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.