photo from: WikiMedia Commons
I’ve never faulted my mother for watching American Idol because watching television today has nothing to do with seeing something you enjoy or even that you find pleasant. It’s about a constant search to find something you can’t take your eyes off of. Be it a car crash, the eating of bull testicles, fornication amongst stereotypical non-New Jerseyans, people who can’t sing to save their lives, or all of the above.
Now keep in mind, my mother is not an ‘Idol junkie.’ In all actuality, the show holds no greater place in her heart than trashy soap operas have to millions of working women since the 1950s. Equally, I’m no innocent in the onslaught of reality television. I may no longer own a cable box, but the last time I did I found myself on a three-month binge of Rock of Love II. (Dark and pathetic don’t even begin to describe that time in my life.)
Case in point, it’s a bit ridiculous to expect quality, engaging, or thoughtful entertainment from a medium the working world relies on to deflate after work (hence why Mad Men starts at 9:30pm and not 3:30pm.) Thinking of TV in terms of quality is a little like shopping for gourmet macaroni and cheese, or reading in-depth blog critiques of massage chairs.
Which is why what I’ve always found mind-boggling about American Idol’s assumed place in our cultural history that it’s supposed to be my generation’s equivalent to the British Invasion. After President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show gave a grieving nation some much needed distraction. All too conveniently for the sake of comparison, after 9/11, a similar vacuum of American grief became fascinated by another British import. As pop culture would have be believe, no one could resist the train-wreck charm of the John Lennon of douchebaggery (Simon Cowell), the Paul McCartney of air-headedness (Paula Abdul), or the Ringo Starr of primetime Ebonics. (Take a wild guess on that last one.)
Fast forward ten years later to the Steven Tyler-versus-J. Lo era of Idol, and the parallels between Kennedy and 9/11, the Beatles and Idol sound grossly exaggerated. If Idol is a phenomenon for anyone it’s the baby boomers. As with all-things related to the Fox Network, the under-35 crowd doesn’t make up the age demographic accounting for the show’s still astronomical ratings. Though you’ll never hear them never cop to it, the generation that gave us some of the most radical, uncompromising and life changing music that the world has ever seen is also responsible for the popularization of the most vapid and soulless.
It’s not a terribly original question, but one not asked often enough: For all the self-congratulations of the boomers, has anything undermined their musical legacy more than the iPod shuffle/karaoke culture they can’t get enough of these days? Saying American Idol or its offshoots are millennial products is as preposterous as giving baby boomers credit for electing the first African American President.
What a breakdown of Idol’s continued success really shows is one of the few, great communal upswings of the post-iPod age of music consumption. Where the Beatles came to represent the tipping point of a huge, generational divide between old squares who ‘didn’t get it’ and kids who were ‘tuned in,’ American Idol demonstrates how interchangeable media can be between parents and their children today. In that, by in large, it’s okay for a mom to love Carrie Underwood as much as their teenage daughter does.
Simultaneously, the age-old animosity towards ‘old people music’ by the young is a line that has, for the most part, been erased. Like many budding young musicians who grew up in the ‘90s, raiding my parent’s record collection became one of my best bonding experiences as an adolescent. While my father and I traded Jethro Tull and Zeppelin riffs, the Beach Boys and Carole King became bridges of understanding between my mother and I.
In listening to my mom’s copy of Tapestry, I felt like I could imagine who she was in 1973 with the vivid clarity of a long lost diary (the long haired, sensitive college type). Her record player, which was gathering dust in our basement for decades, would become my immediate inheritance. I suspect it’s gotten almost as much mileage in the last seven years as it ever did under her ownership. Which reminds me, I probably need to buy a new needle.
In the handful of times I’ve watched Idol with my mom, I’ve discovered what can not be taken away from the show is its ability to distract, for better or worse. Perhaps now more than ever, music (like television) has become about escape. The more our world feels like it’s on the brink of collapse, the more we want our music (be it high or low art, doesn’t matter) to give us some sense of security. Of course, this is in stark contrast to the music of my parents’ generation.
Where the violence of the Chicago DNC riots, the Tet Offensive, and Manson family murders of 1968 can be heard in visceral, esoteric detail deep in the grooves of The White Album, Wheels of Fire or Beggar’s Banquet, today’s most reactionary musical statements always seem to fall just short of tapping into the would-be zeitgeist. In other words, it’s hard to tell if American Idiot is the record that truly embodies Bush-era discontent, or if it’s as contrived in its Moveon.org politics as a reality-TV sideshow disguised as a top forty processing plant.
As I mentioned before, distraction doesn’t seem to be a characteristic of low art alone. I’ve found most of today’s troubadours du-jour (like Idol) are looking to provide some release from the chaos unfolding on cable news, as opposed to reacting to it with equal vigilance. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy mentioned the working title of the band’s forth coming record is Get Well Soon, Everybody—meant as a well wishing to a crisis-stricken globe.
In my constant effort to find some way to keep Idol from my mother’s cable and musical diet, we always seem to come back to Wilco as common ground. Which makes sense since the band often is routinely derided for making ‘dad rock,’ and really, why wouldn’t they work just as well for moms?
While my fandom of the band has never been wholesale, there is a younger part of me that still lives on those records. In all this talk of political music and zeitgeists, it’s hard not make some obligatory mention of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot here—a record that all but forecasted a spectrum of post-9/11 mentalities but was finished months before those tragedies took place. As much as I can hear my mother’s younger self on Tapestry, I suspect my kids will one day hear an accurate depiction of my early 20s on Yankee (the ruminations of another long haired, sensitive college type).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, her favorite Wilco song is “Reservations” whose lyrics read like watching a car crash from the perspective of the driver. The narrator of the song is describing his marriage like he’s the captain of a wounded vessel, trying to find the determination to keep from sinking. My mother’s reasons for being entertained by the song may not be all that far departed from watching a soap opera, or an amateur vocalist be booted from the ‘try-out’ episodes of any Idol season. Tragedy in any shape is still a classic form of entertainment and is most definitely escapism, as long as it’s the tragedy of someone else’s life—not yours—taking place.