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After all these years, who knew that it would be in the thirteenth season that
American Idol would finally get past its cheap "reality-tv" roots and
become a serious competition with serious judging? Here's the "reality-tv" format: Have a bunch of meaningless, manufactured
"conflict." Promote the contentious, the bizarre, the offensive. Sneer at fools
and naifs. In other words, "reality-tv" is middle school culture presented as entertainment
and hyped beyond belief.
After all these years, who knew that it would be in the thirteenth season that American Idol would finally get past its cheap "reality-tv" roots and become a serious competition with serious judging?
Here's the "reality-tv" format: Have a bunch of meaningless, manufactured "conflict." Promote the contentious, the bizarre, the offensive. Sneer at fools and naifs.
In other words, "reality-tv" is middle school culture presented as entertainment and hyped beyond belief.
It's also amazingly wasteful of our time. In a six-minute segment between ads, the formula is:
Reintroduce the whole premise of the show, every time.
Recap what you saw in the last segment.
Promote what you're going to see in this segment.
Promote what you're going to see in the next segment.
Do this segment's new material.
Promo again what you're going to do in the next segment.
Show a teaser about the very last thing you'll do at the end of the show -- your "best bit."
Rinse and repeat.
American Idol is actually two completely different shows -- the pretaped audition sequence, which already happened, and the live competition sequence, in which viewers get to vote.
The audition phase has always been the train-wreck portion of the show. The producers, in true "reality-tv" fashion, divided contestants fairly evenly between the serious contenders and the bizarre, pathetic, angry, and appalling preselected "losers," who were allowed to come before the judges solely to humiliate themselves.
Such is human nature that many people embraced the self-humiliation portion of the show and did what it took to get on TV. But what a time-waster!
By contrast, Nigel Lythgoe, the dominant producer on So You Think You Can Dance, broke that show away from the formula several years ago. Instead of bringing people to see the train-wreck of bad dancers, he crafted an audition sequence of good dancers.
Not always contenders -- they have rejoiced in showing us people who could not possibly compete in the every-kind-of-dance live competition, but whose specialized performances were quite wonderful.
He also loves the sob story, but I'm fine with that, because even though sob-stories get people on TV to bring a tear to the watcher's eye, they never get a contestant into the live competition if they don't have the skill as well.
I kept wishing that American Idol would treat singing with the same respect that So You Think You Can Dance showed to the art of dance.
But there was a clear difference. You can't fake dance. Either you can make the moves or you can't.
With singing, people can get the impression that you don't actually have to sing well. Bob Dylan could never hold a pitch, and basically throws his voice at a musical phrase and hopes it lands somewhere. Tom Waits sings through gravel. Rappers barely sing at all, if ever.
Pop singing deliberately distinguishes itself from classical singing by being far looser with rhythm and melody -- and also by being able to get away with three-chord songs and empty, repetitive melodies. "Catchy" matters in pop singing a lot more than "good technique."
But this is deceptive. When you have to perform night after night on the road, you have to be able to sing in a way that you can sustain over a long period of time. Even amplified, you have to be able to articulate and project your voice so that words and pitch and tone can be received by large numbers of people.
Yet your voice also has to be able to sing with such clarity and tone that, recorded, your songs can be listened to over and over again, often by people who aren't dancing and/or chemically enhanced.
And your recorded voice has to be distinctive enough that people will care that it's you and your version of the song that they're hearing.
And then there are nonsinging aspects of performance -- the way you walk and move, the ease with which you face the audience, the look you get when you sing.
All these things can be taught, can be coached, can be improved with work and thought. And that's where the judges come in.
The original panel of judges -- Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson (along with announcer Ryan Seacrest) -- were the constant on the show, year after year. But what has to be admitted now is that in the Simon years, all three judges were terrible.
It wasn't clear just how terrible they were until the year of Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez. The first year without Simon.
