The signs of Idolatry. (Getty/Scott Gries)
All week, and all next week, NPR Music is opening a fire hydrant of trenchant analysis covering the last decade in music. So here are NPR's two most devoted viewers of American Idol — Monkey See blogger Linda Holmes and NPR Music editor Stephen Thompson — as they carry on a 90-minute chat via Instant Messenger about the show, its rosters of future superstars and forgotten also-rans, and the way Idol both dominated the marketplace and remained utterly subservient to it. (Amazingly, in 3,000-plus words, the name "Simon Cowell" is never uttered.) Once it's over, we promise to return to your regularly scheduled coverage of art and whatnot.
STEPHEN: To get us started, I want to refer back to something Carrie Brownstein said in the All Songs Considered roundtable discussion of the decade in music. We were talking about trends and major moments, and Carrie launched into an indictment of American Idol — as artless and tasteless and crass — before offering the show a bit of backhanded praise. She essentially said that it's given musicians something to react to; something to push against.
While that may or may not be true — I don't entirely agree that the show has had that effect on a mass scale — I'd focus on a different side of her point. In all of popular culture, the last 25 or so years have brought about a kind of Big Bang, wherein a handful of entertainment options have exploded into a zillion ways in which we enjoy music or watch TV or read opinions or whatever. And one thing we've lost in that boom — for example, going from three networks to many dozens, counting cable, plus the Internet — is a sense of broadly shared pop-cultural experience; a sense that if you go to work in the morning, you and your coworkers have all experienced the same entertainment the night before.
I'm just not compelled to judge American Idol as some sort of machine against which we should all rage. I love the fact that I'm watching it at the same time as tens of millions of other people, and that we're all taking sides, forming rooting interests, critiquing every note, rolling our eyes, and speculating (wildly and unfairly) about which weapons-grade pharmaceuticals a certain judge seemed to have ingested earlier in the evening. We're not always on American Idol's side — for many, the sport lies in exposing the fakery; in untangling what often appears to be a web of greedy and underhanded conspiracies for or against certain contestants — and that, too, is part of the fun.
So... I'm not getting any closer to a question to get this thing started, am I? Linda, please expound on your crackpot American Idol theories. I hear you're still smarting from the early ouster of season one crooner Charles Grigsby.
LINDA: It was pretty hard on me, yes. First of all, I entirely share your sense that it works best as a giant common conversation, even if it is a giant common conversation about something rather silly. Honestly, that's much of what sports fandom is to me, if you will forgive the comparison.
STEPHEN: No, I think that's fair. It's like... okay, when I lived in Wisconsin, most of the people I worked with loved the Green Bay Packers, as did/do I. The morning after the game, there was sort of a sense that everyone in the office could, at any time, strike up a conversation about how the game went. American Idol is like that, a little bit, and I find that very comforting as someone who likes a little banter in my life.
LINDA: Absolutely. There's something to be said for everybody having the same dweebs in their living room.
STEPHEN: And if the music is bad, and it usually is, that's totally fine. I mean, if there's one thing that's a quicker conversation-starter than rooting for a winning team, it's rooting for a losing team, if we may extend and further batter this metaphor.
LINDA: I also think it's a tiny bit unfair to sum up Idol by playing Taylor Hicks, who is its giant, looming miserable failure.
STEPHEN: Well, exactly. CARRIE BROWNSTEIN IS UNFAIR. And, if I may even go so far as to defend poor Taylor Hicks, he was woefully mismanaged in the aftermath of his season five victory. When your persona revolves around being the zany guy who yelps and jumps around, don't scowl on your first album cover as if you've just guzzled two-month-old milk.
LINDA: Oh, Lord. Well, and again, it's an interesting conversation to have, whether or not Taylor Hicks is interesting. He was probably the most juggernaut-y contestant they ever had during the season who actually went on to win. There's a disconnect there as far as enthusiasm translating into record sales, and just from a cynical standpoint, that's interesting.
STEPHEN: There was a great joke on The Daily Show years ago, after The Real World's movie spin-off came out and bombed. And Jon Stewart was like, "The lesson we've learned from this is that everyone loves reality TV and is totally willing to spend no more than zero dollars for it." I think Taylor Hicks was good TV for them, in that he was a scrappy underdog, but that doesn't mean he's going to fit into the pop marketplace, exactly. And, more to the point, post-Idol success is virtually all about having songs that are catchy and infectious enough to become hits.
