April 18, 2006

"American Idol" is really "Southern Idol"... but why?

Some analysis from WaPo writer Neely Tucker. It's not that southerners watch the show more and vote more and vote for their own, Tucker argues.
"Idol" kids grew up in the postmodern era, long after the throes of the civil rights movement, long after interstates and Wal-Marts had made small towns in north Alabama look a whole lot like small towns in Michigan. The old days are gone. Listen to two iconic Southern recordings: Hank Williams's (Alabama) "Your Cheating Heart" and Robert Johnson's (Mississippi) "32-20 Blues." The first is twangy beyond description and the second is almost incomprehensible.

People don't talk like that anymore. But a softer Southern accent persists, as does the cultural memory of things long gone. There is still an emphasis on church and family, both entities that, in the course of Southern life, heavily influence music, particularly among the working class.

"There's still an awful lot of old-school singers who got their starts in church, and many mainstream country musicians still do a gospel album," said John Reed Shelton, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of North Carolina and one of the region's most respected observers. "Everybody tends to go to church, and Southern evangelical Protestantism, both black and white, emphasizes and rewards musical performance."

Plus, as Wilson, the Mississippi scholar, points out, the only way a lot of kids stuck in one-horse towns know that they can find life-changing fame and fortune is on the stage.


Dave said...

Perhaps this explains why I don't find the show interesting, having grown up in New York City.

On the flip side, I love blues, jazz, and classic rock, all of which are heavily influenced by, or are themselves, "southern" music.

I suspect it's merely that I don't think AI singers are especially talented. If they were, they likely would have been discovered via some other channel, a la Alicia Keys or Norah Jones. That and the sugary sentiment, which seems to be the show's raison d'etre, is nauseating.

Ann Althouse said...

Don't you think there are kids from unsophisticated families, living in rural areas and small towns, who haven't figured out how to be in a place to get discovered yet? At this point, "American Idol" IS the place that ordinary people know about. And the amount of nerve and strength it take to go through the ordeal is really impressive.

You're impressed that Norah Jones got discovered? Her father is immensely famous! And she's very beautiful.

Dave said...

Many unsophisticated kids from rural areas have gone to Nashville and have been discovered. See Elvis, et al.

I don't see how A.I. is a viable barometer of true talent.

Perhaps I'm wrong.

And, for the record, I think Alicia Keys is more attractive than Norah Jones. But that's just me.

Dave said...

Let me put it this way: if I were a record agent looking for true talent, I would haunt Nashville, Austin, Shreveport, and a bunch of other areas.

If, on the other hand, I was looking for commercially accessible music, I could do worse than A.I. I'm not especially interested in (most) commerical music. So, I don't see A.I. as especially interesting, other than being a good demonstration of the free market. (And even there, it has some weaknesses.)

But its record (or, more appropriately, its viewers' record) at picking viable artists has, thus far, been dismal.

Ann Althouse said...

Don't take my comment on the way Norah Jones looks as meaning anything about Alicia Keys. I don't even have a mental picture of Keys -- can't think what she looks like, though I hear her music on the radio from time to time and think she's good -- prefer her to Jones in fact.

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Icepick said...

Geetali Norah Jones Shankar's father is Ravi Shankar.

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
INMA30 said...

Unfortunately, the author doesn't have anything to back up the "its not that they vote more in the South". She points to the fact that based on share there are more viewers in NYC than in some Southern markets, but has no stats on voting. She does make the point that the penetration is higher in Southern markets, which I would guess also leads to a higher voting percentage, but that is all speculation.

Despite having grown up in the South, with a lot of church music, I have never been able to stomach the performances I have seen on AI, but then again I have always contended that the whole concept was only 30% or less about the actual performance/talent.

bill said...

another Ravi Shankar digression, for Icepick and others. For a truly amazing take on Shankar you need to find a CD called "In the Raw" by the Whitefield Brothers. They cover a Shankar tune, "Thunderbird," that might be the most massive soul-shaking piece of funk I've ever heard. If I could talk a marching band into covering this, we'd have the audience burning down the stadium in celebration. It's awesome, I tell you.

The Whitefield Brothers are also the Poets of Rhythm, a German neo-funk group reinventing the 70s. Who knew the Germans could do funk?

yetanotherjohn said...

Its alljust a rovian plot to distract the people with bread and circuses. And his loyal minions in the south are doing his dirty work through AI. Though I did think it was a bit harsh of him to steer a hurricane into one of the more democratic cities in the south.

Dave Schuler said...

Southerners have been on the make here for as long as I can remember, anyway. Remember LBJ? Or before that Huey Long? You can take that all the way back to the Civil War and probably before. Why should we be surprised that people with ambition (and a touch of larceny) get ahead?