We had the illusion that Simon Cowell was the "honest" judge. We got this idea because Cowell kept saying so. "I have to tell the truth," he said.
The problem is that Cowell didn't know the truth. Or rather, he only knew "producer truth."
He has never performed, except in a limited chat-show sense (which is what his portion of Idol was).
Now, record producers and promoters do know something -- they can give advice on what sells. Their careers depend on recognizing a potentially popular new sound-and-look, and then making sure the widest possible public finds out about the new singer and buys the tunes.
But these are things that come into play long after good singers have developed one hundred percent of the skill and talent that will allow them to hit it off with the music-buying public.
And producers and promoters are often wrong, because their ideas of packaging usually entail force-fitting a performer into predefined slots -- this singer is one of these, that singer is one of those -- and anybody who doesn't fit, they either make fit, or toss aside.
Except for the promoters who catch a vision of what a performer is and then try to bend the public taste to recognize the great new singer's truly innovative approach.
In their own time, Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley and the Beatles, though they had roots and influences, were "new things" that did not fit into established slots.
But the times were right for them. Most of the time, the promoters get their way and we only hear the music they know how to sell.
So Simon's "honesty" was, in fact, useful in a limited way. He exposed the contestants to the ruthless, seemingly cruel realities of the recording business: You don't look right, I don't know how to sell you, therefore unless you learn to do X or Y, you're not going to make it -- at least not in a big way. Or at least not with my help or at my company.
What he could not address, not for a second, was actual technique. He couldn't tell what singers were actually doing wrong with their voices, and help them improve.
Paula Abdul is a singer -- or, really, a dancer who sings -- but she has always been a "natural." She doesn't have a big voice and doesn't know how she produces the sound she producers. She doesn't know why singing goes bad or how to fix it when it does. You can't explain what you don't understand yourself. That's why her comments were always encouraging but useless.
Randy Jackson is actually a studio producer rather than a promoter -- he knows good musicianship. But early on, he didn't know how to talk about it in abstract terms. We got lots of vague "dawg" babble with, now and then, a nugget of something useful.
I also think he was intimidated by Simon's Britspeak -- Americans always seem to think that anything said in a British accent is smart and cool, even when it's stupid and useless.
Which Simon Cowell's comments about singing always were.
But when Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez came on the show, suddenly we had performers who were keenly aware of technique. They're smart. They know music to the core. And now, in association with them, Randy Jackson stepped up and suddenly began to make useful, real comments.
It also helped that they began to feature Jimmy Iovine during the competition phase as coach and commentator. Iovine wasn't always right but he was always smart and well worth listening to. Illness took him from the show, but Randy Jackson is supposed to step into that slot this year -- it will be interesting to see if he can fill those shoes.
Last year was a judging disaster. Keith Urban was the only thing holding it together. Even more than Steven Tyler, he is a musician who understands both voice and harmonics. Jackson was OK, but the two women were embarrassing. Their egos got in the way.
The "reality-tv" producers milked this for all it was worth -- because, remember, they were still in a train-wreck mindset.
Remember the year that they tried to get Ryan Seacrest and Simon Cowell to "fight" on the air? It was embarrassing, because if anyone knows less about music and singing than Simon Cowell, it's Ryan Seacrest. So to have these two waste our time arguing about nothing didn't really introduce "conflict," it just made us all want to scream at the TV: Shut up and put a singer on the stage!
Well, not really. What it made us do was record it and watch it later, so we could skim forward through Ryan Seacrest's commentary after the judges spoke. And while we were at it, we skimmed through Paula's meanderings.
So last year, we basically listened to Keith Urban and skimmed through Nasal-Girl (Nicki Minaj) and Don't-We-Both-Love-Me (Mariah Carey). Since Minaj barely sings in her act, her best comments were about look and style. And Carey simply did not know how to "judge" because the only music she knows about is her own. So she talked about herself.
Fast forward through the train-wreck!
This year, we're still in the audition phase, but something wonderful has happened. Two wonderful things.