LINDA: See also: Kelly Clarkson.
STEPHEN: Or Carrie Underwood, or Chris Daughtry.
LINDA: Hi, we are nerds who know about American Idol success stories!
STEPHEN: No, no! I am ABOVE IT ALL, Linda! I only watch it so I can complain about how stupid it is! (And I did not at all vote this past season, no sir!)
LINDA: I absolutely did not vote ANY of the times. That I didn't vote.
STEPHEN: You are a non-voter who sits on her hands, too cool to participate.
LINDA: I really am. But, honestly, I have to say: I have had interesting discussions about American Idol. I had a lot of interesting discussions about Adam Lambert, whom I didn't even like. About the nature of art and being a phony and retro references ... I make no apologies.
STEPHEN: Exactly. Much like a lot of reality TV — and I know we're on the same page here — you can complain all you want about it being contrived, but it still manages to spur interesting conversations about the way people interact.
LINDA: Well, there are three ways to watch American Idol. One is Level A, where you assume that there is nothing going on except a legitimate talent competition starring fresh-faced youngsters.
Another is Level B, where you assume that there is a giant corporation with an evil agenda to WARP OUR MINDS by selecting their favorite contestant and FORCING us to like that person. This is the "Chosen One" level.
The other is Level C, where you assume that the company that releases Idol CDs doesn't give a flying fig about anything except money, so they have NO agenda except money, and you drop right down to the bottom level of cynicism and swim around. While rooting for whoever is cutest.
STEPHEN: Ooh! Ooh! I pick Level C! I pick Level C! Though actually, I find myself drifting more and more toward Level D, which is that everything about the show is just the pre-game for the larger and more interesting contest, which is how everyone on the show is absorbed into the pop-music marketplace. I love that everyone who tries to game the system — a contestant pandering by performing "God Bless the USA," a voter at home who rigs up his or her computer to dial the phone five billion times, the producers on the show who manipulate who plays last and is thus fresh in the voters' minds — is basically thrown out the window as soon as it's over. Then, it's up to the marketplace. Who winds up like Kelly Clarkson? Who winds up like Katharine McPhee?
LINDA: Oh, totally. Wow, I completely forgot about Kristy Lee Cook.
STEPHEN: Ooh, Kristy Lee Cook. [Shakes fist.] You may have won the battle by performing "God Bless the USA," Kristy Lee, but your pandering will only get you so far! God, remember when that made me mad?
LINDA: I am still arguably mad about Constantine Maroulis being nominated for a Tony.
STEPHEN: Well, that's like getting a Wet Willie from the universe. I'm in total agreement with you there.
LINDA: Idol is actually better at picking theater performers than pop stars, I think. It's at least as good.
STEPHEN: I do think that if you reach a baseline of success on that show, it's hard to fail completely. Like, people think of Justin Guarini as a total bust, but that guy still works. Constantine Maroulis came in, what, sixth or seventh, and didn't sell many records, but everyone knew who he was, and now the guy is a successful Broadway actor. I'm sure there are plenty of past performers — people who hit the Top 5, even — who've been reduced to playing every hour on the hour at the American Idol theme park. But if they were ever super-famous and polarizing, they're probably able to get better work than that.
LINDA: Honestly, if you think about how few pop stars there actually are who are on the level of, say, Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, their record is not that terrible. It is certainly a lot better than the record of picking America's Next Top Models, for instance.
STEPHEN: Ha! Well, that goes back to what I was saying about the show being a pre-game for the real world. When America's Next Top Model is over, there's no way to keep peeking in on the aftermath, because there is no aftermath. Whereas this past season ended six months ago, and people are going to spend the next few weeks going ballistic about how Kris Allen and Adam Lambert's records compare. A few months ago, 30 seconds of a Kris Allen song "leaked" online, and it was actually considered newsworthy. Somewhere on the Internet right now, many people are squabbling about who's better.
