Posts Tagged ‘american idol

09
May
09

Adam Lambert, J.J. Abrams, and Mystery

As previously mentioned here, I have occasionally found myself part of the conglomerate of Americans that weekly find themselves lingering on the every word of the well-groomed and omnipresent alien being that refers to itself as Ryan J. Seacrest.  And as an American Idol viewer, I am keenly aware of the three contestants remaining in this year’s contest, and have formed my own personal opinions about the outcome of the competition.

For the uninformed, here is the general rundown of the three gentlemen who have yet to be eliminated from the program: (since there are only three contestants remaining, it should be assumed that all are talented vocalists, which they are.  If we assume the playing field is even in the talent department, then the contest will be determined, as it typically is, by the persona each contestant has created, the demographics they appeal to, and the way they style their hair rather than pure musical giftedness.  This will be a discussion about those particular nonmusical qualities.) Danny Gokey is the odds-on, overwhelming favorite, as long as the only people you’re asking are white, Christian, and middle class.  He’s a church worship leader, he wears trendy glasses, and he’s a widow, which in an eerily morbid way, makes him more likeable.  Kris Allen is a guitar-strummin’, aww-gee-shucks southern heartthrob, and his style lies somewhere between Jason Mraz and John Mayer.  Whenever Ryan Seacrest says Kris’ name, hundreds of pubescent girls scream like his last name was Jonas and hold up signs that say “Marry Me Kris,” while Kris’ clearly visible wife smiles on adoringly.  And then there’s Adam Lambert.

Adam Lambert, in many ways, defies description.  He wears eyeliner and lots of jewelry and leather, and has a vocal range that would make Steve Perry wet himself with jealousy.  The only thing the public really knows about Adam Lambert is that he’s a theater kid, and was in the Los Angeles cast of Wicked before he became a contestant on the show.  We don’t really know where he came from, we don’t know anything about his family, we don’t know who taught him to sing like that, and we never know what he’s going to do next.  Moreso than anything else, however, we don’t know whether or not Adam Lambert is gay.  And that’s where J.J. Abrams comes in.

J.J. Abrams is the man behind such T.V. shows as Alias, Fringe, and Lost, and movies like Star Trek and Cloverfield.  J.J. Abrams knows the power of an unanswered question, as evidenced through this article he wrote in Wired Magazine, or his Ted Talk here.  He has revitalized suspense in a way we haven’t seen probably since Alfred Hitchcock.  What J.J. Abrams knows is that an integral part of human nature is our inquisitiveness.  Going all the way back to Socrates, we have been a society that questions. As humans, we seek truth, it’s just part of who we are.  What happens after we die, who would make the best president, and what the hell is that smoke monster thing, and why did it kill Mr. Eko?  And now, added to that list of unanswered questions is the question on every American Idol fan’s mind: is Adam Lambert gay?

I think I know what J.J. Abrams would answer if you asked him whether or not Adam Lambert was gay.  I think J.J. Abrams would probably say, if we knew, wouldn’t that just make it less exciting?  The truth is, if Adam Lambert told America he was gay, it wouldn’t change the fact that he’s still a talented singer, and I don’t think it would change anyone’s vote for or against him.  The kind of person who would only vote for Adam Lambert if he wasn’t gay is likely already casting their vote for Danny or Kris.  If Adam Lambert told America he was gay, the only thing he’d be changing is the mystery that surrounds him, and that might just be the reason we don’t know yet.  The reason people keep watching Lost week after week is because they expect that eventually, all their questions will be answered (even if forty-seven new questions show up every time you answer one).  Isn’t it possible that, aside from his obvious talent, Adam Lambert is still on American Idol for the same reason?  We figure if we keep watching, if we keep voting him to the next week and the week after that, he might just answer some of those pesky questions.

I’m not saying Adam Lambert left his sexuality in question intentionally, but he might have.  If he didn’t, he’s probably realized by now that he’s stumbled into something that’s keeping the public’s attention, which is why he hasn’t just flat-out said anything about it yet.  As Abrams points out in the Wired article I linked to earlier, we live in an age of immediacy, where the answer to literally any question we may have is only a mouse click away, and that truth has enhanced the way we look at questions that don’t seem to have obvious or easy answers.  In other words, in a world where we can have all the answers, we’re intrigued only by the ones we don’t have.

