Recently I attended a university graduation where Ken Blanchard, the author of business theory primers including One Minute Manager, was the keynote speaker. The message he tried to impart was simple and, as commencement addresses go, fairly succinct.
Dr. Blanchard described a boy he knew whose grandmother was a Monopoly whiz. Finally the day arrived when he was skilled enough to beat her at the game. As he exulted in his victory, Grandma told him gently, “That’s wonderful. But don’t forget – everything goes back in the box.”
Status and material success are the means to an end, he explained, but you cannot take them with you. Aim higher. Strive for significance.
This story may not seem relevant to American Idol, but it illustrates what I think is the show’s most frustrating flaw. A franchise that claims to create singing idols squanders its considerable power and resources to promote easy-to-market hit makers instead. AI could lead the revitalization of a music industry in flux instead of lagging behind pop culture on the decline. But the Idiots-in-Charge would rather milk the ailing cash cow – every time.
American Idol holds a unique position to produce instant stars, influence musical tastes and ignite purchasing trends. Having their work highlighted on the show can be an enormous boost to forgotten and unknown artists. Since Daniel Powter’s Bad Day became the soundtrack for each eliminated contestant’s video retrospective, the single came from musical oblivion to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. After Elliott Yamin paid his moving tribute to Donny Hathaway in word and song on April 25, 2006, A Donny Hathaway Collection zoomed up the ranks of Amazon music sales.
Multi-generational families across the United States and beyond are watching American Idol together, voting for their favorite contestants, attending AI concerts, buying CDs and other AI-related merchandise, and writing AI commentary on websites, blogs and message boards. Clearly the show feeds a hunger for music that is crafted artfully, arranged smartly and performed compellingly. But the finished product it delivers all too often is disposable pop fare, the aural equivalent of junk food.
I asked my son, a college student who listens to thrash metal and Japanese electronica, why he enjoys AI's featured music. He answered simply, "It's better than what's on the radio." His AI5 favorites have been Taylor Hicks and Paris Bennett.
The music industry and AM/FM radio are in a stagnant phase - due in part to technological advances including cheap and illegal downloads. No fresh genres have sprung from popular music since the ascendancy of alternative/indie, rap and hip-hop in the early 1990s. Ironically, alt rock's signature style has become as formulaic and mainstream as the so-called corporate rock that triggered its rebellious uprising 15 years ago.
Nevertheless, 2006 is the year that the AI brain trust caught up with the homogenized version of alternative and decided that the audience could handle an alt-ish idol. Chris Daughtry was the rocker who persuaded them. Actually, Chris is a talented singer-songwriter dedicated to a musical vision broader than the narrow niche AI chose for him. So was Bo Bice, last season's Southern rocker. These days Bo - or a defeated-looking impostor who resembles Bo - is on the top 10 charts with a single, The Real Thing, that sounds like a reject from Clay Aiken's Measure of a Man recording sessions.
If it weren't for hindsight, the AI team might be completely blind. Regrettably, they are also nearly deaf to most of the indigenous music that comprises the great American songbook - except for familiar tunes that became international hits or were covered by British artists. Nigel Lythgoe dismissing Try a Little Tenderness as a Blues Brothers number was just plain dumb. The fact that the creators and administrators of American Idol were born in the U.K. would not be a handicap if they honored their program's content - primarily 20th century American music - as much as its advertising dollars.
Well, they are about to receive the education of their lives - a crash course in music appreciation.
Throughout the AI5 season, I maintained news links and whatnot devoted to Taylor Hicks and Elliott Yamin down the sidebar of my blog. T-H-E-Y were my absolute favorites since their first televised auditions. As the competition progressed, I developed a consuming interest in one over the other.
When Elliott was eliminated last week, my heart left the building. After the initial stages of grieving, however, I found that I still have an interest in the outcome of AI5.
I pledge to vote non-stop this Tuesday for Taylor Hicks – and encourage other dispirited Yaminions to do the same. My dream that T-H-E-Y would appear together in the finale is lost. But I still believe that the winner should be someone who wants the victory for all the right reasons.
A vote for Taylor is more than a vote against Katharine McPhee. It is an affirmation of the soul, R&B, and blues that T-H-E-Y love. Elliott and Taylor entered this competition driven by a common passion to sing the music that is their life’s blood. Not for the perks of celebrity or success. Not in search of opportunities to star on the stage, on TV or in films.
T-H-E-Y inspire their fans to seek out and support the artists whose catalogs T-H-E-Y introduced to us on American Idol. Imagine their music-loving phenomenon spreading across the continent and around the world. I don’t know if Taylor Hicks can single-handedly revive the music industry or simply remind a careworn civilization of our uplifting musical heritage. But, with Elliott's help and our votes, he stands a fighting chance – and I can still dream.
If Taylor Hicks wins the American Idol title, he will be in a position of power and influence to change modern music for the better. And unlike some television, radio and recording executives, I believe Taylor will aim higher and strive for significance.