LINDA: Oh, I know where. But I'll spare you. But, seriously, yes. Of course. And to me, that's a perfectly valid conversation. Kris Allen wants to be The Fray. Adam Lambert wants to be David Bowie crossed with KISS. Is one of those choices inherently better than the other, and is it okay that I think Adam Lambert has more talent but Kris Allen is more listenable? You can tell me if it's not.
STEPHEN: I think that's exactly right. My own opinions on the two of them have mellowed, of course, to... basically exactly what you describe. I guess I'm more curious about what Adam Lambert will do, because he just doesn't seem to fit into the marketplace at all. His originality continues to be wildly overstated, but he seems to want to subvert... something, anyway, and that's pretty interesting.
LINDA: Sure, I think that's right. He has aspirations to rebel, which makes him harder to predict. Although some of that sort of was compromised by choosing to make his first video/single that thing from "2012," which is an incredibly conventional pop-rock song. I'm not saying I'd expect him to pass up the opportunity, but when people are claiming you're the future of music, it's like yelling, "THE FUTURE IS 1992!"
STEPHEN: Well, the future he represents also involves a lot of caterwauling. The dude from The Darkness must hear that guy and be like, "Oh, NOW you want squealing?" He must be rending his puffy pirate shirt in frustration.
LINDA: I think every discussion about being the future of music, of course, has to start with the fact that the kind of people who REALLY become the future of music would never go on American Idol in the first place. They have very specific aspirations involving popularity, not involving changing the game. Carrie Underwood didn't go on American Idol to reinvent country. She went on American Idol to exploit what was already working. The kinds of people who push boundaries are not really interested in doing "Conga" on Gloria Estefan Night.
STEPHEN: Aaaaaaaaaand now "Conga" is going through my head. Thanks loads, Holmes. But I think you're exactly right. So what do you think American Idol says about fandom? To me, it seems to have really brought out a rivalry among pop fans that's fascinating to witness. It's not like, "Which New Kid On The Block is your favorite?" It involves David Archuleta fans collapsing in tears when David Cook wins.
LINDA: To me, that started with the Clay Aiken people. I don't know what it was, but that was the season when it became insane. I have told you before about hearing stories of people who claimed later that they were burning his CDs and handing them out on the subway, which is kind of ... unbalanced. After that, it seemed like fans were competing to be the most weird, the most inappropriate, the most overinvested. It's very competitive, and the Internet has been a huge contributor to that. People sign on to tell stories of their own reactions — "You were crying? Well I was crying and shaking." These discussions happen every single week. Not among the bulk of the viewers, but among a small subset of people who are so devoted to that show that, while it's on, fandom related to that show is their job.
STEPHEN: Yeah. I mean, whatever floats your boat and all, but the intensity of it is incredible. I grew up around comic-book and science-fiction fandom, and it's fascinating to see that same sort of geeky hyper-competitiveness — "No, I am the No. 1 Doctor Who fan! You call that a scarf?!" — writ unbelievably large, and broadcast worldwide.
LINDA: Well, and it doesn't necessarily translate to record sales. Freakish enthusiasm ain't gettin' the silver polished.
STEPHEN: Exactly. One person can dial the phone a thousand times, but if he buys one CD, that's... one CD. I love the notion of "I love his music so much, I burned copies of it for all my friends!" I bet Clay Aiken really appreciated that kind of support.
LINDA: It's a funny thing about that guy, because aside from Christmas albums, he hasn't sold an overwhelming number of records. But while a smarty-pants like me guffaws at the fact that somebody convinced the world it needed a younger, more redheaded Wayne Newton, that guy tours, he is adored, he goes out and makes a tremendous amount of money. That guy is like, "Laugh it up. I'll be in my gold-plated bathtub."
STEPHEN: That guy could open The Clay Aiken Theatre in Vegas or Branson, and he'd get a contract in the nine figures. I mean, if America would like a flopsy-haired 37-year-old Wayne Newton who can't sing, I will happily sign up for the job.
LINDA: Oh, I have often said I think Vegas is his destiny. He could play Vegas for ten years and retire forever and never have to swaddle his child in anything but cashmere. In Vegas, his performance of "Somewhere Out There" would go over pretty well.
STEPHEN: And why shouldn't it, Linda? What are you suggesting?
