May 26 2015

American Idol

The word is that American Idol is going to cease production so I imagine I will not be the only one writing about this in the coming days and weeks.

American Idol has become something of a punching bag for ‘serious’ musicians and ‘serious’ music fans. There is some merit to the assessment that it is a misguided shortcut to success in the music business. There is also much proof that disputes this shortcut and that American Idol and its imitators haven’t done all that well in creating stars. With the obvious exceptions.

When the first season aired, I, like many North Americans, was glued to my set. The idea of an amateur singing contest where the prize was a recording contract, to me, is a fantastic idea for a TV show. Season one was a bunch of kids who ran their local karaoke nights or sang in the shower or a bit in their home town bar getting a chance to see if they actually had real talent.

The show’s judges were amazing archetypes. Randy, your uncle, the legit musician, Paula, the supportive mother hen, and Simon, the hard driving, sometimes cruel Dad who showed you how unforgiving the real world was. But when you did a good job, he’d say so and it was the sweetest feeling. Simon was also British which ushered in a new idea of the British on television as sociopaths who insult and ridicule people and generally act like boors. Witness the Hell’s Kitchen dude among others. For the majority of the show’s audience, these judges were unknown, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson’s best years were behind them. So it all started out pretty small.

When Kelly Clarkson beat out Justin What’s His Name, (the fact that I can’t remember his last name is part of the point of this piece), it was an incredible moment. The fact that the best singer who ever came out of the show was part of this first season is also very significant in my opinion.

Why? Because after the first few seasons, it stopped being an amateur singing contest and turned into something more sinister. In those initial seasons, no one really understood the possibilities of the show. Idol couldn’t get clearance from publishers for almost any songs and the kids were generally forced to sing old standards. Later on, when Kelly Clarkson actually became a star and AI became a ratings blockbuster, two things happened. Every singer or wannabe singer in America without a record deal saw this as their shot at fame. And the record companies and publishers saw it as great publicity for their artists and song catalogs. They started climbing all over the Idol producers to have their songs sung and their artists appear on the show as special guests. So around season 4, the show lost its innocence. It was a bunch of professional singers looking for an easy way to become a star instead of working their ass off for years until they were finally good enough to get someone to notice them. The show became part of the music business machine. Eventually the original judges were replaced which killed the show’s chemistry.

So there are two aspects to American Idol that should be addressed. One is that it was a TV show. As a show, it was pretty great at least before they wore out the formula. A music show where kids competed against other kids in a singing contest that was ultimately judged by the viewing audience made for compelling television. One of the big attractions of the show were the auditions. Here the TV audience would get a look behind the scenes at how the finalists were chosen. The producers would air the good, the bad and the ugly. The really great singers who would be, “going to Hollywood,” the show’s catch phrase for contestants who were moving on in the contest, the really bad singers who would essentially be made fools of by both themselves and the judges and the just plain weirdos who saw the auditions as a showcase for their performance art, comedy or delusions. There was something very cruel about this process as the cameras followed contestants crying or cursing, who had their dreams smashed when they were dismissed by the judges.

That brings us to the second part of AI, the show as star maker. At this, Idol was remarkably unsuccessful considering there were 14 seasons worth of singers. One might think that, having the exposure of a massive international audience would be a surefire route to fame and fortune. I can’t remember how many finalists were in the actual show each year, 12? 20? But the list of singers who have had meaningful careers or anything resembling a hit single or album is embarrassingly short. I always felt the show was selling a lie, that you could be made into a star overnight. I think that Idol had an overall negative effect on peoples’ perception of what it takes to be a professional singer.

Because the reality is, very few people get to be stars and stars are not made, they are born. It didn’t help that the songs the winners were given to sing as their first single were uniformly awful. One exception was Phillip Phillips song Home, which was an incredibly sophisticated choice of song that was actually a hit in waiting. So he turned out to be much luckier than the majority of Idol winners. I think many of the finalists were able to use their five minutes of fame to generate some local, home town interest in themselves, some made records but most faded from public view once the next season of AI revved up. A couple of the smarter ones, Jennifer Hudson and Katharine Mcphee went on to act, which seems perfectly logical as they were already TV stars. Sadly, most of the contestants, like Justin What’s His Name, faded into obscurity with only a great tale to tell their grandkids.

One might think the show could go on forever. There seems to be an inexhaustible supply of American kids who want to be stars, like the exponentially growing raccoon population of Toronto. But ratings have fallen over the past several seasons, apparently Coke, who must have been their biggest sponsor judging from all the product placement, bailed on the show so, like all good things, it is coming to an end. This will be bad news for those who think kids who tough it out in dive bars, clubs, local state fairs etc. honing their craft and building an audience are suckers. But despite the protestations of millions of Idol haters, that still seems to be the path to success for the majority of people in show business. People may believe something different, but the statistics speak for themselves.

