I wish that I could tell you that it was all an experiment, as an insight into the human condition, or at least as research for this article, but I can’t. The truth is I began to watch it of my own free will. Sure, I stumbled onto it quite by accident, but it was my decision not to change the channel, and further, to tune in every time it aired, which meant, at times, three nights a week. What am I talking about? Why, American Idol, of course. Could I have made the excuse that the batteries in the remote ran out and I had broken my hip as I tripped over my complete works of Dostoevksy collection on my way to change the channel on the set? I suppose. But alas no, I am a weak man, and as Bart Simpson would say, I folded faster than Superman on laundry day.
There I was, waiting for Lost to air on a Wednesday night when I landed on a show that I had shunned for four years straight (and frankly, proud of it), American Idol. On any other night, I would have simply skipped past the channel, but this night was different. After a long day at work, I was exhausted. So, as I lay like a lump in my favorite chair, I decided, if that word is even adequate, to watch. This was not an easy decision, however. I hate reality shows and everything they represent.
Watching a gaggle of yokels vie for meaningless prizes when their real purpose is simply to be on television is mind numbing. I would literally rather watch a Starship Troopers marathon than be subjected to most of the reality shows on TV. I mean, really, things would have to escalate to the point of the imminent danger of honest to goodness loss of limbs or death on Survivor for me to tune in again. The Apprentice combines most of the things I find evil about the world into one hour-long weekly show: corporations, kissing ass, reality shows and Donald Trump. Wife Swap? I’m not even touching that one. The biggest problem I have with reality shows is their exploitive nature. The bonus for Idol is that its contestants, at least the finalists, have some kind of talent.
The show boasts that they are finding America’s `undiscovered’ talent. I suppose that in some cases there’s a reason for that. Out of the four winners and as many runners-up, only Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken have done anything significant with their sudden fame, though last year’s winner, Carrie Underwood, is catering towards the Bible Belt country-lovin’ red states with “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” and has a load of award nominations for her debut album. (Yes, I have done some research). But for the most part, the songs that these people sing are (gasp!) karaoke material. Walk into any bar with one of those oversized `Mr. Microphones’ and you’re bound to find someone just like one of the Idol contestants. In a way, the show is one big karaoke night sans the inhibition reducing effects of the requisite alcoholic beverages that usually accompany them (unless you’re a judge, more on that later).
Contestants belt out songs that both the judges and America want to hear, as they say on the show, “singers’ songs.” Not many indie acts that we like have `classic’ mainstream voices. While we all may like the Cure, Interpol, Depeche Mode and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, they don’t exactly have classic vocal ranges. That’s not to say they’re not good, just not traditional. In recent years, the show has tried to get a few contestants who can `rock’ rather than just sing, as a shot in the arm to regular litany of Mariah, Whitney, Luther, etc., but that form of `rock’ is still fairly mild, and is still under the same `singers’ songs’ restraint as the rest. In watching the show, I felt that it was time for someone to add a jolt of `the shock of the new.’ Of course, in order to formulate my master plan of the `invasion of the indie,’ I had to keep watching. Convenient, eh?
A reported 92,000 people auditioned for this year’s show. That’s a whole lot of people out there convincing themselves that they have any kind of vocal talent. Absolutely there are some people who know they are a joke and are merely trying to get their two minutes on television, (William Hung, I’m looking squarely in your direction. You owe every person in America their fifteen minutes back) but for the most part, I believe that there are too many people who actually believe they can sing. Thankfully, for those people, there is Simon Cowell. For, in a way, he is not only helping them to stop deluding themselves, he is also saving us from the torture these people bring. We’ve all heard that person at work or school who continually sings even though they sound like thoroughly beaten harp seals. (Sorry, Sir Paul)
Speaking of which, not to get too sidetracked, but in all honesty, Simon Cowell is the reason most people tune in and will continue to watch. Randy’s overuse of clichés and namedropping gets tiresome, host Ryan Seacrest is essentially a smarmy one-dimensional spokesmodel, and Paula, well, she’s dumber than a sack of hammers. When she can actually get through sentences without drooling all over the attractive men, she uses the same limited vocabulary from show to show. Both Randy and Paula are too easy on most of the contestants based on a `likeability’ factor. Heck, I like my cat, but that doesn’t mean she should be a star. Besides, she won’t sit still for manicures. Simon is usually right on the money in his assessments. What most people take for `meanness’ is really just outright honesty. So where was I?