LINDA: I am suggesting that there is a limited marketplace for songs about yearning mice.
STEPHEN: Maybe in your world, Commie.
LINDA: I honestly have always found the "the Ruben/Clay season was rigged" theory to be among my favorites. Because it makes all the sense in the world that the money-grubbing producers would rig the competition to keep from having to promote the cheerful, redheaded, freckled, faith-based kid who works with disabled children and comes with his own fanatical fan base.
STEPHEN: Yeah, Clay is an interesting case study in how you can still make insane amounts of money as a pop musician in 2009 — in his case, by mining a scarce but lucrative vein of "young person who is beloved by old people" mojo. It's an interesting counterpoint to fellow runner-up David Archuleta, who is a young person beloved mostly by other young people. Fans freak out at his shows now, but will they still do so in five years? And, as we've discussed, "#weluvyoudavid" being a trending topic on Twitter doesn't pay the bills. I mean, "#yourgay" is a trending topic on Twitter, too. Who cares?
LINDA: That's why David Archuleta had that partnership with the Build-A-Bear Workshop.
STEPHEN: Ha! God, he did, didn't he? Adam Lambert should team up with Build-A-Bear to make the shiniest dolls in the world.
I have to say, Carrie Brownstein has been curating this incredibly provocative discussion of music, bringing in trenchant commentary by some of the day's leading thinkers. I'm so glad we've been able to come in and write thousands of words about David Archuleta and the Build-A-Bear Workshop.
LINDA: I am what I am.
STEPHEN: Me, too, dude. Is there anything we're forgetting?
LINDA: Only the greatness of Jasmine Trias.
STEPHEN: Over time, I've been building my castle of love, just for Charles Grigsby, who was fond of singing Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed" in season one. And who can forget Carmen Rasmusen, whose name I still know how to spell for some reason?
LINDA: Smoke up, Jason Castro!
STEPHEN: Aw, Jason Castro. Any winners we've forgotten to name-check? Oh! Jordin Sparks! She beat out Blake Lewis, who threatened to bring beatboxing to the pop charts before utterly failing to do so.
LINDA: Hey, don't tug on Blake Lewis's cape.
STEPHEN: I got no beef with Blake Lewis. And then, of course, there are the people who seemed like they'd be also-rans but managed to carve out successful mid-tier careers for themselves: Kellie Pickler and Bucky Covington, for example, and Elliott Yamin. Jennifer Hudson, who got booted early but won a freaking Oscar and can hardly be considered mid-tier.
LINDA: I've seen a copy of Bucky Covington's CD somewhere, but I can't remember where it was.
STEPHEN: On the off chance that anyone still reading this is someone who hasn't visited my desk, I have 17 copies of Bucky Covington's CD lining my windowsill. Because: BUCKY COVINGTON!
LINDA: There is also Fantasia, who went to Broadway.
STEPHEN: Right, of course! I am probably wrong about this, naturally, but Diana DeGarmo — runner-up to Fantasia in season three, not that I remember or anything — really does seem to have disappeared completely.
LINDA: No, not at all. She is in theater also. She was in Hairspray for a long time.
STEPHEN: See? Shows what I know! [Punches self in face.] Okay, let's see if I can do this:
Season one: Kelly Clarkson over Justin Guarini.
Season two: Ruben Studdard over Clay Aiken.
Season three: Fantasia Barrino over Diana DeGarmo.
Season four: Carrie Underwood over poor Bo Bice.
Season five: Taylor Hicks over Katharine McPhee.
Season six: Jordin Sparks over Blake Lewis.
Season seven: David Cook over David Archuleta.
Season eight: Kris Allen over Adam Lambert.
Wow. [Takes drink, stares into middle distance.]
LINDA: Quick: Who's the president?
STEPHEN: Hold on. [Scrambles to access Wikipedia.]
LINDA: Right. I knew you had to get those brain cells from somewhere.
STEPHEN: Seriously, just imagine all the things I don't know. Like, I think I could name all the continents in the time it took me to type all that.
No, wait, I think I'm mixing two continents up with the winner of season three.
LINDA: Katharine McPhee was in House Bunny! If I could forget that, I could learn French.