March 13, 2008

Same sells

Buy me!It’s American Idol time again. I’ve written about the phony drama of the show before, but I admit that I still like it. It’s just good, good TV, if you can see past the imitation heartbreak, product placement and scripted “live” banter.

Simon Cowell is fond of saying, “This isn’t a popularity contest, it’s a singing competition.” I’m sure he doesn’t mean that, since he’s directly connected with the finalists’ contracts and careers. He’s not looking for the next different thing; he’s looking for the next popular thing. If tens of millions of viewers select the winner, then it follows that tens of millions of copies of the winner’s CD might be sold not in 10 years after people get used to his/her sound and style, but right now.

Any contestant who performs a radically different arrangement to a familiar song is simply being set up to lose. “Eight Days A Week” – one of the greatest and most familiar songs ever written – sung with a country twang over an ersatz bluegrass shuffle in double-time is idiotic. It might be a bit clever, but clever won’t win over the people who watch this show, and the producers know that. That girl was set up.

The three “judges” are not looking for the next new big sound, they’re looking for the next new big seller. The past winners of the show are singers who sound pretty much like someone else and perform in a recognizable style. They’re familiar, they’ll be successful for a time, but they’re not unique. Except for the platinum records they receive and money they make, they won’t change music history. Even a runner-up like Chris Daughtry is a predictable derivation of other things going on, sounding like a dozen other forgettable top-selling acts.

This is why pipe band judges all too often prefer the relatively familiar. It’s much easier to take a safe route to a decision, rewarding derivative medleys and arrangements, than it is to reward something that’s dramatically musically different. Bands know this, and so are reluctant to take musical risks, because it may jeopardize the blessed prize right now. A pipe band might have the equivalent musical creativity, singularity and genius of Radiohead, Beck or Bjork, but how many bands are willing to commit years of unbending effort before it is finally heard and rewarded?


Because we’re so competition-driven, true musical change is extremely slow to occur. Because pipe band judges are so often loathe to step out of safe boundaries, our top idols don’t bother. I like great-sounding pipe bands as much as the next person, but I do wish that we could find a way to break this predictable circle of predictable music.




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