And that’s why I think Adam Lambert is going to win American Idol this year.  Or, if he doesn’t win, he’ll end up more successful than whoever does.  It’s apparent from the itty-bitty-nobody-to-all-powerful-cultural-icon path of previous Idol winners like Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson that twelve weeks of being on that show is the equivalent of an upper division master class in becoming a celebrity.  And judging by the way in which he has captured the public’s attention (he hasn’t even won yet, and he’s already on the cover of this week’s Entertainment Weekly), it’s clear that Adam Lambert is at the top of that class for this year.  Whether or not they deserve the attention they get, (and that’s another story entirely) the celebrities that capture the public’s attention do so by utilizing Mr. Abrams’ favorite concept of mystery.  Who are they dating, where are they going, what will they do next, and yes, are they gay?

And that’s why Adam’s going to win.  Like all the contestants, he’s got the talent to deserve the spotlight, and perhaps more importantly, he’s got the mystery to maintain it.  And as long as he keeps America guessing, he’ll be at the forefront of the public eye, and he’ll preserve our attention.  That is, until some bigger mystery comes along to distract us.

Advertisements
28
Sep
08

The Classics

What’s the difference between Ringo Starr, Jabba the Hut, and Bart Simpson? (Hint: the answer is not ‘lipstick’.  That’s another joke entirely, and a poor one, at that.)  The truth is, depending on how you look at it, not much.  Let me explain:

Recently, as I was working in the music and DVD section of my local neighborhood mega-bookstore, a young gentleman came up to me and placed a copy of V For Vendetta on the counter.

“Wow, great choice,” I said.

“Yeah, it’s a classic,” he replied.

I finished ringing him up and sent him on his way only to later start to think about what it was that he said.  Once I did, I came to realize that he had just made a claim that was— in every possible way— dead wrong.  I know that it was, in all likelihood, simply a throwaway line, something to say to the guy at the checkout counter to be friendly, as opposed to staring at me blankly and ignoring me altogether.  But consider that statement:

“It’s a classic.”

First of all, V For Vendetta only came out in 2005.  That’s entirely too soon for something to be called classic.  But that wasn’t even the main problem I had with his statement.  The main problem was that V For Vendetta will never be a classic— ever.  I could be having the same insignificant conversation with him forty years from now, and people could still like V For Vendetta just as much as they do now, and he’d still be just as wrong as he was just a few days ago.

Don’t get me wrong.  V For Vendetta is a completely acceptable movie.  A good movie, in fact.  I’m not downplaying its quality, rather I’m defending the definition of the term ‘classic’.  If you ask me, as far as pop culture is concerned, nothing that we’ve seen since Star Wars can be considered classic, and not just because it isn’t old enough yet.  What I’m saying is that nothing that we’ve seen since Star Wars will ever be classic at all (although even Star Wars may not last if George Lucas can’t quit trying to mess it up with more prequels, cartoons and all that other ridiculous and tarnishing garbage).  This doesn’t mean Star Wars is the only classic cultural icon, it just means it’s the last one, for reasons I’ll soon get to.

Despite how definitive a statement I’m making, it’s important to know that I wholeheartedly accept that it may prove false.  It’s slightly possible that The Simpsons may one day be a classic.  American Idol may have a shot, too.  But we won’t know unless they are able to stand the test of time, and since they haven’t left the pop cultural landscape yet, there’s no way to tell if they will remain in the general public consciousness for the coming decades.  But aside from those two things, there’s nothing else we’re currently witnessing that I believe will last much longer than the time it takes to exit the pop cultural stage.  That means Britney Spears, Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings movies— none of these will ever become classic cultural icons.

The main reason this will prove true can be summed up in one word: choice.  As long as our culture continues to produce the same general thing over and over and over, there will never be anything that’s truly as universally accepted by all of society as iconic in the same way that something like Star Wars was.