At the same time though, I envied them. I envied their courage to actually get out there and try. I can easily and readily admit that I cannot, and accordingly should not, sing. The only innocent victims of my horrid vocals, however, are my shower walls and the interior of my sixteen year-old car. On that thought, no wonder it’s falling apart. But I share with you all now my secret lifelong dream. Upon listening to CDs for pleasure, I often picture myself performing the song, thousands of screaming fans, or sometimes a select group of people from my past and present, looking on in admiration. I have always wanted to be a rock star, but with no voice and no musical ability, it will always be just that, a dream. And, hell yes, I would even settle for being a pop star if given the opportunity, but even for these reality show hopefuls, one wrong move on any given week can doom them to obscurity. Oh, they all say that `it’s only the beginning,’ and `you’ll hear me on a record someday,’ and all of that `I’m making myself feel better’ crap, but when the winners aren’t even guaranteed super stardom, I find those statements hollow.
Have an off night? Gone. Pick a song that doesn’t fit your vocal range? Gone. Sing a song that has no innate energy? Gone. In fact, there are hundreds of reasons that someone might not make the next cut. Songs chosen have to not only fit your range, but also your age, your `look’ and your `style’ and still be a dynamic song with enough singular memorable moments to catch the attention of not only the judges, but also the American public. After all, they’re the ones who vote, not Randy, Paula and Simon. (Thank god, because on one of the judging nights, I could have sworn that they had all either dipped into the bad brown acid, smoked a big doobie, or Paula was hiding a paper sack full of Thunderbird under the desk, or in those oh inconspicuous Coca-Cola tumblers.)
I thought to myself, just what songs would I, indie snob, pick to encompass all of these requirements needed to be successful on the show? For the sake of this article, we are living in a fantasy world where I can actually sing, and would pretty much nail every song in every performance. Humor me. So what I’d be looking for are songs that both fit my personality, have enough dramatic energy to wow an audience, and even be somewhat familiar to most viewers. Not an easy task. There go my hopes of singing a song by Antony & the Johnsons. Oh well. My first limitation, if one could call it that, was to tell myself that I couldn’t sing a song that wasn’t in my collection. Not much of a limitation, but in the world of American Idol, it was quite a restriction. For the sake of originality, I wanted the songs that I performed to be unique in the show. So, although I might dig Stevie Wonder, I wouldn’t choose one of his songs as numerous contestants have performed them. The same goes for Elton John, unfortunately. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” would have rocked.
So here we go with my song choices and why:
Björk- “Human Behavior”
This song would show daring, being a courageous risk to perform not only a song by a female, but by a female who is extremely difficult to imitate. So, it might be easier for a guy to perform it and distance himself from the original, a la Colin Meloy or Ben Gibbard.
David Bowie- “Young Americans”
It fits right in with the whole `soul era’ thing that usually does well on the show, but is by one of my favorite performers, a true rock chameleon. This one has the crowd stirring a capella line, “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me…break down and cry!” It would also fully utilize the backup singers as they belt out the Beatles callback, “I read the news today, oh boy.” Brilliant.
Jeff Buckley- “Last Goodbye”
A real singers’ song as Buckley’s voice was untouchable, this one is the perfect mix of uptempo and smoldering love song. Plus, more people might know it since it was a fairly big single release. “Last Goodbye” has lots of drama throughout and plenty of moments to shine.
Led Zeppelin- “Ramble On”
The judges seem to love the falsetto this year, especially when the singer juggles between it and a regular singing voice. No one combined both and rocked the scream at the same time better than Robert Plant. The changes in speed would be enough to rouse any audience off their butts.
Muse- “Time is Running Out”
This one would be a risk, but if done well, would be worth it. This song is all about drama, drama and more drama for your mama. Again, this song has more of the balance between falsetto, rocking, and a regular voice. The big risk would be that it is not one of those `singers’ songs.’
Remy Zero- “Save Me”
Because of the popularity of Garden State, I would be tempted to perform “Fair,” or one of the similarly slow burning songs that feature Cinjun Tate’s beautiful voice, but in order to meet the criteria of `well known’ and `crowd pleaser,’ I’d have to go with the song most people know as the theme from Smallville. Still a great song and requires a lot of chops.
And finally, the song that would be held in reserve for the last few performances would be:
Radiohead- “Fake Plastic Trees”
One of my favorite dynamically sung songs even if most might not consider Thom Yorke’s voice `classic.’ The build up at the end of the second verse is breathtaking and could, if performed well, give the audience goosebumps. Plus, you could put enough of a singer `spin’ on it to make it work.