Country Rules! (Or AMERICAN IDOL--Part 2)
Peter Lawler is Dana Professor of Government and former chair of the department of Government and International Studies at Berry College. He serves as executive editor of the journal Perspectives on Political Science, and has been chair of the politics and literature section of the American Political Science Association. He also served on the editorial board of the new bilingual critical edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and serves on the editorial boards of several journals. He has written or edited fifteen books and over 200 articles and chapters in a wide variety of venues. He was the 2007 winner of the Weaver Prize in Scholarly Letters.\r\n\r\nLawler served on President Bush's Council on Bioethics from 2004 – 09. His most recent book, Modern and American Dignity, is available from ISI Books.\r\n\r\nFollow him on Twitter @peteralawler.
I've been asked whether I should reconsider my recent praise of AMERICAN IDOL as an admirably and characteristically American mixture of wisdom and consent.
Although I can't really speak as an authority (having missed several shows), I can see that a revision is in order. The judges—by becoming uniformly uncritical—didn't provide the requisite wisdom. And so the will of the American people wasn't as informed as it might have been.
That's not to say I don't like the two finalists. Both Scotty and Lauren have voices beautiful and true, and they have poise and judgment far beyond their teenage years.
I'm also sort of happy that they're both country singers. The best popular American music comes out of Nashville these days—certainly it's distinguished by its high level of professionalism and its attention to the virtues associated with family, place, country, and God.
Scotty has become a master of projecting such a country image and of really playing to his audience. His interplay with Lady Gaga (whom I also admire for her talent and self-control) was classic. She gave him the true criticism that he should be more conscious about singing directly into the microphone, given the softness of his deep voice. She said something vaguely naughty (but not nearly as naughty as it might have been) about how he should think of the microphone. He pretended, in effect, to blush and kissed the prominent cross around his neck (I didn't realize Baptists did that sort of thing). He then went on to sing a goofy version of “Youngblood” (a song about being shamelessly on the make—the inane lyrics for that reason among many should have embarrassed him more than the Lady). Scotty's mainstream manipulations have, in fact, been pretty shameless, and the judges have allowed him to get away with one “safe choice” after another in his performances. I really don't mean to criticize this uncannily mature young man. He will certainly be a country star; maybe he'll be president. But Simon wouldn't haven't have put up with his approach to what's supposed to be a singing contest.
Lauren actually has a better voice than Scotty. And she is what she appears to be: A very nice pretty cheerleader from a good family in semi-rural Georgia with a wonderful gift. Scotty always plays (and probably is) the perfect gentleman. Lauren hasn't been a particularly gracious winner, and she's had meltdowns at the prospect of being eliminated (although let me add that her usual southern manners are impeccable). Her performances aren't particularly innovative or cutting edge; she's not all that literate musically. Again, I'm not being critical; I'm just describing a kid. Lauren's hometown of Rossville, GA is about sixty miles from where I'm sitting, and, if I had voted, I would have been tempted to vote for her both as the local favorite and maybe the most lovable or huggable of the contestants. One more point: She's not a kid when it comes to song choice; she knows who she is and what she can do well.
Both Lauren and Scotty have usually sung mainstream country hits, but, as far I know, never “classic country.” Scotty, for example, hasn't turned to Hank Williams (or Hank Jr.) or Waylon or Willy or Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard etc. He didn't even sing "Ghostriders in the Sky," which would have fit his voice perfectly. That's because the best country is about sinning, suffering and redemption. And he's not seasoned enough or deprived enough to have suffered or even sinned much. He still has to grow into being a real country singer.
These two “cornpone country kids”--an unfriendly characterization I wouldn't choose myself—have astutely defeated three rock performers of arguably superior ability, imagination, and musical literacy. They are the jazzy Casey, the “give metal a chance” James, and the classic rocker Haley. Simon would have talked them up more effectively and precisely for their more able "signature" performances, and he would have challenged Scotty and Lauren to ascend to their level or be eliminated. Haley, in particular, hung on way beyond anyone's expectations—delivering memorably growly performances of three genuine classics--“Riannon,” “Benny and the Jets,” and “The House of the Rising Sun.” And she got around to showing us—with his very competent, understated guitar accompaniment on her Zeppelin extravaganza—that she got her musical sophistication from her great-guy rocker dad. Simon would have told America pretty emphatically last week to keep her around, and that might have made a difference.
Again: Let me say that I really like the two finalists, and they displayed their extraordinary merit week after week. They were models of consistency and even “authenticity.” But they weren't pushed to be, as they say, all that they can be. The judges didn't judge. For Steven Tyler, everything and everyone is beautiful. This manner of indiscriminate praising, which I thought, early on, was the mark of a gentleman, just became lame. And the other two weren't any better.
Of course, Haley's problem might simply have been that, by going the classic rock route, she was appealing to a demographic that probably doesn't vote in big numbers early and often. One of the problems of the consent feature of the show is that you get to vote as often as you can as long as the lines are open. That certainly is bias in favor of the opinion of teenage girls, and that has to help "Scotty the body."
One more point: The smashing victory of COUNTRY over ROCK (even classic rock) is more evidence to defend my proposition that AMERICAN IDOL is a conservative reality show.
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