Britney Spears?  “Yeah, well Christina Aguilera was more talented…” Harry Potter?  “You probably never read the Narnia books…”

These will be the conversations people will have twenty years from now.  But Star Wars?  It’s universally accepted as being without peer, and much of that had to do with it being the only one of its kind.  Even people who don’t like Star Wars will accept that the movies played an important role in our culture in the way no other film had ever done before.  So how does this all work?  How is it that Star Wars just might become the last true classic that American pop culture ever sees?  To understand that, you have to unpack the definition of what it really means to be a classic.

But before we get to that, a clarifying point.  Before you get yourself all in a huff and start whining about how your favorite movie or band or show should be considered a classic, consider this: in all likelihood, whatever it is you’re thinking of could very well be seen as classic within your particular circle.  By that I mean that certain things (Fight Club, Saved By The Bell, Nirvana, etc.) might very well be classic, but they will never be universally classic for the reasons I’m about to point out.  They will be classic to those people who experienced them firsthand, but to someone who knows nothing about it, they have no significance whatsoever.  That is not the case with Star Wars, Elvis, or Catcher in the Rye.  Your grandma likely doesn’t have a clue who Tyler Durden is, but she probably recognizes the name Luke Skywalker.

I touched on one of the features of a true classic earlier.  True classics stand the test of time.  But this isn’t an honest-to-goodness characteristic of a classic, rather, this is one of the things that happens to something once it already is a classic.  It is a result of being a classic, it doesn’t make a classic.  In the same vein, some may argue that having a large following of dedicated supporters (like Star Wars) may make something a classic.  Again, this is a result, not a cause.  Same thing goes for accessibility— something does not become classic simply because it is widespread.  If you have basic cable, chances are on one of your channels right now is a re-run of Friends.  This doesn’t mean that Friends is a classic, it just means it’s everywhere.

So what are the causes?  I’ve come up with four of them, and you must possess all four to truly become a classic.  First, for something to become a classic, it must have a certain level of universal relatability— that is, people need to be able to understand it on at least one level, preferably more than one.  There’s only a select few people who know what it’s like to fly through outer space, and there ain’t nobody who knows what it’s like to be friends with a wookie, but people can relate to a strained relationship with their father (Steven Spielberg knows this, and that’s why it’s a central plot point in 90% of his movies).  People also can relate to the struggle between making the right choice and falling into temptation, and even some people (creepy as they may be) know what it’s like to have a crush on your sister.

Secondly, there must be a level of depth or a history that goes along with something for it to be classic.  This is where people can get confused and say that classics must stand the test of time, but there’s a distinct difference between standing the test of time and having what it takes to deserve to stand the test of time.  Things like Star Wars or the Lord of the Rings books fulfill this requirement by being stories of tremendous depth— going so far as to invent layers upon layers of detail that aren’t at all necessary to appreciate the story, but add to its overall weight as a cultural event.  Elvis or the Beatles accomplished this by changing and transitioning into different characterizations of themselves over time, all the while still retaining the original quality that made them recognizable in the first place.  That is, we watched the concept of ‘The Beatles’ go through many different stages, (‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ vs. ‘Revolver’ vs. ‘The White Album’ vs. everything in between) and even though they showed many sides of themselves, the whole time they were essentially the same thing, that being the most important rock band ever.

Thirdly, and perhaps this is obvious, but there must be a level of creativity that goes into something before it can become a classic.  It must be the kind of idea or concept you couldn’t have thought up sitting on the floor of your basement, throwing back a couple beers with some friends.  Only that which is truly creative can fulfill our need for original stories as a culture and reach that same part of our brain that’s forever been triggered by fairy tales, ghost stories, or Mark Twain.  It is that inventiveness, or rather the basic creative idea behind a concept or person or story that has the ability to grab our attention and let us know that what we are witnessing is something truly special.

The last characteristic is where everything that comes after Star Wars falls out of the race.  A classic must be one of a kind— the only one of its kind.  Because of the current state of greed in our culture, nothing that’s successful will ever remain uncopied, and I would also argue that because of that greed no one who is capable of creating something truly original is willing to let it stand alone (see: The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride).  And even though those copies or sequels rarely match up to the original, they still take away from the original’s overall impact.  American Idol is a hit, so why not America’s Got Talent or Last Comic StandingThe Simpsons is successful, so bring on South Park and Family Guy (and The Simpsons Movie, to a lesser extent).  With so much capitalization on every single successful concept that comes along these days, it’s far too easy for that original idea to get bogged down and scarred by all the other things that try to fit in its same niche and steal its impact.

