Last week on American Idol, the contestants were asked to do music of the 21st century. To put it gently, it didn’t work well. I’m actually not sure it was the singers as much as the music. After the show, I cleaned out my ears and found myself thinking about why pop music matters to me in the first place.
Many years ago, I was bicycling across the country, and the Unitarian Church of Roanoke, Virginia hosted my group. At the dinner, our hosts seemed a lot like us – informed, good hearted, and ultimately sort of chatty and pleasant. I know I’m insulting the very fine folk who are serious Unitarians, Universalists, and Congregationalists, but particularly in the south, they struck me as people who needed to appear to go to church, but didn’t necessarily have strong beliefs about any particular doctrine. These people would never lead you into the Crusades or any other kind of war for that matter, but they quite possibly might never lead you into heaven and certainly not sainthood.
At the end of the dinner, the Unitarians had invited a black gospel choir to serve as the evening’s entertainment. The effect in this room full of real estate agents and middle-aged professionals who happily chatted about mortgage rates and healthy diets was palpable. The gospel choir had a deep abiding faith that emanated through their music and resonated through the building. “The spirit matters and really great music tells us that,” was the only lyric that I remember.
At the end of the performance, I pulled aside one of the soloists and said “That was incredible. Do you ever do any secular songs?”
Obviously, it was a stupid thing to say and I guess my only excuse was that I was thinking about Aretha or maybe confused this with some 1987 equivalent of Idol, almost like “Don’t you want to make big bucks off your voice?” The woman stared at me, a la Mandisa at Paula and Simon post her song of praise to Jesus (talk about weirdly Biblical names for judges), and said politely, “No, we only sing for the Lord.”
To her, God was a real, powerful force that justified her music and gave it whatever capacity it had to touch an audience of non-believers like myself. I’ve always remembered that encounter as one of those reminders of what music can be and why it’s so important to any culture. So what happened in the 18 years since and why did I cringe at Idol’s so called 21st-century music night?
In the 20th century, which began with Louis Armstrong being born on July 4, 1900 (at least according to Louis Armstrong), American pop music became the world’s pop music. Arguably, jazz, blues, rock and roll, soul, and country, which are all products of 20th-century America, remain this nation’s most enduring contribution to world culture, though I do realize that some people insist that the Brady Bunch and fast food are a close second. I wouldn’t really expect to find the 21st century equivalent of Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Frank Loesser, or Loretta Lynn on a show like American Idol, but if last week’s Americon Idol was the music of this century, thus far it makes me a little sad.
Part of the power of 20th-century American pop music is that blues, jazz, and rock are perfect expressions of American national distinctiveness. All three combined African rhythm and improvisation, especially the integral role of the drum beat, with European tonality and instrumentations into something that didn’t exist on either continent. At the turn of the last century, melody was largely king in pop music. American music made melody and beat democratic partners. Eventually, all three forms also absorbed America’s growing role as an industrial power. Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday were two of the first singers to not only master, but build their art around the microphone. Rock and roll combines the twin foundations of American industry — electricity and steel — through the electric guitar. Twentieth-century pop music is quite possibly the basis of our common culture in a country whose people come from anywhere at any time.
I have no idea what the music of the Information Age, post-NAFTA, America will be. I just know that it hasn’t come forward yet and that popular music has been fractured in the quest. In the meantime, I hear hip-hop, but don’t really know it (neither does American Idol, which seems to have disdain for the most “modern” pop music form going). I might know who Billy Joel is but I’d never recognize Green Day on the radio. Similarly, I know what Faith Hill and Gwen Stefani look like but I can’t necessarily name any of their songs. Yes, the simple explanation may be that I’m just a fogey who remembers Fogerty as a member of Creedence and half expects to hear “Stuck in Lodi” when someone says he’s doing Creed.
At the same time, I think that our music is not the culturally binding force it once was. Blame it on cable and the MP3 – as a child I might not have liked Sinatra, Elvis, or David Ruffin, but I knew who they were, what they sang, and what they sounded like. There were three channels on the television and a handful of radio stations, most taking bribes from the same record companies, all basically playing the same “new” music.
To be fair, I wouldn’t expect to find the most compelling pop music on a show like American Idol, but think about its equivalents in the sixties. Even the dorkiest junior high teacher of the time would know who the Rolling Stones were or even Hendrix or Cream. It seems strange now, but the Rolling Stones (if they didn’t spend the night, they at least spent some time) and the Doors (who never got much higher) both appeared on Ed Sullivan next to Senor Wences and a group of poodles who could ride bicycles.
We tend to look back on the ’60s as a time of discord in America, but American music still held America together. In the words of Kevin Kline’s character in the Big Chill, “Sixties music remains the only music that matters,” because it might have been the last time when our pop music had so much cultural resonance. In that era, pop music remained deeply social rather than a mere path to wealth.
I’m convinced that part of the power of American Idol (I don’t really think it’s the music) is that it holds out the illusion in a deeply divisive and culturally fractured society that there might be a middle. It’s no accident that the show became a hit not long after Bush v. Gore was decided by the Supreme Court and Saddam personally flew an airplane into the World Trade Center :}. Part of the magic of the show is that America allegedly “votes” even if no one ever sees the total. I suspect it has given America a sense of empowerment that might have been lost in the 2000 election. In the meantime, it remains one of the few cultural events that brings together kids, grandparents, teens, gays, members of different ethnic groups, etc. who all seem to follow the show in some form even if some watch just to make fun of it on the Internet.
When the ten remaining American Idol contestant were given the task of doing “today’s” music, what I saw was ten different singers each trying to define a very narrow niche. While I could see how some of America might like any one of them, I couldn’t ever quite see how all of America might ever like any of them. Whether that was Mandisa shouting out to Jesus or Bucky in a black cowboy hat, Lisa being a junior diva, or Elliot Yamin telling us he only wanted to be me – the end result was a near perfect expression of iPod culture where everyone listens to what they want, when they want, alone. The social phenomenon of pop music seems to have receded in favor of one purely driven by marketing.
The sad thing is that the power of any real American Idol should be in the music. What ever happened to the kind of popular music that actually inspired people to make their society better?