Like most of us, my opinion of American Idol fluctuates wildly. Sometimes it’s a guilty pleasure, sometimes a waste of time. Many of my more sophisticated friends consider it the nadir of pop culture and a textbook example of what’s wrong with America-celebrity worship, instant fame, a bill of goods, a cynical ratings ploy, an exploiter of vulnerable young people. But almost as many of them consider it the most exciting thing on TV.
It’s both, of course. But overlooked in the argument is a crucial point. American Idol is providing the young people of America (not to mention the rest of us) with an example, told in a way they can understand, of the way art works. Not just popular singing but all the arts. Instead of learning about color and shape and form, though, they’re learning about how art is created on a personal level. They’re learning what artists go through. They’re learning the immutable rules of art. The Association of Art Educators should give American Idol a medal.
The first thing our young viewers learn is the importance of technique. The winners on American Idol are the ones who do not hit wrong notes, who enunciate the lyrics, who remember all the words, who hold the mike properly, who make eye contact with the audience, who move in an attractive and appropriate manner. All that is called technique, and that’s the easy part.
The technique on American Idol is pretty bad. I remember the first time I came across it, completely by accident. I was channel surfing and stumbled upon a girl who was in the middle of some number, and she was just awful. "What on earth is that person doing on national TV?" I wondered, only to discover that she was a finalist on the first season of American Idol.
But technique can be improved. You can study with a professional and learn all the tricks. You can even figure them out yourself by studying the masters. You can practice relentlessly until you can hit the high note. You can learn to camouflage your weaknesses and show off your strengths. Part of the fun of American Idol is watching this process, watching the improvement week by week as the kids get a crash course in technique. One of the weaknesses of the show, I’ve always felt, is that we don’t see enough of this. What are the contestants doing all week? Working on their next song, obviously. I wish we’d get to see it. Our future arts connoisseurs need to see just how hard it is.
The next rule American Idol presents is the importance of the artist’s persona and how he or she presents it to the public. Are you sexy, sly, romantic, tough, funny? When judge Simon Cowell tells a contestant, "I don’t know who you are"-as he so often does, particularly this year-he’s telling them they haven’t solved this problem yet. They’re just singing heads.
An infinitesimal number of artists are born knowing this. Elvis, Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra jump to mind. But for the rest it’s a journey arrived at through trial and error. You start imitating until you stumble upon the persona you were born to be. All the winners, by the end of the competition, have become archetypes. Kelly Clarkson was the fun-loving girl next door with just a hint of trailer trash in her genes. Ruben Studdard was a younger, fatter, more innocent Barry White; and Clay Aiken, in the most remarkable transformation of all, became a romantic nerd, a category he practically invented and has all to himself.
Perhaps the most brilliant thing about American Idol is the way it so perfectly exemplifies the cruelty of art. Of course I’m talking about Simon. There are always going to be people like Simon: the critic who hates your work, the publisher who won’t read your book, the producer who dismisses you, the casting agent who says you’re too fat. Learning to deal with this-the word "evil" comes to mind, but I’ll reject it in favor of "negativity"-is an important part of the business aspect of art, for it is a business, and a very nasty one, almost up there on a par with running for public office or selling real estate in certain parts of Southwest Florida.
Next lesson: Art has its own language. There are all these words and terms that are peculiar to each genre, and you must learn them. My favorite American Idol word is "pitchy," which was started by judge Paula Abdul and is now used by judge Randy Jackson, too. It’s apparently a polite way of saying, "You were singing in some strange pitch that had nothing to do with the music." Or it might mean, "You kept changing pitch." It’s an all-purpose criticism, and I find that I’ve started using it in reference to all sorts of things, like the way my new carpet was installed by those cut-rate floorers.
And finally, there is the importance of luck in an artistic career. Sometimes an artist who is really rather second-rate stumbles into something that he or she can make pay off in some life-changing and lucrative way. On American Idol this phenomenon is in evidence not with the contestants but with Paula Abdul. What on earth is she doing there? Being a judge on American Idol is a very important job and would seem to demand the skills of Maya Angelou or Hillary Clinton. Instead they hired a has-been pop singer and choreographer you were vaguely aware of but couldn’t quite picture. Well, you can certainly picture her now. She’s become a major player in the celebrity world, all because of a silly job she got offered and probably thought long and hard about rejecting because it sounded so goony.
But the thing that American Idol teaches the future arts patrons of tomorrow is that art is ultimately about emotion. The winner is always the one who touches the audience the most, the one who seems truest, the one whose voice is an extension of their soul. The cold and the phony are quickly voted off; the ones with the ability to break your heart can linger on week after week, like that Hawaiian girl who always wore the flower. Talk about pitchy. But there was something about her, trying so hard and looking so vulnerable-people just couldn’t seem to vote her off.
But the sympathy vote can only take you so far. In the end of that season, Fantasia Barrino won. She had a better voice and was almost as vulnerable, being a single mother from North Carolina who sang in the church choir. In her, all the pieces came together. She had fabulous technique, she knew exactly who she was, Simon adored her and she had weak competition. True, I was a little frightened when, as she received compliments, that steely look of unbridled ambition would appear in her eyes. But when she sang Summertime and turned it into a perfect little three-act play, I thought to myself, now there’s an artist.