There is hope, however.  Occasionally being one of a kind can be supplanted by being the first of its kind, and that’s why there’s hope for The Simpsons or American IdolThe Simpsons isn’t the only adult-oriented animated sitcom about a dysfunctional family, but it was the first, and it certainly has lasted the longest, thanks to its quality.  American Idol isn’t the only show to pluck regular people out of obscurity and give them a forum to express their talents, but it certainly is the most successful (it wasn’t the first, however, which is why it has less of a chance than The Simpsons does.  And by the way, I’m certainly not saying Star Search is anywhere near becoming a classic).

So what does this all mean?  Nothing, really.  It’s simply another way in which our culture is broadening and our world is changing.  You would think with improved communication and the advances of the internet, more and more people would be able to connect themselves through common forms of entertainment, but I would submit it’s exactly the opposite.  The more effective ways we have to communicate, the more highways there are for numerous new forms of entertainment.  The world may be smaller, but the forum for entertainment won’t ever stop growing, and that means finding quality among all the muck becomes that much more difficult.

12
Apr
08

Jesus, Your American Idol

It is rare in this country for mass popular culture to cross paths with Christianity, but it did a couple times this past week, and it’s got me thinking. Here’s what I’m talking about:

Okay, I’ll admit it. I watch American Idol. But in a critical musician way, not a teenage girl way– basically a way that still lets me think I’m better than other people who watch reality TV. In all actuality, I don’t even watch it on television, I watch it on YouTube. I’ll get on the day after the show airs and just watch the performances and what the judges say–skipping the commercials, product placement, interviews, basically all the fluff. It takes a two hour show and condenses it to about twenty minutes. It’s nice, you should try it out. Anyway, this last week was “Idol Gives Back” week, where they get a bunch of celebrities to help raise money for a number of worthy charities. And frankly, you’ve got to hand it to them–they’re the only enormously popular show on television that uses its popularity for something like that. And it pays off. They raise millions of dollars. Even Britney Spears donated. (after she talked to her dad and googled ‘malaria’ to find out what it was)

Anyway, at the end of the show this week came the video clip above, of eight pristine, talented youngsters dressed in white, belting out perhaps the most notoriously cheesy song in all of Christiandom. And I watched it, and I didn’t know what to think. Half of me thought, “Wow, JC gets a shout-out on the most watched television program in America. That’s pretty sweet.”

The other half thought that it was a ridiculous, preposterous premise, and was blatant integration of commercialism in Christianity, which is no good, no good at all. This half of me was thinking that there’s eight people singing on that stage, and statistics say that it’s unlikely (yet not impossible) all of them are Christians (at least one of them is a Mormon). So if there are non-Christians up there, and they’re singing, ‘nothing compares to the promise I have in You,’ then who is the you that they’re singing about? Ryan Seacrest?

Let’s not forget, American Idol is a singing contest, and the contestants know that they’re constantly being scrutinized. They know that if they aren’t singing with gusto every chance they have to perform, they could get voted off and lose their chance for superstardom. So if you’re a non-Christian, or even if you are a Christian, and you have that as your motivation while you’re singing that song, then aren’t you… faking it?

So in a way, the show’s executives are using Jesus. To be blunt, they know that Christians are stupid. They know that a lot of church going folk out there will see that and think American Idol is the greatest show on television, and spread the word to their friends, hence more viewers, hence more commercials, hence more cashola. But is it really just about earning money for the show’s producers? Is it that simple?

It’s easy to say that it’s not cool to play off people’s sympathies to earn text message votes on a reality TV show, or to get more people watching and increase your commercial revenue, but they did it during ‘Idol Gives Back’ week, where the focus is on the charity, not entirely on the singers… so if using Jesus gets people to donate money to a worthy cause, is it okay? They’re aiming to raise $100 million. If they can do that in one night, and give it all to a bunch of worthy charities, is it okay to tug at the Jesus reflex a little?

It worked on Britney, after all…