Idol and the drift to “karaoke”

Ahead of this weekend’s announcement of the 2006 Australian Idol, today’s Age Green Guide acknowledges the popular culture phenomenon. The paper then labels the show, for about the tenth time, as “karaoke”. The Age is not alone; a large part of the Australian pop/rock music industry adopted “karaoke” as the orthodox term of Idol abuse in the show’s first year, 2003, and has kept on using it ever since. Given that the singers are live, their voices unprocessed and their backing coming from a live band, the “karaoke” tag seems weird.

That “karaoke” would describe the quality of Australian Idol’s singing talent seems unlikely, particularly after its 2006 resurgence. Idol keeps unearthing great vocalists. This year has revealed a teenage Darwin-based Whitney Houston (Jessica Mauboy), an Irish crooner (Damien Leith) and a mop-haired maverick interpreter (Bobby Flynn). Meanwhile, this year’s ARIA awards, with its disappointing live performances by more mainstream Australian rock/pop acts, has only served to remind everyone of how high Idol has set the performance bar. (The finest ARIA awards show performance in recent history has been Nic Cester’s recreation of Stevie Wright’s Evie (Part 1) – wonderful work, but surely as much “karaoke” as any Idol effort.) Indeed, in 2006 – when many contestants have played instruments, sung songs they wrote themselves, and altered existing songs almost beyond recognition – karaoke has never seemed a less appropriate term.

In short, there’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear – but let’s try a hypothesis.

Idol arrived at the same time as a host of “reality” TV shows such as Big Brother and Survivor, and so for a time was tarred with that brush too. In its first years it featured a weekly look at the Idol house and the contestants’ non-performance routine. In 2006 the producers stripped that away to reveal Idol more clearly for what it is – the latest and possibly most successful in a long tradition of talent shows, and a revival of the Sunday night family-viewing tradition. Most people over the age of 25 start watching it with their kids. They become fans in large part because the music is so frequently terrific and the personal stories so engaging – points already well-made by Nick Gruen. But I suspect they also find something admirable in Idol’s cultural and work values, which are some way from those of Nic Cester, Bernard Fanning and the mainstream pop/rock world.

Since the mid-1960s, the mainstream pop/rock world has hailed – above almost all else – the slightly dissolute genius singer-songwriter. This culture values self-expression, rawness, authenticity. Dylan, Lennon and Jagger are the models. A disciplined and attitude-free genius consciously working at the craft – Paul McCartney, say – can never get the same level of approval. It says a lot for the peculiar requirements of art that this pattern of work has served so well, even while devouring some of its workers (Brian Wilson is the prime example) along the way. The hostility to Idol is a way of asserting this work pattern and culture.

The assertion has a tinge of desperation. That’s perhaps in part because the genius singer/songwriter may be becoming a little rarer than it used to be. There are fewer bands like George, the finest write-your-own local act of recent years, or overseas geniuses such as Coldplay’s Chris Martin. Even people under 40, if they know popular music much at all, struggle to find a period of singer/songwriter production to match 1966-1970.

And as some in the industry must know, the primacy of the dissolute genius is not a law of nature. Before the mid-60s, the dominant pattern was division of labour: one bunch of people wrote the songs, and another bunch performed them. The prime example of this pattern was the career of Bing Crosby, on some assessments easily the most successful recording artist of the 20th century. A cooler example would be Aretha Franklin. This tradition seems to be reasserting itself: Human Nature has scored a hit with an album of old Motown songs, while the collection of Neil and Tim Finn covers called She Will Have Her Way keeps walking out of the shops. Idol’s proto-stars mostly fit comfortably into this tradition.

The culture of Idol is the culture of the pre-1960s popular music industry. Judges and voters alike respond to hard work, self-improvement, support for fellow contestants and, most particularly, (vocal) performance talent. The show is also friendly to performers who have grown up in cultures of public performance: the 2003 winner and this year’s third place-getter have both spent a lot of time singing in church, the venue that gave Aretha and a whole generation of US black singers their training. But Idol brings 21st-century twists. It is extravagantly multicultural in a way that can’t be put down to “elites”: the public has voted for a wildly disproportionate number of Maori, Aboriginal and Pacific Islander performers. Gender doesn’t matter to the voters, either. Almost startlingly, nor does weight: the brilliant and very chubby Casey Donovan trounced the field to win in 2004. Indeed, appearance matters less than you’d think: talented teen dream Dean Geyer is out of the running for this year’s final, while Leith – the 30-year-old Irish immigrant nicknamed “Tic-Tac Teeth” – was first through.

