Idol musings

Pop and popularity

SONIC REDUCER Is there any escape from the tractor beam–pull influence of American Idol? Can someone do me a favor and put a plug in Paula Abdul's histrionics, leash the dawgs of Randy Jackson, douse the frat-boy smirk on Ryan Seacrest's mug, or, reluctantly, hold back the refreshing wave of honest harshitude rolling off Simon Cowell? And while you're up, get me a High Life, hand me the channel changer, and take a socket wrench to that persistent leak of CDs by Idol alums. Winners and also-rans are far too prevalent on the charts — they're essentially ruining my poppy good times, apart from the odd Kelly Clarkson guilty pleasure. The past few months saw the release of a second album of almost too stolidly respectful R&B by Ruben Studdard, The Return (J); an already gold-certified, lustily voiced and eclectic but undistinguished pop-rock self-titled debut by Taylor Hicks (Arista); and my star-studded fave, Fantasia, by Fantasia Barrino, who put together a contempo, Kelis-like, pop Afro-futurist collection with input from OutKast's Big Boi, Gnarls Barkley's Cee-Lo, Missy Elliott, and Swizz Beats. If I hadda listen idol-ly to someone, I guess I'd pop the baby mama on — you'll be thinking you're dreaming, girl, when you realize Fantasia actually sounds better than B'Day.

Adore it or abhor it, the phenom starts all over again Jan. 16, playing to our fondness for rags-to-riches stories and let's-put-on-a-show moxie, our identification with those kids belting their hearts out in gladiatorial thumbs-up-thumbs-down cutthroat competition, our cynical identification with the judges' stringent assessments, and our resurgent belief in a seemingly democratic process (know anyone who has ever voted?). Despite the scrappy likability and self-conscious modernity of Barrino's second disc, it's not to Idol fans' tastes, methinks, judging from the supposed 230,000 or so CDs sold, in contrast with the 5-mil-plus number Clarkson is bringing down. Yippee, it's the return of the blockbuster-minded music industry! So, barring catfights and embarrassing "hee-haw at Hung" moments, I think I'll pass on season six, despite the benediction of approval bestowed by artists such as Prince and Mary J. Blige in season five.

Why? Maybe I like my idols weaned on something more original and less cliché than the Motown and Beatles songbooks. Maybe idols shouldn't be quite so predigested and programmatic — so that contestants like Tamyra Gray won't be dropped from their labels when they demand to write their albums.

There's a place for pop, perhaps — this is a popularity contest, after all — and the fact that the show includes a songwriting competition this season should throw a new wrinkle into the mix of predictable boomer standards. Well, hell, why not ask aspirants to write their own songs? At the risk of turning this into a teary-eyed singer-songwriter showdown, I'd venture that approach would weed out a slew of vacuous, empty-vessel warblers.

Anyway, singing for your supper or at least your next career change seems pro forma. The game-ification of the pop cult draws amateur hopefuls and sporting observers alike, and the Recording Academy's entry into the ring with its "My Grammy Moment" campaign, in which a dozen finalists vie to play beta pup to Justin Timberlake's alpha dog at the 49th annual Grammy Awards, seems to bear me out. Watchers can log on to Yahoo! Music and view the audition videos of prospective sexy backups and vote online or via text message for the top five finalists, who will be announced Jan. 17. Voting continues, sports fans, till the lot are winnowed down to the top three on Super Bowl weekend, with the winner announced live at the Grammys on Feb.

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