of gears as they open up into the big chorus part; and, because they don’t have the vocal stuff to handle the transitions, they don’t really know how to “tell a story.” All of which makes Melinda Doolittle cop show. She’s a finesse type. The judges love her, and the judges are right. I love the fact that she always seems so amazed at what’s just come out of her mouth.

Chris Sligh: my daughter demands total silence. Diana Ross says “find the melody and hold onto it.” Good advice: as the judges note, Chris is the smart-guy type who seems embarrassed by the naked emotion of the naked line and tries to get cute with it. It gets back to what I said before about the pop aesthetic: you’re supposed to try for the perfect realization of the expected pattern. This is your mission, should you choose to accept it. Should you not choose to accept it, you’re better off doing progressive emo or whatever it is the hip kids are into these days.

Gina: I kind of like her. Best remaining white girl. I like her Joan Jett thing, which is unfortunately not on display this week. Alice is copying all Gina’s power-mike-handling moves with a little wood spindle toy. One of those stupid anti-drug ads comes on with the cartoon stoner and his dog. Alice: “It’s puppy land!”

Sanjaya: He’s still here?

Haley: Diana Ross says she has “a recording studio voice.” A great divaspeak putdown. What are those opening notes? See, she’s trying, and failing, at the kind of song that Melinda just owned. Parlando lines sung with unsure intonation, and the song doesn’t build: she just starts yelling.  Well, that wasn’t very good. Her reaction to the judges’ comments (Simon was way too kind; he has a soft spot for girls like her) is a recognizable type of masterclass behavior. She feels the need to confess. Shut up! You’re digging yourself in deeper! Masterclass rule no. 2: when you bomb, nothing you say will make things any better, so STFU. You won’t exorcise a bad performance by telling people why it was bad.

American Idol ice cream? What does it taste like?

Ryan’s good at talking to grandmas.

Phil: My kids think it’s hilarious that a skinny bald guy has the same name as their fat hairy dad. My wife points out that he’s neotenous. He looks like anime. He sounds . . . sort of like some future attempt at early-music historical reconstruction, like from 2678 A.D., of 20th-century American pop singing. Studied yet totally wrong.

Lakisha: Billy Holiday, “God Bless The Child.” Nice. I’ve complained about how the singers with greener, less conditioned voices sing the verses of their songs. Now THAT’S a verse. Awesome low range, seamlessly transitioning upwards. Every gesture carved out of marble. She’s showing her finesse this week. She’s a smart one; she’s competing with Melissa on her own ground. If there’s any justice it will be the two of them in the final. Probably won’t though. I’m guessing there will be a Jennifer Hudson moment this season.

Blake: Digs Michael Jackson: cool. Dude can move on stage, unlike the others. Randy: “Let the classics be the classics.” Ah, I’ve heard that line before in a masterclass, although I was playing Debussy. Studying piano at the Indiana University School of Music vs. singing on American Idol: not as different as they might appear.

Stephanie: Good, not great.

The other Chris: I never like the boy-band style. What’s he singing? Like Brandon, he’s not doing anything with the beat. Bad falsetto. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a good falsetto on AI.

Jordin: Diana Ross advises, “talk to them.” Good advice: tell a story. “Land Before Time”??? My son, who watched these movies when he was like 5, tells me it’s the song the grandparent dinosaurs sing to Littlefoot. Alice does some great power-ballad moves. And it’s over. Two hours is too long. This post is too long.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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7 Responses to Les Idols Reunis

  1. Kip W says:

    The title of the post reminds me that I have a link to a great act from a French clone of “American Idol”: The Human Beatbox.
    http://www.top10virals.com/viralvideos/french-beatbox.html
    I’ve seen this kind of thing before, but the guy just keeps pulling great stuff out. Very disciplined. Really earns the applause; I was disappointed they didn’t leave more of the audience reaction in at the end. (Thanks to BoingBoing.)