These values of work, self-improvement, multiculturalism, community involvement and respect for performance talent may reflect the ascendant values of the broader 2006 Australia. If that is true, then the “karaoke” tag is the cry of an older culture that no longer has the stage to itself.

About David Walker

David Walker runs editorial consultancy Shorewalker DMS (shorewalker.net), editing and advising business and government on reports and other editorial content. David has previously edited Acuity magazine and the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has qualifications in law and corporate finance. He has written on economics, business and public policy from Melbourne, Adelaide and the Canberra Press Gallery.
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jim parker
jim parker
15 years ago

That’s a nicely written piece. But I’m not sure you can draw Big Generational conclusions about the success of Idol. Talent shows have been with us a long time. Split Enz, for instance, found fame through ‘New Faces’ – a Sunday night family-orientated TV talent quest in New Zealand in the early 1970s.

(Incidentally, this was the real peak of the singer-songwriter movement – 1970-74, not 1966-70 as DW attests – the era of Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Carol King and Tim Buckley). I vividly recall young groovers at the time wrote off ‘New Faces’ as uncool, but secretly watched it. Then, as of now, there were gems among the dross. Then, as of now, the judges were a joke.

As to Idol itself, I think the accusations of ‘karaoke’ were pretty well on the money, which is why the producers reinvented the show successfully in 2006 by looking for people who played instruments and wrote songs. Until this season, Idol was a factory for cookie-cutter divas and RSL rockers. Have you actually listened to The Young Divas??

The most critically successful of the new breed of Idols – Bobby Flynn – ironically is a throwback to the ‘dissolute’ rock idol era that Mr Griffiths so derides. In fact, it was no accident that his best song interpretations were of ‘degenerates’ such as Bowie, Rick James and Steve Kilbey.

As to Idol representing the ascendancy of the “values of work, self-improvement, multiculturalism, community involvement and respect for performance” of the modern world, give me a break!

Jagger may be decadent, but if there is anyone in pop music who understands the power of performance, it is him. Multi-culturalism? Jimmy Little had huge success as a pop star in Australia in the early 1960s. Community involvement? Neil Young has worked tirelessly for victims of cerebal palsy.

I could go on. But Mr Griffith’s thesis reminds me of the trend in marketing-driven magazine journalism to define each new ‘generation’ (what we are up to ‘Z’ by now??) in opposition to the epoch-defining music of the 60s and 70s.

derrida derider
derrida derider
15 years ago

Yeah of course the best songwriting talent doesn’t always live in the same body as the best performance talent (Leonard Cohen, Neil Diamond and Bob Dylan instantly come to mind). But there was so much really good music in the late 60s and early 70s was because the youngun’s were not afraid to give it a go and try something different. Don’t forget the same era also produced plenty of truly dreadful music, for exactly the same reason.

You don’t get new things by valuing craftsmanship above innovation.

jim parker
jim parker
15 years ago

DW, Australian Idol, The Last Waltz, Woodstock, Bandstand, Ed Sullivan – whatever era you’re talking about, it is and always has been show BUSINESS.

After all, Mick Jagger WAS at the London School of Economics before he formed The Rolling Stones. And he wrote the manifesto for consumer capitalism in one song – Satisfaction.

Dissolution has traditionally sold well, because youth is about rebellion and defining yourself in opposition to your elders.

What has changed, though, is that the business end of ‘rock’n’roll’ (for want of a better word) has overtaken the cultural end. Marketing and packaging have become so slick that true originality has the life sucked out of it before it has any chance to bloom. And when something truly different does emerge, 50 million variations on it are unearthed in a nanosecond to cash in.

Derrida’s point is a good one. Innovation has become scarce. If a young Bob Dylan or Loud Reed or Leonard Cohen turned up on Australian Idol today, would he get past the first round? (“Mate, go and get yourself some singing lessons).

Everything today is about packaging and technique. Most of those kids on Idol have awesome vocal technical mastery, but apart from Bobby (Flynn that is) I haven’t seen any potential artists unearthed.

By the way, when Split Enz won New Faces, they were fronted by Tim, who was an anarchic and audience-unfriendly art rocker. Neil, the disciplined and McArtneyesque pop genius, was still in high school.

Can you imagine Mark Holden judging them. “I just can’t hear a hit single there”.

