Pop and popularity
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SONIC REDUCER Is there any escape from the tractor beampull 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. 11 before his or her live moment with Timby (who seems to be surfing the trend of recent celeb breakups right into In-N-Out).
Among the oodles of original video submissions are entries from Bay Areaesque finalists Jayne Rio of Vallejo, Mandy Ventrice of Pittsburg, and Philip Ray, formerly of Oakland. I asked the 28-year-old Ray, a graphic designer now living in Los Angeles, last week about his simultaneously unusual and mundane clip, in which he fluidly multitasks behind the wheel, driving through a medley of Whitney Houston and other Grammy-winning songs (the branding never sleeps). "It was a time thing," he 'fessed. "I knew a deadline was approaching, and I have a tiny camera. I was on the way to El Pollo Loco, and I thought it would be a different way to approach it. That was my effort to make me stand out most people sing in cars, so I thought ... people would relate to it."
The son of Rev. Dr. CJ Anderson, who Ray says staged numerous musical events to raise money for the needy in the Bay Area, the contestant recalled catching benefit concerts at Pete Escovedo's club until he moved south in 1996. Nowadays he writes songs and dreams of developing community centers that will cultivate unsigned vocalists and musicians. Praising Timberlake for the "way he navigated his career" and citing "Losing My Way" as his favorite JT song, the earnest Ray isn't petrified by the possibility of working his wiles on a Grammy mob of pros. "It's my ultimate dream. Aside from just being hungry for the opportunity, I think I'm going to try to use any opportunity to carve out a career as successful as Justin Timberlake's."
Maybe I listened to too much punk as a tot, but as amiable as Ray is, that sort of bald careerism as much a part of American Idol as actual performance gives my perhaps rockist-tinged heart pause. I know pop has other uses beyond validating my romantic notion of self-sabotaging, autodestructing, doo-doo-dappling antistars, and American Idol and "My Grammy Moment" may be opening the playing field to new voices, but how fresh can it all be, given the validating arena they're competing in? When I see, for instance, Big Boi, Elliott, Devendra Banhart, Prince, Thurston Moore, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Radiohead fill the judges' shoes full-time, I'll climb back on the couch. *