I no longer have “idols.” I had them when I was a kid. But I was so much younger then: I’m older than that now. Someone at a show once asked me which stone faces would be on my personal Mount Rushmore, and I picked four with whom I have a learning relationship, and to whom I can relate to, and none of which were among my idols when I was a kid: Marlon Brando, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, and Henry Miller. These men have a greater influence on me and my work than any other artists, and only one of them is a singer.
A Mount Rushmore of singers alone would be Dylan, Jeff Tweedy, Tom Waits, and Hank Williams. Of these, perhaps only Hank Williams would have a snowball’s chance of getting out the preliminary auditions for American Idol. And they’ve all actually been American idols. “You’re an idol of ours,” says a young musician to Bob Dylan during Don’t Look Back. Briefly, here are some other actual American idols unlikely to have made it anywhere near “Hollywood Week” on American Idol: John Lennon; Joey Ramone; Axl Rose; Neil Young; Jimi Hendrix; Jim Morrison; Janis Joplin; Kurt Cobain. In fact, I can think of only two singers who have meant anything to me who would have had a good chance of advancing on American Idol: Jeff Buckley, and Elvis Presley.
According to Dictionary.com, Idol:
"1. A representation or symbol of an object of worship; broadly : a false god.
2. A likeness of something.
3. A form or appearance visible but without substance.
4. A n object of extreme devotion.
5. A false conception.”
The case can be made that all of these apply to the winners of American Idol, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and work with the fourth definition: An object of extreme devotion.
I’ve resented American Idol since it was introduced, and have never watched the show. To me, it represented one of the worst trends in American culture: The inability to delay gratification, to work for something, to earn something. Elvis was an innately talented truck-driver when a recording he paid to make for his mother was heard by Sam Phillips, and Phillips put him together with Scotty Moore and Bill Black. Sam Phillips was looking for a white bridge to black music. And the rest is not history:
Elvis cut two additional records at Sun, both of which faded into oblivion for the “good ballad singer” who didn’t “sound like nobody.” He auditioned for and was rejected by a vocal quartet, dismissed as having no ear for harmony. A local working band rejected him, too, saying he should stick to driving a truck, as he was “never going to make it as a singer.” Elvis took swings at songs that Phillips found for him, but his efforts stalled. Then That’s Alright, Mama, and Blue Moon of Kentucky, each cut with Moore and Black, found a modest audience on the radio. The band played small clubs in the area, opened for Slim Whitman, left an unimpressed Grand Ole Opry behind them, and had a middling performance on The Louisiana Hayride. Elvis wasn’t a successful regional act until early 1955, and even then the band kept busy touring the south, from Tennessee to Texas and back, in a station wagon.
The rest of us didn’t find him, and make him the Elvis we know, until 1956, when he made his first RCA recordings and television appearances.
It’s not really the narrative that has been associated with Elvis Presley through the years: Country boy records a song for his mother, signs with record label, appears on Ed Sullivan, famous overnight. We don’t think of dive bars and truck-stops along Route 40, rejection, a singer trying to find his voice, a sweaty station wagon, failure. It’s not the path of an American Idol.
And that’s what I hate about American Idol: The cynical idea that what Elvis and many other singers and musicians earned at such great cost you can get by winning a game show. In The Last Waltz, Robbie Robertson and the other members of The Band talk about the long, hard road to success: Empty rooms, being so broke on the road that they resorted to shoplifting. The pathology of it that comes out in their exquisite music, that lends credibility to that music.