First, it's as if Nigel Lythgoe -- who is a producer on this show as well -- finally got them to try treating American Idol as a singing competition instead of "reality-tv."
The audition shows spend far less time promoting and recapping and promoting again. The train-wreck auditions come on briefly, as if to remind us that there are still truly awful singers in the world. We even get a few moments of somebody pathetically begging or being sour after being rejected.
But it doesn't go on and on the way it used to. Instead, as in So You Think You Can Dance, most of the time is spent showing us ... <gasp> ... singers singing.
Pretty good singers. Really good singers. Singers in many different styles.
We get a few interesting human interest stories -- as in So You Think You Can Dance -- and they're not above tear-jerkers. But I'm fine with that.
What's gone are the long, long, long sequences of human tragedy, the delusional people who have nothing to offer as performers. They used to make the audition shows unbearable; such people are only funny to those who have no empathy.
Now the few bad and how-sad people are on and off very quickly -- instead of being promoted and recapped endlessly.
We do get a few likeable people who turn out not to be very good -- which is great because even if you're rooting for them, if you wouldn't want to buy their records they don't belong on the show.
This year, for the first time, that audition phase of American Idol is a showcase of good or nearly-good singers instead of a train-wreck reality-show designed to amuse the most compassionless sort of audience.
Second, this year all three judges are intelligent musicians who understand the art of singing and performing, so their comments to the contestants -- and their comments after the contestants leave -- are actually useful.
Of course, the contestants themselves are in no position to really hear or remember what the judges say to them -- all they can think about is, do I get the ticket to Hollywood or not?
But for the people watching the show -- not just the would-be singers, but also the people who simply care about the art of singing -- the things the judges say are useful and smart.
Keith Urban is back, and instead of having to share space with self-centered idiots, he's able to focus on the performers and give them good advice. Jennifer Lopez is, if anything, sharper and clearer than she was during the Steven Tyler years.
And I think what elevates them all is the brilliant, wise, brave decision to bring in Harry Connick, Jr., as the third judge.
Last year, he was the only really useful "mentor" for the singers. Not one of the singers followed any of his advice. But they all suffered for it, because his advice was the only good advice they got, apart from Jimmy Iovine's comments.
The thing is, Connick isn't a star in the wide world of "pop music." Not a household name.
Except in my house, and the houses of people who know and love jazz and the great American songbook. Connick is not often a great lyricist -- but he writes good songs anyway, and sings with a cool-jazz vibe (not self-indulgent bebop) that is a joy to listen to.
Connick is not just a singer-songwriter, though. He grew up as a child prodigy jazz pianist, and he knows music from the bones out. He has far more musical education than any other judge -- or for that matter, any other human being -- who has ever been on or associated with American Idol.
He doesn't lord it over the others, and he knows that most of the time he'll be a voice crying in the wilderness.
For instance, he knows what many of us instinctively feel -- that those "runs" that competitive singers love to do are technically hard to produce, but musically dull.
I grew up with a combination of Broadway and church music singing -- "My Boy Bill" meets "The Lost Chord" -- and in both traditions, there are stock ways of decorating notes.
When you listen to multiple versions of Handel's Messiah, for instance, you'll hear the differences among the soloists. What they do is select from the stock decorations -- trills, pick-ups, short in-scale runs -- that singers in that tradition feel free to add to the melody.
The thing is, they use these sparingly. And even then, they usually seem affected, as if the singer is showing off. I appreciate much more the singers who sing it straight, as if they mean what they're saying instead of being eager to show off the cool things they learned how to do with their voice.
Now, Connick, coming out of the jazz tradition, understands about decorating notes and altering melodies. But he also understands that if you're a recording artist whose career is going to depend on introducing new songs, you have to let people hear the song or they'll never fall in love with it.
In other words, if they've never heard the song before, then the way you sing it is the song. Later, singers can cover the song and add whatever decorations they want, but your version, the original version, is going to remain the real song in the public mind.
