March 20, 2007

Does "American Idol" discourage kids?

Music teacher Nancy Flanagan says it does -- via Joanne Jacobs -- and she hates that:
What bothers me is that children watch American Idol, and children are now developing this idea that singing is something that should be attempted only by the “talented.” Some children now believe that judging singers is an amusing spectator activity, and making fun of imperfect singers is perfectly OK. Hilarious and justified, in fact: anyone who dares to sing in front of a camera deserves our scrutiny and scorn. None of this encourages children—or their families—to participate joyfully in group or individual singing. In the American Idol paradigm, singing is now reserved for those who have a “good” voice.
I disagree. I come at this from a different perspect. Unlike a musically talented person like Flanagan, I'm bad at singing. I was a third grader when I learned this, and I felt terrible about it. I've refrained from singing in almost every situation since then, out of the belief that it's very embarrassing and humiliating to sing off key -- even to sing one note off key.

I think if I'd been able to watch "American Idol" in my formative years, I could have been happier about my singing. What strikes me about the show is that so many people sing off key. Even the top singers go "pitchy" at times. It's not my secret shame, then. It's widely shared, and many, many people sing in public, even exposed to critics and possible outright ridicule, and they survive. What nerve people have! I would think. I need to get some of that.

In fact, I think the show demonstrates how to deal with criticism. We've seen hundreds of young people stand there -- they rarely collapse -- and listen to judges critique them. Some behave foolishly, but an amazing number of them stand up to it courageously, some are heroically thankful for the honesty, some survive a beating and sing another day, some are able to absorb the judges' advice and improve over the course of the season. This teaches something different from the endless, soothing bath of encouragement Flanagan recommends.

I think it's fine learn that some people do better than others. We need to develop taste. And it's great to learn that honest criticism -- and even some mockery -- is not only survivable but can even be beneficial. And it's even rather nice that kids can learn that there is work -- glamorous work! -- for the critic -- that it's worth it to learn to perceive and judge and put that judgment into articulate language.

14 comments:

ron st.amant said...

Full disclosure- I do not watch American Idol, though I have seen enough of commercials to know that the early shows in the season are as much about people 'who can't sing' as it is about 'people who can sing'.
I don't think the show discourages people who can't sing from singing, in fact just the opposite. I think it encourages people who can't sing to try out and get their 15 minutes of fame.
The longing for fame in the youth culture defies talent or lack thereof.
'Getting noticed'- in this case getting on television- seems to be THE main goal of a significant portion of teens and pre-teens.
I know I'm old now when the idea of 'celebrity for no reason' is the highest order of the day and I can't wrap my head around it.

Invisible Man said...

Ron,

My thoughts mirror your own. I haven't watched 5 minutes of American Idol in about 3 seasons and that was about 2 episodes, but the thought that American Idol somehow discourages people from singing strikes me as ridiculous. She obviously hasn't paid attention to American culture, where every kid starting on his basketball team thinks he is the next MJ and every girl with a pretty face and tall body believes that they will be Cindy Crawford. William Hung for gods sake sold over 200,000 copies of him singing Ricky Martin covers. American Idol (and the rest of its reality show brethren) are only encouraging a generation of overconfident, yet talentless fools who really need to be considering a career at an office park somewhere.

Smilin' Jack said...

It's widely shared, and many, many people sing in public, even exposed to critics and possible outright ridicule, and they survive. What nerve people have! I would think. I need to get some of that.

Please don't. Singing should be restricted to the talented. Untalented singing is just annoying noise, and there's already too much of that in the world...why would anyone want to inflict more?

I've only caught a few glimpses of AI, but that's enough to know that actually watching it would be my idea of hell.

There are many singers who have more talent than all AI contestants combined, and thanks to Thomas Edison and his heirs we can listen to the best of them at any time. The fact that people prefer to watch (and worse, listen) to AI strikes me as truly perverse.

Jacob said...

I think most people are actually capable of at least reasonably decent singing, given time and effort (I personally have not put in enough time and effort to find out if this is the case for me). Not necessarily super intense training either--it's a smallish sample size, but all of my friends who are regular churchgoers can sing pretty well. Weekly practice with feedback seems to do the trick.

john said...

Two of Althouse's favorites, Bob Dylan and Madonna, are awful singers. Coincidence?

Everyone should sing, it is one of the joys and gifts of being alive. It doesn't have to be perfect.

Naked Lunch said...

My kids and I like Idol, and I don't care if it's kind of dopey. Looking forward to hearing the righteous pipes of Melinda and LaKeisha tonight.

Griff said...

Ann,

Some questions:

"This teaches something different from the endless, soothing bath of encouragement Flanagan recommends."

OK, Flanagan does close with 'no one can tell you you don't have a good voice', but are you not taking advantage of this bit of nice-nice to rather unfairly misrepresent her very good point about what it means to have and cultivate a voice, which she is saying is and should be more than the is represented on the show, ie, the ability to belt into the rafters or find twenty-five notes in a single syllable?

"...it's worth it to learn to perceive and judge and put that judgment into articulate language."

