American Idol: It's All About the Power Note

July 18, 2012
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I know that lots of folks watch American Idol, and on the surface, the premise is a good one. Certainly there is a mass of untapped, talented singers across the country – any single one of whom could be a star if only given the chance. It hearkens back to the early days of rock ‘n’ roll where stories of instant, overnight success came from simply having a 45 played on the local radio station. Additionally, in this present world of auto-tuned, wanna-be pop stars, at least the Idol contestants have to show they can identify and duplicate correct pitch. Praise be!

However, I part ways with the show there. I don’t find public belittlement entertaining, even if the person is a willing party. I also don’t believe that artist development can or should happen in the public eye. Learning your craft is a private matter. Of course, these are simply my opinions, coming from a person who misses the days when we lived our lives more privately, and chose to share only a small portion of ourselves in the public sphere. The current online-all-the-time-ness of our lives has numbed us to the sanctity of a private life. But that is a completely different blog for another time…

The biggest disagreement I have with the show is the ‘Idol arrangement’ as I call it, of every song. For whatever reason, the aesthetic most often rewarded on the show seems to be the ‘big note.’ Regardless of the song, every arrangement that I have seen (and I freely admit to not tuning in very often, due to the predictability of what I’ve seen when I do watch) builds to this ‘big note’ – the ‘power note’ that the singer may or may not be able to hit with any credible pitch or power.

You can actually watch the singer marshal his/her breath, energy, voice and mental fortitude to come together in an ejaculation of such vocal prowess that the judges must fall back in their seats and pass them to the next round. (Kind of big, bad wolf meets the three little pigs, but this time, the pigs have voting privileges!)

Why does this bug me so? Many reasons. Beginning with the song ­– this melodramatic type of arrangement only serves a small percentage of songs well. Songs are stories. Some should be told at a whisper, some at a shout. Some bring an energy arc of their own – big to small, small to big. So, to me, this ‘Idol arranging’ smacks of insincerity, and if you are looking for an artist (ahem…), and you force insincerity on him/her, what are you left with?

Moving from the song to the singer… not every singer needs to, or is able to, communicate a song by belting out the big notes. And even the ones who do it well – they (wisely) don’t do it with every song they sing. This falls into the ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’ philosophy. Yes, you can post a photo of yourself in your slinkiest sweet nothings on Twitter. But should you? Ask that ex-politician Weiner guy if you’re still not sure.

So what’s the end result of all these hysterical vocal volleys? In my opinion, it winnows down the number of viable winners to those who have this belt-y kind of voice. OK, if that’s the aesthetic the show wants to promote, so be it. BUT. Yes, there is a ‘but.’ What really happens is that this show, with its broad appeal and immense influence on the unknowing public, also further narrows the already claustrophobic definition of talent.

What happens next is even more alarming. Stage door parents and aspiring singers across the country are signing up for voice lessons to compete on American Idol, or any of the other competition shows. They believe this power note thing is the only measure of a good voice, and dammit they are gonna belt one out if it kills them. (And often it should… kill them, I mean.)

Voice teachers with common sense do try to work around this myopic approach, but if they don’t give the student what he/she wants, the student will simply find a ‘voice teacher’ with more monetary sense than common sense, who will happily take their money.

But even this isn’t the worst part, in my mind. The worst part of this myopic aesthetic is that it removes all the artistry from the singer’s control. In turn, the players backing such an artist, also find themselves handcuffed creatively. So you inject all the frustration and neuroses that could possibly surface, into a so-called creative endeavor that ends up with band members in rehab and stalker-azzi chasing expensive sports cars through the Hollywood hills for photo documentation of the latest breakdown.  Hmmm, sounds healthy to me…

For me, making music or singing a song, is first and foremost, communication. Between singer and band, between the performers and the audience, between your heart and your head, your soul and your being. You can’t put such tight limits on such a complex interaction.

If you don’t allow musicians to interpret and communicate freely, you may as well spoon their brains out through their noses, remove their vital organs, and stick them in Canopic jars like the Egyptians did with their dead. Or just set them up with too much money and a really generous drug dealer, and let them scramble their own brains.

I understand why the major labels sign people with the right ‘look’, give them songs, create their career, auto-tune them to death or simply hire studio singers to cut the vocals, teach the ‘name with the look’ to lip-sync and do the latest dance moves, put them on tour and make a fortune. I get it. Really I do. I don’t like it. I don’t respect it, but I do get it. BUT. Yes, here we go with the ‘but’ again… why on earth would you take someone who actually has talent and suck the life out of them until they sound no better than the ‘name with the look’ people?

I suppose it goes to human nature. The “I love you, I mean it, now change” mentality. It’s all about the power. Note, notwithstanding.

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