This doesn't mean you have to sing it rigidly. It does mean that you have to sing it in such a way as to have an emotional impact. Hit songs -- not dance tunes, but hit songs -- stay with us because they speak of things we care about, saying for us words that feel powerful and true, with music that feels right for those words.
How do you bring this off? You sing the words first. You know what they mean, and you mean them when you sing. Harry Connick tried to explain this to a young wannabe who had just sung "The Way You Look Tonight."
He told the singer to imagine that he's speaking these words to the person he loves most in all the world. He said the words, the phrases, to the young man -- and because Connick is also a good actor (Hope Floats, The Iron Giant), he made it real: "Never, never change. Cause I love you just the way you look tonight."
He wasn't singing, but he also wasn't "talking." He was speaking the poetry of the lyric. And it was breathtaking.
Of course the kid had no idea what he had just seen and heard. But I think the other judges did. And I hope a significant number of people in the TV audience did. Because Connick had detached the words from the melody and shown us, naked, the intensity and sincerity that must underlie the lyrics if a singer is going to make the audience believe in and care about a song.
The young singer had been "taught to sing" -- that is, tone production, support, even some phrasing. But he had not been taught how to mean the words as he sings them.
Here's why it actively irritates Connick (and me! For years it's been driving me crazy!) when so many contestants spend the whole song finding notes to decorate with little runs.
Those runs are not part of "making the song your own." In fact, because every run sounds like every other run, those endless, tedious runs make the song not your own. They erase your individuality. They make you into every other singer on the show.
Connick even used a technical term from the music world: pentatonic.
In music from many other cultures, "pentatonic" refers to their division of the octave into five notes instead of the twelve-tone and seven-tone scales we work with in Western music.
Our scale is "tempered" -- that is, instead of using the natural divisions of the scale, we divide the scale evenly into twelve notes, then choose the seven that we'll use as the "major scale" of a particular piece (though we can bring in the other notes now and then as "accidentals" when we shift to chords that are outside the root scale).
But the natural (Pythagorean) division into seven tones is not tempered. That is, the divisions cannot be picked out of the twelve even tones. If we used natural tuning, though, instruments couldn't easily play together. The piano, capable as it is of playing in any key, would be impossible.
The pentatonic scales are natural scales, too -- another way of dividing the octave. They sound very, very strange to our ears, but only because we grew up with Western scales -- the seven-tone scale resting on that foundation of twelve evenly-spaced tones.
What Connick was referring to was not the true, natural pentatonic scales, but rather a five-tone tempered scale drawn from the twelve-tone octave.
If you want to get a feel for that, just play the black keys on the piano. Starting with G-flat, they are basically an octave that omits the fourth and seventh. That gives you a "major pentatonic."
The "minor pentatonic" omits the second and sixth. And it is the minor pentatonic that dominates the blues. When jazz and blues musicians "improvise," their improvisations always work because they are using the same five notes from the minor pentatonic.
These notes always fit into the chord. As long as you stay with those pitches, you can improvise runs forever, up and down the whole scale, because the notes never clash with the chord.
In other words, once you learn the trick -- usually just by hearing-and-doing, not by learning the theory -- it's musically easy to lay these runs into any note, any time, anywhere.
It's not technically easy -- you actually have to have a keen sense of pitch and excellent control in order to bring off such runs. However, they are musically uninteresting. These are tricks, mere stunts designed to impress the yokels.
They add nothing to the music. They're like the hand-waving of a magician, the flourishes designed to draw your eye away from what's really going on.
The trouble is that the "yokels" who are impressed by these empty flourishes happen to include the other two judges. Perhaps because neither Keith Urban nor Jennifer Lopez built their careers on vocal pyrotechnics, they are impressed by people who do these runs.
And it is impressive. It's just dull when it becomes the dominant feature of the song.