I grew up in a border state. I learned early on that whenever I heard the “good ol' boy” routine to check my wallet. It's an affectation nowadays and has been since the Chicago dialect became the standard for broadcasters.

flounder said...

Dave is right. When have you ever heard of corruption in a town in the North, like Chicago?

Tim Sisk said...

Aren't there "unsophisticated families, living in rural areas, and small towns who haven't figured out how to be in a place to get discovered yet (UFLIRAASTWHFOHTBIAPTGDY)" in Wisconsin? Or is the South the only home for the UFLIRAASTWHFOHTBIAPTGDY? While I suspect this might account for some of the sucess wouldn't a better answer be that Nashville has become the home for "pop" (what I think is called adult contemporary) music? Which is people who a looking to do music in that genre come from all over the world (Keith Urban, Australia comes to mind) to Nashville. And there are people in country music mighty upset about that too.

Think about it. Pop music is studio-produced fluff. It is the rare artist that "writes" and "plays" their own stuff. Image is everything.

Heck, Nashville has been doing that stuff for years. It is the rare country artist that write their own music (and play their own instruments). The whole Nashville community is built on the studio musician and the song-writer (How many artists have released a version of "Me and Bobby McGee"?). And country music (with its hats) is a genius at affecting an image.

These kids from the South didn't grow up with the pop music we did. They grew up listening to "cross-over" Country artists who sound very much like what you would find on the pop dial twenty years ago. The shrewdist music industry decision I have ever seen was when Shania Twain (a Canadian btw) released an album with two cds. Same songs on each cd, but one with "country" instrumentalization and the other in "pop". She knows her market (and her husband Mutt does too, having produced Def Leopard).

Norah Jones has a couple of "pop"-ish songs ("Sunrise") but is primarily a jazz-y singer. Alicia Keys great talent and artist--not a pop singer (R&B?) Can you think of an adult contemporary artist today that doesn't release a video on County Music Television? I'm sure there are, but I can't think of one. I'm listening to U2 but only because they've grown up with me (and I with them). But when I buy a Death Cab for Cutie fron I-tunes, I worry about the absurdity of a 34 year old man listening to the same music as a 16 year old.

Ann Althouse said...

Relax, Tim. I hear over 40s showing off their interest in Death Cab for Cutie. You're just a kid. And what about all those kids who love The Beatles? We can share.

wheeler said...

as a southerner, i think i can offer some insight. the answer may not be very complex.

first, i have never watched ai.

second, in spite of the first, i am well aware that birmignham alabama has produced one winner and two strong contenders - reuben studdard, bo bice, taylor hicks.

third, i know this because while they were on the show their names and faces were all over town - news media, blogs, bars, even, in reuben's case, billboards.

which leads me to conclude that maybe the explanation is just that southerners vote more than do northerners.

why that is so, i do not know.

AJ Lynch said...

I am not an AI fan unless it is refering Allen Iverson.

My two cents re reponderance of Southern contestants- maybe they are still more unabashed and therefore less jaded than Northerner kids?

AJ Lynch said...

btw- It's great when the MSM actually notices something unusual and writes about it. Proves they still have a pulse.

Michael Farris said...

I think to understand AI you have to remember that this is a British franchise. And that in that original configuration is called Pop Idol.

AFAIK the British pop market has usually been built around high performing pop singles performed by three or six or twelve hit wonders who are ruthlessly dropped once their moment (however long) is over. The second place finisher of the first show, after 4 number one singles there can't get a recording contract now.
The longer lasting acts are fewer and further between.

I don't think the format has been seriously changed for the American version. And the format is about finding able performers without too much personality (the better to be molded) and a commercial look. The winners are expected to pump out (ultimately disposable) hit singles for however long they can last.

The American music market (like so much else in America) is built around assertive celebrityhood, which is not going to be the forte of most AI contestants so far.

I would assume (having seen some videos and heard some mp3s) that the winner this time will be Taylor. Not that he's the best singer, he's not by any number of lengths. The best singer is unphotogenic, unstudly Elliott, who consistently finishes near the bottom. But Taylor acts like a star already and people respond to that. Kelli is also convinced she's a star so she has a chance if Taylor stumbles. Chris is the outside long shot, but his throwback gutteral rock instincts don't jibe well with the relentlessly upbeat happytalk singlehood that is Pop Idol.
The others are neither fish nor fowl nor good read meat.

Simon said...

I concur in Dave's comment, ante at 7:42, that "the sugary sentiment, which seems to be the show's raison d'etre, is nauseating." I would go further, though; I only fail to find the show interesting, I find its mere existence actively and persistently repulsive. Like the two imminent 9/11 movies, it is an example of the category Wikipedia won't allow: [[Category: Things that shouldn't be allowed to exist]].

