I watched one season of American Idol a few years back out of a combination of boredom and morbid curiosity. It was everything I had imagined and less, a welcome-to-the-Fall-of-Rome extravaganza where everything wrong with popular music, if not American popular culture in general, was frog-marched past the cameras in a weekly parade of cynicism and banality that would have made a huckster on the order of PT Barnum blush like a virgin who’s just realizing that “fluffer” doesn’t mean what she thought it did when she replied to the want ad.
Bread and circuses. Hold the bread.
The show’s ratings suggest that not everyone sees it the way I do. Obviously we all relate to music (and prefabricated music-like product) in different ways.
For instance, there’s the old distinction between “Pop” and “Rock.” A lot of listeners (myself included) have historically felt like some popular music is more worthy, that some bands were generating music that was legitimately art. You had your disposable Top 40 bullshit on the radio, but then you had The Beatles, or The Moody Blues, or Tull, or The Who, or U2, or REM, or Jets Overhead, or VAST, or Death Cab for Cutie, or Chrissie Hynde, or Yes, or The Pistols, or CSNY, or Joni Mitchell, or Dire Straits, or Fish, or Annie Lennox, or Graham Parker, or Elvis Costello, or Jeffrey Dean Foster, or Peter Gabriel, or Grace Slick, or Bowie, or Van Morrison, or Pearl Jam, or Nirvana, or IAMX, or Green Day, or take your pick of hundreds of others, artists in a genuine sense, creative forces with something viable to say about the state of the nation or about the state of the heart or about the state of the human condition.
There are those of us who feel that you can talk about U2’s early work, which foregrounded the troubles facing the Irish people, in the same way you talk about Yeats and his contributions to the cause of the Irish Revolution. That Springsteen’s early records had a great deal to tell us about the substance of growing up working class in the Northeast, and that John Mellencamp was doing the same for the Midwest. That Hendrix and Zappa and Ian Anderson and John Popper rank as musical virtuosos of the first magnitude, worthy of study by serious university scholars in music and culture.
High culture purists see it differently, of course, and so do a lot of people who make and consume popular music (albeit for different reasons).
- While fans and music subcultures can draw some pretty bright lines between what rulz and what sucks, musicians tend to be far more ecumenical about other styles. I’ve been shocked, on occasion, to learn that an artist I associate with a particular genre likes music that I consider to be far less serious. Or off-the-wall. (Watching Paul Lewis watch Eugene Chadbourne was a revelation.) I remember how stunned we all were when Eddie Van Halen (Rock) played that solo on “Beat It” (Pop). And when Steven Tyler and Joe Perry legitimized Run-DMC it was the end of the world.
- You also have cases where someone like Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit steps way over the line by doing Britney Spears (he was rumored to have dated Christina Aguilera, as well). For hardcore fans, this kind of boundary transgression, even in a cause as noble as the pursuit of booty, is a hanging offense. Rock doesn’t lower itself to the level of pop, period. (Note: none of this should be interpreted to mean that I think Fred Durst has any artistic credibility at all – I’m merely offering his case as illustrating how fan cultures view genre distinctions.)
- It’s also different in the UK, I think, where even legendary rockers will describe themselves as “pop stars” (I’ve seen no less a certified Rock luminary than Pete Townshend do it, in fact.) I remember my dismay at seeing the likes of Robbie Williams and George Michael being taken seriously by Queen, but apparently Brian, John and Roger don’t draw the hard distinctions that some of us do. Either that or they’re in far worse financial shape than I think they are.
- Finally, not everybody cares about music. For a lot of people it’s just something to listen to. Ambient noise with a beat. They don’t care who writes the songs, who plays the instruments, who owns the rights, who gets paid, who’s hosing whom, etc. Although they will work up a bit of uninformed indignation when a C+C Music Factory or Milli Vanilli dust-up forces them to acknowledge that they’ve been played for idiots.
All this said, part of me figured that American Idol was a line that certain artists simply wouldn’t cross. Or maybe I just hoped it was. AI isn’t about music, it isn’t about artists, it isn’t about careers. It’s about the opposite of these things. It’s about wannabe whores who’ll sign anything for a shot at “stardom,” it’s about televised humiliation, Svengalis and sheep-pimps, the commodification of the human soul and sucking every last penny out of an audience with the attention span of a box of crackers. Quick: without Googling, how many of the nine winners can you name? (No, Clay Aiken lost.)
But here we are, processing the fact that Steven Tyler, the same guy who sang “Dream On,” “Toys in the Attic,” “Big Ten-Inch Record” and “Last Child,” is sitting next to Jennifer Fucking Lopez getting all Miyagi on how to be a pop star. (As one of my colleagues observed, “I’m not sure anyone associated with Gigli has any place criticizing others.”)
Tyler has always modeled himself as the American Mick Jagger and it has to gripe him to no end that Her Majesty only knights Brits, because he’d love nothing more than to be Sir Prancealot. Joe Perry and the rest of the band reportedly aren’t happy about Tyler’s attempt to take their careers down with him. I mean, they’re not morons – they know that Rocks was a long time ago and that since their comeback in the late 1980s they’ve been more Pop-Rock than Rock. Still, even they can see the difference between shooting a video with Alicia Silverstone and grabbing your ankles for Simon Fuller.
A few months back it sounded like Tyler was leaving the band for good. If only it had been so. There have only been a handful of bands that have enjoyed meaningful success after losing the singer they reached the summit with (AC/DC comes to mind, and as bad as Sammy Hagar sucked, Van Halen made a lot of money with him on the mic; Genesis wasn’t a huge critical success with Phil Collins singing, but they blew the lid off commercially). But if I’m the surviving members of Aerosmith, I’m thinking that the only two choices I can live with are retirement or having Tyler killed and finding a replacement.
Joe Perry’s public pronouncements suggest that, mercifully, he’s on my side in this.
Perry went off on Tyler during an interview with the Calgary Herald — saying, “It’s his business, but I don’t want Aerosmith’s name involved with [American Idol]. We have nothing to do with it.”
Perry added, “[Idol] is a reality show designed to get people to watch that station and sell advertising … it’s one step above Ninja Turtles.”
As for the future of the band, Perry once again threatened to replace Tyler — saying, “[You’ve got] four guys that are great together, and if you find the right singer, there’s no reason you can’t go and entertain people.”
Good luck, Joe. Find a real Rock singer and then the five of you sit around and listen to Toys in the Attic, Rocks and Get Your Wings non-stop for a few days. Remind yourself what made Aerosmith great in the first place (hint: it wasn’t “Dude Looks Like a Lady”). Try to forget that you co-wrote “Love in an Elevator” and “Cryin’, if you can, and become one with that which you are and Steven Tyler is not.
Meanwhile, we’ll all be looking forward to Tyler’s duet with Lady Gaga at next year’s Grammys. Maybe she’ll wheel him out in a giant barf-bag and vomit on him. It certainly wouldn’t hurt his rep any worse than what’s happening every Wednesday and Thursday at 8pm Eastern on FOX.