'Idol' Is Rewriting History. Or Is It Stopping Time? : The Record The show is effecting established artists' careers just as much as it's birthing new ones.
NPR logo 'Idol' Is Rewriting History. Or Is It Stopping Time?

'Idol' Is Rewriting History. Or Is It Stopping Time?

Randy Jackson, Ryan Seacrest, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry at the Tonight Show's studios last month. Kevin Winter/NBCUniversal/Getty Images hide caption

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Kevin Winter/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

Randy Jackson, Ryan Seacrest, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry at the Tonight Show's studios last month.

Kevin Winter/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

In the land of American Idol, Steven Tyler defines rock and roll. "But of course," you might say, "How could he not?" The Aerosmith frontman brings a top-notch rocker resume to the table, toward which he gestures with his consistent carnal leering at nubile hopefuls, his yards of gauzy scarves and leopard skin, and the intermittent unleashing of his "Dream On" scream. He's a legend; he lives it. And the crowds go wild. As viewers of this season's now blessedly concluded audition episodes know, the chance to smooch Steven Tyler is a prize almost as fine as a golden ticket to Hollywood.

Go back with me now to Idol B.T. (Before Tyler). What was rock like on the show then? Not much like what he does.

True, Aerosmith's songs make regular appearances in the annual vocal battle. Michael Johns brought his full Aussie throat to "Dream On" in season 7, and Danny Gokey eviscerated it in Season 8. Adam Lambert took a ride through "Cryin'" that same year. But the band's Idol presence is mostly defined through performances of its 1998 ballad "I Don't Want To Miss a Thing," written by the Top 40 doyenne Diane Warren and largely considered the band's least "rock" song.

Successful rockers on Idol have mostly veered toward this softer edge, where the elegantly blow-dried Jon Bon Jovi rubs shoulders with the colorfully congenial Elton John. This is rock as pop — not confrontational noise made by iconoclasts, but steroidally enhanced grand melodic gestures crafted by songwriters who could have worked at the Brill Building. Fan favorites Chris Daughtry and David Cook added earnestness to the mix, borrowed from contemporary Christian worship music and post-Pearl Jam scrunge. Adam Lambert played hard with the formula. In general, though, Idol rock is the opposite of prime Aerosmith, which is raunchy and excessive, not something your mother would like.

During this season's audition rounds, the million kisses Tyler received from hyperventilating women of all ages made clear that moms and even grandmas have thoroughly rejected the old rock-pop split that once gave Aerosmith some of its oomph. So has Tyler, who's always been game to violate new boundaries — he's the guy who helped invent rock-rap, remember? Embracing his Idol role as the King of Rock, he's not only revived his own career yet again; he's expanding (or correcting, depending on your view of what rock should be) the show's very definition of the music and lifestyle to which he's been devoted for 40-plus years.

Tyler's perfect fit on Idol is uniquely impressive. But one of the program's key mandates — make new stars, but also revitalize the reputations of older ones — made it happen. Before Idol, Paula Abdul was a mid-level dance pop ingénue who'd been absent from the spotlight for a decade; no average pop fan knew who Randy Jackson was. Both now have reputations that loom larger in pop music history than they did during the bulk of their music careers. (Abdul's possibly forced departure from former Idol honcho Simon Cowell's X Factor this week, along with her younger peer Nicole Scherzinger, suggests that Idol's power to make us care about what was once marginal can't be bottled.)

Tyler's benchmate Jennifer Lopez, who has occasionally been one of celebrity culture's most reviled inhabitants, is getting similar love now. Her hit of last year, "On the Floor," benefited from the internationalist flair of RedOne's production, but people listened, initially, because of the platform Idol had granted her.

One of Idol's most powerful strategies has been to reimagine pop within a closed world that exists adjacent to actual history, but not beholden to it. Here, Aerosmith matters more than the Rolling Stones, and Stevie Wonder's minor 1980 ballad "Lately" has as much impact as his career-defining 1972 monster "Superstition." Sometimes Idol's parallel pop universe skews history in cool ways: the show has helped spur a Queen revival and maybe pay some of Leonard Cohen's bills by joining in the odd 21st century fetishization of "Hallelujah." It has, however, also greatly elevated the status of post-Genesis Phil Collins.

The point is, it's just as important to track Idol for its effect on established artists' careers as for its ability to birth new ones. Madonna agrees. She chose to tease her new video for "Gimme All Your Luvin'" on Thursday's episode, I'm sure, because she knew it would reach not only younger fans who would find it the next day on YouTube anyway, but those grandmas and moms (and dads and uncles) who've learned from the show that they don't have to age out of active music fandom.

Madonna's song turns out to be all about imagining a world where she doesn't have to age, where her younger rivals support her with a cheerleader chant and the fact that she's copping a punky ingenue's style doesn't matter, since Madge proves, right in the second verse, that Avril stole her vibe from "Lucky Star" anyway. "Let's forget about time, and dance the night away," Madonna croons to an imagined conquest that is really her audience. And why shouldn't people try that? Idol's been teaching them how for more than a decade.