Not one to rush into anything, I started watching American Idol for the first time this–the 13th–season. I’m not generally into the whole idea of competitive art, be it singing or poetry or what have you, but what caught my eye in the commercials for it was that Harry Connick, Jr. was going to be a judge, and I’m a fan of his since a dormmate of mine first blasted his music down the hall in the fall of 1990. Plus, it seemed like he and his fellow judges, Keith Urban and Jennifer Lopez, were going to actually get along and try not to be nasty, to the contestants or each other. Seemed like it could be fun, even though I knew nothing about Keith Urban beyond his cuteness and that he’s married to Nicole Kidman, and I really only know J. Lo as an actress, not a singer.
The auditions for AI were interesting in a lot of ways, not the least of which were the kids’ (and they are kids; I think the age limit is 26 for Idol) reactions to the judges. Almost to a person, they squee’ed over J. Lo, quite a few of the country-fried singers expressed admiration for Keith, and only two kids seemed to know who Harry (the only reason I was watching the show) was, and of those 2, one commented that it was because his mom was a big fan. The generational difference in the styles of music today’s kids listen to is interesting, because Connick and Urban are both 46, and Lopez is 44. They are contemporaries, but their fans definitely aren’t.
And then last week, because I was home alone and lacking motivation to do anything besides watch TV, and the DVR had picked it up, I ended up watching The Voice, which has as its judges Adam Levine, Shakira, Usher, and Blake Shelton. Of those, I was only familiar with the music of the first 2. I loved Songs About Jane, but didn’t much care for the dance turn, extreme use of autotune, and a recurring creep theme in some of the song lyrics of subsequent albums, and my fanhood waned for Maroon 5. Shakira I like much better in Spanish than in English. And I had never heard an Usher or Blake Shelton song until today when I sat down to write this.
Watching singing competitions as a singer is like reading fashion magazines as a teenage girl: there are all these ultrafabulous people who are better than you, people you admire, and they’re getting cut left and right as just not good enough, and it kind of makes you doubt yourself. So far I’ve only lost one of my favorites from AI, but there are people who keep getting to come back that I just don’t get. The Voice just started, so I have no favorites there yet, but they let one guy go that I thought they should’ve kept. But in any case, even if I don’t appreciate a particular’s singer’s unique charms, the talent is obviously there, and I can appreciate that. And then I think about the way I sing and play, and think, “Shit, I wouldn’t have made it out of Omaha.” I’m not a belter; not a powerhouse. And while I love gospel singing, I don’t have that training or ability; neither are there a lot of secular gospel songs for me to sing. I don’t do a lot of fancy runs. There’s no grit in my voice that would make me a natural rock or blues singer. When they say anything at all, people describe my voice as “beautiful” or “soothing.” And these are good things. But they’re not things that win you a spot on televised singing contests. It’s made me realize the world is filled with good singers; I know plenty of ‘em personally myself; it takes more than that to get noticed, even when your aspirations don’t run to world domination and everlasting fame. And I know musicians who are really, really good, who can’t catch a break as they try to make a living at this, while Katy Perry is a millionaire for reasons that passeth understanding.
The thing is, though, that as I watched the judges turn people down, I realized that these judges might not have even put themselves through to the next level of competition because their standards seem to exceed even what they produce themselves, based on my listening. I’m not sure what they’re listening for, but without question it’s as subjective as what I’m listening for when I’m trying to decide whether to shell out $15 to buy the album of an artist I’ve newly become acquainted with. My music collection is so large at this point, I’m not entirely sure what all is in it; I’m surprised all the time at stuff that comes up on shuffle and I have to go look to see who it is. And I probably preview a half-dozen bands a month that wander onto my radar, of which I might buy the music of 3 of them because they touch me in some way. I find I’m getting pickier all the time, too.
I’m partial to excellent singers, but they’re not all I listen to. Ben Folds is a big favorite of mine, and he even judges The Sing-Off, which features a capella groups, and until this year was the only singing competition show I’d watched. Two years ago, Pentatonix won, and it was clear to me that they were the front-runner from the first episode. I saw them live a week ago, and my mind was blown. Last year, a group of guys out of Minnesota cast a spell on the judges early on, because all 3 were obviously smitten, and they (inexplicably to me) won the whole thing. They were quality singers, but not, in my opinion, superstars. I still think the kids from Oakland got robbed.
But the truth is, while he can carry a tune just fine, to my ear Ben Folds is an average singer at best, even though he’s a skilled musician and an interesting, witty lyricist. This was made abundantly evident during the Christmas special where all the judges (the others being Jewel and Shawn Stockman of Boys II Men) sang with the groups. Jewel blew everyone away with her nuanced singing; Stockman is always an impressive tenor; and Ben was cute in his nerdy glasses and self-deprecating grin. But I love him nonetheless, and I buy all his albums–even the EPs and Shatner collaborations. I only ever bought the first Boys II Men album (used) and their Christmas album (which came out in 1993), and though I considered myself a fan of hers for a long while, I haven’t bought a Jewel album since 0304, which I promptly put in the pile to sell to the used bookstore.
I think J. Lo is charming as hell, and a decent singer, but I’m not sure that there’s a lot differentiating her sound from that of a lot of artists. Ditto Blake Shelton. I heard a live recording of Adam Levine once, and the autotune started to make a lot more sense. Nothin’ wrong with Usher, either, but after listening to him, I don’t feel the need to add him to my music collection. I love Harry Connick, Jr., but I remember him getting a lot of flak for being a Sinatra wannabe when he first came out. And once I’d put in enough time with Sinatra, I could understand why, especially since Connick did a lot of standards early in his career. But then again, when he switched to jazzier, more experimental stuff, he kind of lost me. So did Jewel when she did a dance album. Fans are fickle, as are any individual fan’s ears. Even when we like someone, we don’t necessarily like everything that person creates. And the judges are music fans, too.
All of these judges on both of these shows say they’re looking for someone different, someone special, that stands out, and I get that, but I find it interesting that I don’t know that their own music unquestionably does that. Not for me, anyway. And as the votes and the critiques come in, it becomes clear that millions of Americans often like someone’s singing that I just don’t get. Not that I dislike it, but it doesn’t reach me like some others do. People love Tom Waits, too, who sings like a garbage truck gargling glass. I can’t listen too much to Tom, because it makes my own throat ache, but I happen to love his song, “The Piano Has Been Drinking.” (He had me at “the carpet needs a haircut.”) And I guess that’s been the takeaway for me in all this: That music is a big tent, and there’s room for all kinds here. That what matters is reaching people emotionally, rather than technical prowess (although that’s fun, too). That there’s no accounting for taste, and while everyone may not love what I do musically, someone will. I know they will, because they’ve told me so. So I’d probably better keep working at it instead of letting myself get psyched out.