  2. 0re0 says:

    I don’t care for the AI – beyond its pop culture significance, of course. Not that I am “rockist” or anything, I just feel that the show foregrounds “process” over “product,” and the resulting products are just not very good. In fact, they are completely interchangeable/disposable. This has been my biggest beef with AI — until I read this entry.
    It seems to me that thinking of AI as an “open” masterclass is a wonderful way to go about things (at least for me). Much of what is going on resonates perfectly with my own experiences in masterclasses: everything from no-holds-barred honesty to gut-wrenching cruelty.
    (My own experience? Playing trumpet in a department-assigned brass quintet and constantly being criticized by the other trumpeter (a foreign-born graduate student with degrees from big name conservatories overseas), only to have him cut down during a masterclass with the most cruel thing I have ever heard uttered to a fellow trumpet player: “In AMERICA…[long uncomfortable pause]…there is a certain ACCEPTED way of playing the trumpet…and that’s not it.”)
    In this respect, AI works for me. Maybe we need a “classical” version of this show.
    Or, better yet, a JAZZ version! I could be a jam session format, with random charts and keys pulled out of a hat. Hosts? I don’t know…Wynton would have to be involved to add legitimacy, right? Of course, Stanley Crouch is our Simon.

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Nice beatboxing. This post’s title is the most pointless play on words ever — I was thinking about these three etudes by Charles Valentin Alkan, one for the left hand alone, one for the right hand, and a third for the the hands together, “les mains reunis.” You know, like the Idols? Together after being apart? Like hands? *sigh* Sorry.
    It’s in the quality of masterclass disses that AI falls down. Simon relies too much on his “it’s like being at a karaoke night/hotel lounge/wedding/bar mitzvah” (etc.) put-downs. One bad experience: playing for Marek Jablonski’s class at Banff when I was sixteen and far too stupid to understand his subtle, metaphorical, indirect thoughts on the music. I played Chopin’s C sharp minor scherzo and clumsily pounded the shit out of it; Jablonski tried to impart some sophisticated insight I just couldn’t understand. At a certain point, I got confused and frustrated and blurted out something like “so, you want me to play quieter, right?” and everyone started to snicker. Whatta moron. Jablonski said maybe this could be a learning experience for us all (like, don’t be a friggin’ idjit like this guy and take things so literally). It was pretty humiliating. And Jablonski was trying to be nice. At least he didn’t wordlessly hand me my score back and glare at me as I slunk off the stage, which I’ve seen happen a few times.

  4. Jonathan says:

    Surely “sneering Rock hipster douchebags” pegs the vehemence meter?
    My wife recounts a Schwartzkopf masterclass on TV in which the aging [insulting characterization of your choice] repeatedly told a girl “what you are doing . . . I do not call this ‘singing’.”
    The level of student performances can be so varied that the responsibilities for mere CIVILITY are really tremendous. Among the masterclasses I have attended–Peter Katin, Garrick Ohlsson, Mischa Dichter, and esp. Santiago Rodriguez–I saw gentleness and helpfulness and (yes) mercy. The clueless, even the belligerent clueless, were treated with at worst a kind of gentle condescension. Rodriguez was giving the class to my students, the one year I was a full-time piano faculty person, and he behaved like an elegant nobleman. The worst I’ve seen in person, by someone I haven’t mentioned, was glib condescension, but I think that was because she didn’t know what she was talking about, really–a young competition-winner with a growing career but not much in the way of an independent personality or artistic creativity.
    I’ve even given a couple such classes, and the stakes are so high in terms of people’s egos that one simply cannot unsheath one’s tongue and snap “What the hell’s WRONG with you?!” It feels like an unbreachable taboo.
    For however pitiless the arts are, and I’m staying away from the proximity of a gladiatorial slaughter like AI (or the Gong Show) to the actual arts for a reason, I will never admit the narcissistic emcee behavior of a master-class queen (or king) bee as a necessary part of the experience. Nor, for that matter, have I any time for Koestenbaum’s land-of-upside-down celebration of divaspeak, though I won’t bother to psychoanalyze the profound pathos of that kind of campy I-want-the-spotlights-on-ME justification.
    I probably mentioned once that I always fantasized about having an abusive teacher so that I could blow up at the injustice of my treatment . . . and that (poor me) I only had civilized, tolerant, professional teachers who put up with an amazing amount of crap and attitude from me. To this day, I see no excuse for the kind of behavior that will send a student out a window to the New York pavement below.