SJ
SJ
15 years ago

Ben Elton does a better analysis of the “Idol” genre in Chart Throb (Bantam 2006)

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
15 years ago

Great post DW. I’ve finally got round to reading it properly. I guess it’s a bit stark to compare the Idols with the great figures, but there’s something surprisingly fresh and for real about the genre. The judges best role is as mentors rather than oracles. When they get it wrong they’re often corrected by the audience’s votes as was Dicko with his comment about Paulini’s dress (which was ridiculous as well as offensive – Paulini looked fine).

And as you point out, who would have thought Bobby would have got as far as he did and that Dean wouldn’t have romped home. Yet the audience chose the best performers. I think the order in which they voted off the contestants was a remarkably accurate reflection of their quality as performers.

Some patterns are emerging – as you point out the ‘ethnics’ and indigenes are out in force. Casey in 2004 and Jess this year have a fair bit of aboriginal blood in them. And Dean is a self-proclaimed Christian virgin saving himself for Miss Right – like Guy Sebastian.

One thing that’s been clear has been the way in which Australian Idol is ready to break out of its mould. Once people have been introduced to the singers, they’re ready to hear them with their instruments, and their own songs. It seems that Channel Ten had to get special permission to do these things from the Idol Bat-cave. Perhaps we’re taking things further faster and better than other Idol franchises.

Francis X Holden
15 years ago

Thanks for the post DW – I’ve got some thoughts but I’m too tired just now. Maybe on the weekend.

David Rubie
David Rubie
15 years ago

Derrida’s point is a good one. Innovation has become scarce. If a young Bob Dylan or Loud Reed or Leonard Cohen turned up on Australian Idol today, would he get past the first round? (“

Jason Soon
15 years ago

What tosh. Anyone familiar with the blues idiom would know that Dylan is a superb singer, one of the best in that style.

But if you’re coming from the angle of someone who appreciates Brian Wilson and David Bowie who have a more programmed, polished style (not that I’m not a Wilson fan either, I love Pet Sounds) then I can see why you might think Dylan isn’t a great performer.

Jason Soon
15 years ago

PS I meant to call the comments on His Bobness tosh, not your article, DW.

derrida derider
derrida derider
15 years ago

Oh come off it Jason – the man has trouble singing in tune. And I say that as an admirer since Highway 61 Revisited came out.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
15 years ago

I agree with DW that Idol is more than Karaoke. Idol is one in a long line of talent shows for singer-non-song-writers and I reckon you are correct that it was tarred with the Big Brother brush.

Where I disagree is on the “dissolute genius”

jim parker
jim parker
15 years ago

Jason, I wasn’t saying Dylan is tosh. In fact, you would struggle to find a bigger Dylan fan than me. But even we fanatics recognise that he is not a great singer, technically. His songs nearly always sound better covered by somebody else (Hendrix’s ‘Watchtower’, The Byrds’ ‘Tambourine Man’, The Neville Brothers’ ‘With God on Our Side’, Ron Wood’s ‘Seven Days’ etc; etc;).

The point I was making is that the Idol phenonemon is another manifestation of the fact that in the past decade or so (certainly from around the time Mariah Carey appeared), vocal technique, rather than interpretative power or artistry, has become an end in itself. It’s hard to find truly soulful music any more. Instead, we get synthetic soul from people who equate warbling 50,000 notes (and still not singing the melody) as quality.

Jason Soon
15 years ago

Oh well, there’s obviously a differences of aesthetics here. *Some* Dylan songs are covered better by others but The Byrds’ Mr Tambourine Man is middlebrow watered down candy whereas Dylan’s is the real thing. Dylan’s dark and grim All Along the Watchtower is still better than Hendrix’s though Hendrix’s is not bad. Dylan’s delivery usually has the perfect sardonic pitch in it that more polished performers like The Byrds simply don’t get at all but are vital to the delivery of his songs.

Shaun
15 years ago

Dylan’s dark and grim All Along the Watchtower is still better than Hendrix’s

Jason, for a guy who is usually pretty careful in blogging comments that is about the most wrong comment of yours ever. Even Dylan prefer’s the Hendrix version. When I say him in 1994 it was the ghost of Hendrix not John Wesley Harding that informed the performance.

Francis X Holden
15 years ago

I agree – each time I’ve seen Dylan do AATW he was chanelling Hendrix. As was Neil Young when he did it at the Music Bowl on the Greendale tour.