At least a few Idol winners had some play, most of the copy cat shows don’t appear to have made a single person meaningfully famous. Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson are legitimate superstars. But that it was so easy to name them says it all. In the end, it was a good TV show and Fox made a bundle and it probably helped finance Family Guy so I’ll choose to see it like that.

May 5 2015

Paul Williams

I just watched Still Alive, a documentary about songwriter Paul Williams. Before I get into that, a story.

Last year at Canadian Music Week, Paul Williams participated in the conference by interviewing producer and musician extraordinaire, Nile Rogers. I brought my copy of Someday Man, the recently rediscovered Paul Williams solo LP. It was recorded and released before he started to have hits writing for the Carpenters and Three Dog Night, Barbara Streisand etc. The discussion between Williams and Rogers was engaging and Paul seemed like a really nice guy but after the panel, I folded and didn’t go try to meet him and get my CD signed. Too many people would be clamoring for his attention, I thought, and I wasn’t in the mood for disappointment.

Later, I saw photos all over Facebook of him and every Tom, Dick and Harry from the conference. Felt like a moron.

A word about Someday Man. It was released on Reprise Records in 1970, it stiffed and was deleted shortly there after. A disappointment, I’m sure for Paul and his songwriting collaborator Roger Nicholls who were getting cuts here and there, but mostly B-sides and album tracks. Not long after this, they would write We’ve Only Just Begun for the Carpenters and Out In The Country by Three Dog Night, (Out In the Country is so awesome, it needs its own blog post). The rest is history and started Paul on the road to being one of the biggest stars in America. Someday Man is jammed with sunny pop gems, some of the best songwriting I’ve ever heard. And I should say that, although it is a Paul Williams record, credit should also go to co-writer and producer Nicholls.

Anyway, the documentary starts out well enough, with film maker Stephen Kessler traveling to Winnipeg, one of the two places on earth where Paul’s movie, The Phantom Of The Paradise was a hit. I have a friend from there who has a full Phantom costume so I was aware of the Winnipeg idiosyncrasy. The opening sequence in Winnipeg is truly heartwarming with the fans going bonkers, or as bonkers as middle to late age fans can go, for Williams. He appears to be honestly humbled by the response and remarks that this kind of thing doesn’t really happen to him anymore.

On seeing this I feel like Paul might have been open to my slobbering fanboy attention last spring. Drat!!

The film then turns into a painful and often embarrassing battle of wills between the director and Paul, who comes off as pretty much the greatest guy in the history of celebrity. His incredible patience with Kessler is downright saintly. Instead of being a film about the artist, it becomes more about the film maker and his very clumsy attempt to become friends with Williams.

With the exception of Out In The Country, Paul’s more commercial songwriting efforts left me a bit cold and he became synonymous with the sort of low culture that dominated the 1970’s. Because in addition to being a songwriter, Paul was also an actor or more accurately, a television personality who would regularly appear on game shows, talk shows and serial television. A lot of people hate TV. Most of these people are old and remember how horrible television was in the 70’s into the 80’s. There were three networks and the idea was to not do anything too offensive that might cause a person to change the channel to one of the other networks. Cable TV changed everything and now television is pretty great. (For a deeper discussion on this, check out Everything Bad Is Good For You by Steven Johnson). So my interest in Paul is not nostalgic.

Paul’s downfall, as it has been with many in show business, was drugs and alcohol. They derailed both his career and his life and he has devoted a great deal of the second act of his life to his recovery. His popularity as a performer stalled in the late ’70’s. Apart from the aforementioned Winnipeg gig and another in the Philippines, the movie reads a bit like This Is Spinal Tap, with him wandering around backstage alone looking for an exit and doing insignificant interviews.

This brings me to the point. Paul seems largely unconcerned with all of that. Our culture eats and spits out musicians, artists, athletes and supernovas of all kinds. People get to be famous/successful for a short period of time and then they are put out to pasture. Kind of devastating for people who worked their whole life for a goal that, once achieved, leaves them standing alone somewhere wondering why it had to end. With athletes, it’s usually because their bodies let them down, which is natural enough and somewhat easier to rationalize. In show business it’s, who knows why?

Watching this film, Paul seems completely content in his life. He lives in a modest house with his wife. He plays the odd gig in Vegas and elsewhere without a lot of expectation. When the film maker shows him some clips from his past TV appearances, he seems revolted, like he doesn’t even know the person he once was. One gets the feeling that he has zero interest in being back in the game in a serious way again. He must still make enough money in royalties to live a comfortable life. And he gets the call every now and then to do an appearance at something like Canadian Music Week, a call that must be a message to him that he is still thought of as a star.

So it doesn’t have to end badly. I think that sometimes when you are not part of the current culture, people can see the real value in what you do. One’s prejudices about what they are SUPPOSED to like become irrelevant. That’s why I think Someday Man is being discovered again. Now that Paul Williams isn’t a clown that you see on Hollywood Squares it’s easier to appreciate his work. This is my favorite track off of it.