  5. Phil Ford says:

    Jonathan:
    “Surely “sneering Rock hipster douchebags” pegs the vehemence meter?”
    Probably. Go here for an amusing story of a the aforementioned type fronting off a Juilliard violinist. You have to scroll up a bit.
    http://www.hipstersareannoying.com/archive/2002_09_15_archive.html#81839870
    You’ve seen masterclasses given by well-mannered musicians. Well, sure. But in music you get all kinds, just like with everything else, and the examples you give are are simply part of a wide spectrum of behavior that music students must learn to deal with. I don’t hold with cruelty either. I have one friend in particular who was so brutalized by his very famous teacher (god, talk about douchebags) that he became a kind of musical recluse; it took him years to recover. I don’t approve of that. As one friend of mine (whose wife studied with the same abusive creep) put it, in a moment of rage and frustration after she had come home tearful from yet another massacre, “who does that guy think he is, anyway? The president of the United States? No, he’s just a damn piano player.”
    But not approving of something isn’t the same thing as saying it doesn’t exist. In all the years I’ve been associated with the classical performance world I’ve seen and heard some messed-up stuff, not all of it just verbal abuse. You can deplore it, but it is as much a part of the classical performance world as anything else, and why try to sanitize it? Don’t blame Koestenbaum for the diva posture: he didn’t make it up. (And of course you don’t need to psychologize him: he does it himself — that’s the whole point of the book.) Then again, it’s possible to mythologize this kind of thing, to make a stupid exploitative spectacle of it — Terrence McNally’s “Master Class,” a fictionalization of Maria Callas’s famous 1972 Juilliard classes, bears no relationship to the actual classes or, for that matter, classical pedagogy as any informed person would recognize it. But then again, a play isn’t a documentary.

  6. Jonathan says:

    The verdict is in: I’m. Too. Old.
    The pissy anger of a self-indulgent slice-of-life writer (hipstersareannoying) about a straw-man, ignorant but clearly threatening “musicologist” (isn’t that where we started this entire blog?) does nothing for me. What’s more hackneyed than real-musician-trumps-edjumicated-academic?
    For the very real damage in the music world: I don’t deny it, not for a second. Surely, though, some of the responsibility for getting damaged is on the part of the damagee. As a woman I knew once said to someone else who was philosophizing about male mentors, the threats posed, etc.: “but you don’t have to sleep with your professors.” There is horrible stuff out there, but there are also a lot of people who should see it coming a lot sooner than they do.

  7. Phil Ford says:

    About the “musicologist” in the story I linked to, I think the point is that he isn’t a musicologist, he’s just a poseur. There are various unexplored labyrinthian ironies at that site: someone who sounds off about hipsters while being, himself, a hipster-type writer. There’s always that ambivalence: as our own discussions on this blog have tended to show, people make distinctions between good hipsters (who really know stuff) and bad hipsters (who just want someone to look down on). It’s not an easy distinction to make, though. I once knew a hipster — let’s call him Andrews — who got a mail-order bible college doctorate and insisted on calling himself Dr. Andrews. On the one hand this seemed just another manifestation of his general prankishness. Then again, he really seemed to like being called “Dr. Andrews.” He liked to come on as some sort of deep metaphysician, though almost everything he said was bullshit. Still, he knew his pop culture esoterica and had pretty good taste. Pranker or poseur? Tough call. The trick is keeping the question open long enough to make such questions beside the point. David Bowie would be an example of this long-term strategy.
    As for the responsibility of the damagee: yes. You have to be tough; you have to be smart; you have to take responsibility for yourself. Simple lessons, hard to learn; and I think one of the great virtues of serious music study is that you’re putting yourself in a situation where you have to learn them. That’s really the point I was making about AI: making a spectacle of that process is maybe a little cheesy and fake, but it does at least approach something that’s quite real, and which you don’t see a lot of acknowledgement of elsewhere in pop culture.

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