And these pentatonic runs do not distinguish a singer from other singers in any way.
Think of some of the great original performers. Karen Carpenter, for instance, one of the most brilliant altos, ever. That rich tone, that perfect pitch. Does she decorate her notes? Ever?
Barbra Streisand, with her hint of nasality and her perfect control over a huge range, her ability to make every song personal -- decorated? Lots of runs? No?
Take somebody even quirkier -- Joe Cocker. His twitching air-guitar gestures are almost painful to watch, and his voice has a tortured quality. But listen to him sing "You Are So Beautiful," and you will see exactly what I mean: That song is his own, absolutely. Ain't nobody else gonna sing it that way. And yet he sings the notes dead on, simple, true.
This is the Gospel According to Connick: Sing the song yourself, with your voice, and mean the words. You can bring your rhythms to it, you can bend the melody (as long as we still know what it really is), you can give it your tone, and you will sing it through your face. Your performance can be absolutely unique and personal.
Without every resorting to the same show-off pentatonic runs that everybody else is using.
Because Urban and Lopez are still impressed by pentatonics, mostly because they barely use them themselves (in other words, they don't need Connick's advice because they already follow it!), they tease him for advising contestants to stop showing off and learn to sing.
But Connick's advice is absolutely right. Because too many contestants -- including last year's winner -- rely so much on these show-off tricks that they bury their real voice and turn every single song, no matter how different, into the same indistinguishable performance.
Think of Fantasia's gorgeous "Summertime" from season three. It was her own -- but there were few tricks. She never went off on long pentatonic cadenzas. She didn't show off. She sang the song.
Think of Adam Lambert, the best voice ever on Idol. He changed up tempo, gave songs new meanings, delivered them as they've never been sung before. He showed off his amazing vocal range, yes, but I don't remember him ever resorting to runs.
Think of Phillip Phillips, the most quirky of all the Idol winners. Clearly he comes from the Joe Cocker it-hurts-me-to-produce-this-note school of music -- and he has tricks of his own (sailing flat on the end of a note, for instance) that can also be repetitive.
But he never allowed his tricks to keep us from receiving the song. The words and the meaning were always more important than any kind of showing off.
But now, back to the subject of the judges: Can you conceive of such an issue as pentatonics even being raised in previous years?
To put it simply, Harry Connick, Jr., is really classing up the joint.
He has a sense of proportion. He makes his point -- and he makes many good points, not just this one. Then he lets the others mock him for it, and doesn't get prickly about it.
Because Connick understands that once he's said a thing, it's said, and the teasing doesn't unsay it. A New Testament attitude comes to mind: "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear."
Somebody among the American Idol decision-makers must have recognized that Connick was something special during his mentoring week last year, and then fought hard to get him on the judging panel. My guess would be Nigel Lythgoe, if only because Connick personifies the same kind of respect-for-art that So You Think You Can Dance is built around.
These three judges are wise -- about music, about performing, and about life. They are all compassionate -- even though Connick has an undeserved reputation as "the harsh one." They are really concerned about helping contestants -- especially helping them avoid damaging their voices. They truly want them to do well, and to get better as time goes on.
All three of them understand that there are clear and specific techniques and skills and choices that performers make. They can talk about them, as one performer to another.
The producers of American Idol understand what they've got with this panel. During the audition phase, they are keeping the camera running on the judges after the contestant leaves the room.
Sometimes the judges' conversation is merely banter, or a personal response to somebody's behavior. But often -- maybe even most of the time -- they elaborate on points that they made about the singing: what is admirable, what isn't working, what worries them about that particular singer, what the singer has to learn.
They understand the art. And for the first time ever, American Idol is becoming a show about the art of singing pop music. For the first time, I don't have to skim through anything.
Naturally, this means that ratings will plummet and the show will be canceled, because as soon as I like something, as soon as it suits my taste exactly, you can be sure that the American public as a whole will ignore it and it will go away.
But I'll have this season.