Idolness

May 22, 2009

 

ARTHUR GODFREY

ARTHUR GODFREY

I don’t understand the anti-American Idol sentiment that seems to be based on a premise of cultural superiority – or maybe it’s snobbery, a kind of knee-jerk reaction against anything that generates a lot of public excitement, a need to feel “above it all.”

I’ve never watched even a minute of “American Idol,” but I watch very little television at all. I do watch most of “Dancing with the Stars,” so the general concept of such shows is not foreign to me. To me, “American Idol” is just the over-produced and over-promoted 21st century version of “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,” which was a huge success on radio and television – in fact, for a while it was on radio and television simultaneously. 

What annoys me about “American Idol” is the endless hype – the way, for instance, the local Fox stations treat every snort and whimper that comes from an Idol contestant or judge as though it were not only news but the top story of the day. And it really irritates me when I turn to the channel with the TV Guide rolling program log, the top half of the screen is occupied by a cast of pinheads babbling on about the Idol contestants – OMG!

But the show itself seems to me to be an entertaining vehicle through which people who otherwise would get no public attention for their talents get a shot at starting a career. Godfrey’s show – a primitive thing by comparison – gave the public its first glimpses of many folks who later were successful and, in some cases, stars. The winner each week was determined by a gain meter that measured the applause of a live studio audience.

 

DON KNOTTS

DON KNOTTS

Many of the contestants on Godfrey’s show were not really amateurs but small-time professionals trying to move up. Among the contestants were Pat Boone, Patsy Cline, the McGuire Sisters, Tony Bennett, Lenny Bruce, Roy Clark, Rosemary Clooney, violinist Florian ZaBach, Wally Cox, Vic Damone, The Diamonds of “Little Darlin’ ” fame, Eddie Fisher, Connie Francis, Don Knotts, Steve Lawrence, Barbara McNair, Leslie Uggams, and Johnny Nash. 

Nobody’s perfect, by the way. Among those who didn’t survive the auditions for “Talent Scouts” were Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly.

Incidentally, Johnny Nash – it has always seemed to me – should have been a bigger star than he ever became. I think he’s still out there singing somewhere. He performs one of his biggest hits, “Hold Me Tight,” at this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYhRpbqe1Zg


ADAM LAMBERT

ADAM LAMBERT

This morning, I came across an account in the Los Angeles Times of last night’s “American Idol” broadcast. I missed it. How careless of me to have accepted an invitation to a dinner party on “Idol” night. Well, truth be told, I wouldn’t have watched it anyway. In fact, I have never seen more than a minute or two of an “Idol” broadcast, and that only two or three times when someone else was watching it. This has as much to do with my not watching television very much as it has to do with any objection to that show in particular. But what caught my attention in this article was the reference to the contestants’ “reverence for the most traditional of American genres – country music.” What did the writer mean by “country music”? How did country music – whatever the writer meant by it – become more “traditional” than folk music – whatever I mean by that? And, Miss Turner, what’s “reverence” got to do with it?

I presume the writer had a straight face when he or she wrote that several contestants delivered “solid but respectful versions of country standards by Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, and Carrie Underwood.” That’s Carrie Underwood – the “American Idol” graduate who was salutatorian of her high school class in Oklahoma. And the writer soberly added that Adam Lambert’s “psychedelic, sitar-backed” rendition of “Ring of Fire” was – according to an audience member visiting from Missouri – “disrespectful to country music.”

If we owe some sort of “respect” to country music, is it to be found in the over-produced material that Dolly Parton has been disgorging for the past few decades? To me that’s as “country” as Jackie Wilson’s “Alone at Last” was classical. “Country” has the smell of stale beer about it. “Country” is what we used to find in the 1960s at the old Coral Bar in East Paterson when Elton Britt, a singer with gold hanging on his wall, would drive himself up from Maryland to perform for a few dozen patrons who would recognize his voice even if their vision was blurred. “Country” is what we found back then at open-ended shows at the old Mosque Theater in Newark, where headline acts sometimes had to be nudged off the stage to make room for Little Jimmy Dickens or Ray Price or Webb Pierce, who were waiting in the wings. If a singer appeared in a torquoise outfit covered with rhinestones, the clothes just emphasized the common nature of the man or woman inside. “Country” was real, and if there was anything to respect in it, it was the unfiltered, unapologizing reality. But then, “reality” has taken on a different meaning in our time.