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American Idol Under Assault

Stephen Holden says some accurate things about "American Idol" in his review of Barbara Cook's show at the Cafe Carlyle. But some of it is a bit over the top.

I mention this in response to Aeon Skoble's self-outing at L&P as an "AI" viewer: "Problems with Democracy."

Comments welcome.


You're exactly right Chris -- I have elaborated a bit in the commments thread following the post you mention above. Perhaps the readers here can join the discussion there.

Hey, Aeon, thanks for the comment here. I left a comment on L&P in response to some of the discussion there. Readers should check that discussion out; here's what I had to say:

Jonathan is, of course, correct, that much (not all) of pop music has had these qualities (and it does depend on what era of American pop music we're talking about). And Holden was indeed hyperbolic, as Aeon says. I can't help but feel however that ~sometimes~ there is an inherent bias against pop music coming from some of today's critics. Let me state at the outset that I am ~second to none~ in my appreciation of the Great American Songbook, as even a cursory look at the listing of My Favorite Songs (more aptly described as "My Favorite Music") attests.

So let's take that particular show that Holden found so offensive: the utter mangling of many of the songs of that Great American Songbook in a Broadway-focused installment of "American Idol." On the one hand, the judges criticize some of the performers who don't make the final cut that their voices are too "Broadway" and on the other hand, they pull out all the stops for a Broadway-themed installment. It doesn't make sense, and many of these singers are just not trained in the idiom of American standards (which are, for the most part, very melodically and harmonically demanding when compared to most, though by no means all, of the pop songs of today). And their lack of training for singing in this idiom shows up. I recall hearing Linda Ronstadt, one very pop-hit friendly singer, attest to the fact that her own forays into American standards with Nelson Riddle first made her aware of what she needed to do to become a better singer than she was. Her breath control and her vocal abilities were tested and expanded from these series of recordings.

But as bad as some of the performances were on that particular show of "American Idol," why get so indignant? At least these songs were suddenly being heard again in primetime on one of the hottest shows in American television. Not every arrangement was stellar, but some were interesting and well done (the studio musicians in the house band are quite good), and kids were being introduced to something entirely different for a change. And it's not the first time standards have shown up on this show; I remember last year how Fantasia (the 2004 competition winner) did a rendition of Gershwin's "Summertime" and Legrand's "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?"---bringing down the house in both instances. (And this year, Anwar started his run with Mancini's "Moon River.")

With one breath, the critics are upset that nobody pays attention to the classics, and then, when they do pay attention to them, they get upset because they'd rather they didn't.

BTW, Matthew, in former AI installments, each judge was allowed to pick one previously removed contestant to join the final group, probably for the same reason: they sense the problems with the selection process.