Do you really mean to claim that Paula Abdul and Simon Cowel are perceptive, articulate judges, examples of what it means and takes to be an engaged critic? I honestly don't know where to begin here.

"We need to develop taste."

Billie Holliday, Van Morrison, Rickie Lee Jones, Janis Joplin, Bill Withers, Linda Ronstadt, Frank Sinatra...for starters and just off the top of my head (or Ipod, actually.) How long a list of the greatest pop singers of all time shall I make who would never have made the cut on AI for being too idiosyncratic, less than pitch perfect or lacking in TV projection? Daughtry was great on AI. His debut release is unlistenable, preprogrammed MOR Metal Dreck Rock. Just for starters and off (and I mean off, now...) the top of my Ipod.

How is this cultivating taste?

Thanks.

Griff said...

Oh!

A friend here just told me that Diana Ross told someone that they needed to 'pronunicate' when she was on.

I think rest my case on the whole articulate critic thing.

Rick Lee said...

I think the show is great for singing... for the simple fact that it's about SINGING. It's not about looking a certain way and all the other crap that goes along with being a star these days. In the last decade or so I've been amazed at how bad so many bands sound when you see them outside the studio on SNL or Dave or whatever. It's amazing that in the early parts of Idol, the contestants have to sing a capella. That's damned hard to do. If you can make it down to the final 8 or 10, chances are that you are a really good singer. The show has made America care about singing again.

Ann Althouse said...

1. Madonna isn't one of my favorite singers. I think she's an interesting celebrity to talk about sometimes, and some of her songs are fun.

2. I don't think Simon is the best music critic in the world or the most articulate person, but he is bringing attention to the role of the critic and making it seem cool. That's meaningful.

3. When I said I need to get some of that nerve, I wasn't thinking of singing in public. I've never so much as sung karaoke in a very small group. I'd like to be able to sing in a group situation without feeling self-conscious. But mainly I'd like some nerve to just do more of the things I might enjoy. I'm impressed by the strength of the kids that do the show. Some of them are just teenagers, and look what they are doing.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

Lest you forget: You talk/sang a very little bit on one of the Audible Althouses. I cannot recall the number. That certainly has to be a bigger audience than a small group of karaoke friends.

Which reminds me: Is there a podcast coming soon?

howzerdo said...

This post brought so many things to mind. I have watched ~1 show of AI in all its seasons, so I can't speak to whether it encourages or discourages young singers. But I cannot carry a tune, and it is a great joke to my large family that we are not singers. We make the effort to sing each other "Happy Birthday" every year, and laugh at how bad we are. In fact, I rarely sing along with music, even when I am alone and I love the song. I am a regular churchgoer, but I only sing the songs I know by heart (at an almost inaudible level). Otherwise, I am silent, listening to others sing. Once, after a few beers, I was convinced to do Karaoke with two other non-singers. We selected a Doobie Brother's song - and were alarmed when "Black Water" started to play (it wasn't the song we had chosen). I'm sure we were awful, but I admit is was fun! Thanks for this post. It's comforting to know others can't sing either, and admire amateurs who can (or have the nerve to try, anyway).

ron st.amant said...

Ann wrote:
When I said I need to get some of that nerve

Well for singing (or performing) especially in bars there's always 'liquid courage' which trust me got me through the first couple of times I played harmonica in front of strangers.

As for other things that require nerve...just do it. In 100 years who'll care, really. Besides, you're already convinced you'd enjoy it...that's a head start.

Modern Otter said...

Apart from your well-taken observations about exposure to criticism, it seems to me that Idol may be filling a vacuum created by the decline of music appreciation education in the schools. I was a grade schooler in the first half of the 1960s and my school's weekly "Music" class (listening/appreciation, singing, sight-reading) was a very big deal in my growth both as a musician and as a critical thinker, and probably a bigger deal in my classmates' education than many would now realize or remember.

I suspect music plays a much less central role in young lives today than 40 yrs ago, having to be squeezed into a tighter entertainment schedule: internet, games, soccer, more TV channels, etc. Perhaps Idol brings it more center-stage in a way that at least somewhat encourages close listening and thinking.

My problem with Idol (i.e., why it's a guilty pleasure instead of an unabashed one) is its emphasis on acrobatic, technically flawless pop singing, as a baseline for getting to Hollywood. I'd say the show is unfriendly to greatness that isn't technical greatness. A couple years ago, I heard reports that Bob Dylan had made overtures for a guest shot and, if true, I can only imagine how that played out. ("Hmmm... is there some way we could have his songs without having him?")

Or as griff wrote:

Billie Holliday, Van Morrison, Rickie Lee Jones, Janis Joplin, Bill Withers, Linda Ronstadt, Frank Sinatra...for starters and just off the top of my head (or Ipod, actually.) How long a list of the greatest pop singers of all time shall I make who would never have made the cut on AI for being too idiosyncratic, less than pitch perfect or lacking in TV projection?

Add Lydia Mendoza, Tim Hardin, Gene Clark, etc., etc. (i.e., anybody who's singing could move people but who weren't so heavily imitated as to become THE way to sing).