The American Dream used to be that anyone could be and do anything. Where you started had nothing to with where you were going to end up. Work hard, have a plan, stick to it, shut out the negative, and you could do it, no matter what kind of shit you came from. Not anymore. The New American Dream is that we all have what it takes, and all it takes is a big enough screen. We’re all special, we’re all talented, we’re all dynamic, we’re all original and gifted and brilliant, and all we need is a single moment and enough open eyes. We’re all the next Jay Z, we’re all the next Bob Dylan, we’re all the next Madonna, George Strait, and Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga. Who cares what those people went through to get where they ended up. Who cares that there wasn’t a game show for Elvis, that there was no magic audition for Madonna, who was once so broke pursuing a career as a dancer that she posed nude for a little cash. That’s not the model. The model is individual achievement, the supremacy of the individual, that innate value in all of us, that great stretching reach for fame and glory. That’s what they sell us. All those models of perseverance, hard work, and dedication-those are for others: those are models of group achievement; those are for bands, movements, neighborhood renaissances, politicians. For you, and for me, it’s overnight: The spotlight, being famous for being famous, the reality competition show, the forty thousand YouTube hits.
"We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t…"-Fight Club
I interviewed a young girl from Woonsocket for an article about her Hollywood Week audition for American Idol. Advancing through the initial audition, she was warned by a producer that she should “get the ‘musical theater’” out of her voice, that she would never make it. This morning, I was directed to this column by my friend, the poet Tony Brown. In the column, the point is ably made that what viewers want from American Idol contestants is “a juke box.” And that’s where the young woman from Woonsocket failed: She is steeped in musical theater, and filtered her performances through that lens. She interpreted the music she performed, God forbid. The young woman, like a few other Idol contestants, plays the guitar and writes songs. On her guitar, there is a sticker that says “You Are Being Brainwashed.” I was impressed with her work ethic, and her talent, and left convinced that more would be heard from her, and that she was not without ideas.
Where the hell she got ideas from is beyond me. Ideas are for bands, movements, neighborhood renaissances, politicians, game and software developers, and writers. There are certainly no ideas on American Idol, save for the idea that we can all get famous overnight and make a lot of money for ourselves and for the show.
Even Elvis may not have been a good enough ballad singer to make it through an American Idol audition. A producer may have warned him that he had a lot of African-American music in his voice. His rendition of Blue Moon of Kentucky may have contained too much of the country music he was steeped in, and not enough of the bluegrass familiar in prior versions of the song. And That’s Alright, Mama would have been, then, an animal that the producers and judges had no chance to understand, because it was pure idea. On the track, Elvis simply banged on the chord that he knew best, playing an up-tempo version of the simple one-four-five blues during a session break at Sun Studios. It was a lark, a chance he wouldn’t have taken with tape rolling. When Moore and Black joined in, Phillips heard something, the something he was looking for: a white boy turning a black singer’s second-tier single into a kinetic vamp and a revolution. There will be no revolutions on American Idol.
An object of extreme devotion.
Most of us have only extreme devotion to people we know, people we love. But I understand the application of the definition for “idol” to pop stars. I’ve already detailed my own equivalents. Let’s say that Marlon Brando, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, and Henry Miller are my “idols.” I came to these artists organically, and their influence has shaped my identity and my life. I don’t think this is hyperbole, but nature. I cherish the work I didn’t know I was doing when I was uncovering all of these men and their work. I didn’t find them on a game show, or even on television. Perhaps they all resonated for me immediately, and perhaps it was a long period of exposure during which their influence developed. It is different for each.
What the United States does, and does more and better and more perversely than any other culture, is commodify things-to make a thing a commodity. Here, we cynically find organic trends, we find them in nature, in their own habitats, and we hang up a shingle to sell them. We do it with everything. Ironically, it is hipsters that take this hook deepest in the cheek: believing that there is a field of products they can consume that will exclude them from being consumers. But they are. Most of us are. Among other, truly marginal types, there are in American culture Consumers and Creators. The most egregious offense of American Idol is cynically commodifying the organic process of finding our American idols. Once found, those idols, themselves Consumers of The New American Dream(TM), are painted to look like Creators, so all we ever see on American Idol is ourselves, by ourselves, buying ourselves: A representation or symbol of an object of worship; a false god; a likeness of something; a form or appearance visible but without substance; a false conception.