I hated terrible, manufactured pop music when I couldn't see the process by which it was manufactured, and I see little reason why it would become any less obnoxious now, merely because the manufacturing process is open for all to see. To say that American Idol is meretricious is like calling the grand canyon a ditch. Frankly, there is a slight thrill, albeit colored with a hint of schadenfreude, in learning that after a brief fifteen minutes, practically everyone involved has sunk back into the obscurity which they so richly deserved, and one can only hope that the same logic will shortly be applied to the hosts - easily the most risible participants in the entire monstrosity of a show, insofar as the contestant at least have the excuse of starry-eyed puppy-fatted naivete - most especially that walking advertisement for immigration reform, Cowell. That that man - who, in my view, has done as much violence to the integrity of music as any single individual could - has something resembling a career makes the blood boil.

I look forward to this new Hugh Grant movie, which promises to be a brutal rip-saw of a satire on the whole process.

jinnmabe said...

I've seen references to it on this thread and others where AI is discussed, so I'm wondering: why is it a bad thing if someone doesn't write the music that he/she sings? Shania Twain writes her own (dreadful) stuff. Sinatra only sang other people's songs. I don't see how writing your own music, on its own, says anything at all about how listenable your music is.

From what I heard, there was a mini-feud on this point a few years ago, in country music, between Clint Black and Garth Brooks. Basically, Clint said he'd never release an album with a song on it that was not at least co-written by him, and Garth said, basically, I'm not sure you can get the best possible album if you only cover your own material.(I know, it's unsubstantiated gossip). But I know plenty of people who feel like Clint allegedly felt. The "purists", if you will.

Simon said...

I'm far from a purist, but I do think that at a minimum, an artist has to have some level of creative engagement with the material to be taken seriously. For example, Norah Jones has ben mentioned in this thread; well, her first album had at least one standard (The Nearness of You, maybe?) but the whole point of jazz standards is that they are a framework that allow the artist to pour themselves into the song. Cf. Charles Mingus' original rendering of Goodbye Porkpie Hat with versions of the same by Jeff Beck, Andy Summers or Derek Sherinian, to name but a few. There has to be more creative engagement than just showing up and singing badly and/or generically.

My favorite singer is Peter Gabriel, who is about as far removed from the kind of thing you get on AI as it's possible to imagine. But that isn't to say that I don't approve of what you might think of as a "trained" singer. But from what I've been unfortunate enough to hear (my son likes to watch it, which exiles me from the living room to my study) most of these people fall into neither the instinctive soulfulness of a Natalie Merchant nor the trained perfection of a James LaBrie. Whenenver they sustain a note, they instantly hit the vibrato button (bad violin, viola and cello players have a habit of doing this, too, and I suspect that its prevalence means that a bad habit has now become the status quo). But in any instance, th epoint is the almost complete failure to generate an emotional connection to the material, or to creatively engage in the process, is what dooms the contestants.

However, in any event, as I indicated in my previous post the main thrust of my contempt is not the contestants themselves, but the show's existence. The contestants, in the main, seem to be much of a muchness; almost uniformly terrible with the occaisional exception to prove the rule. I agree with you that writing one's own music is hardly the sine qua non of respectability (there are plenty of absolutely terrible bands who "compose" their own material, if "compose" is really a word that can be applied for what some of these people do), but the AI process is a travesty of manufactured music-as-commodity.

INMA30 said...

Simon said: "Whenenver they sustain a note, they instantly hit the vibrato button (bad violin, viola and cello players have a habit of doing this, too, and I suspect that its prevalence means that a bad habit has now become the status quo)."

From what I have heard, this and the Mariah-ization (mellisma?) of any song is basically the cornerstone of what is deemed intrepretation on AI. I have always assumed it is because the singers can't actually find or support the true note.

jinnmabe said...

Simon (ironic on a thread like this), I don't disagree with you about AI. It's my same criticism. I do think that you could take some of these kids, and have them work with someone privately, who actually knew what the hell he was talking about, and they could become good musicians. You can hear that some of them have the raw talent, the tools. But AI basically forces them to ignore good singing and musicianship to play to the peanut gallery.

And then AI forces US to listen to the judges spout drivel.* I am not one of those people who values Simon's "honesty." I find his comments singularly unhelpful, and destructive in some cases, not because they hurt the contestant's feelings, but because they steer the kid towards a way of performance that is, well, bad. See any and all comments re: "your performance tonight was "safe". I don't know that means, and I'm guessing the contestants don't either. It pushes some of them to do stuff they just don't have the chops for.

*Actually, thanks to the miracle of Tivo, I don't have to listen to them.

SteveR said...

I can understand why people don't like AmIdol (not to be confused with the real AI or some generic medicine Ann was confused about). I guess what I can't understand is why people spend so much time defining why they don't like it. Since I don't watch Desparate Housewives, nor care a thing about it, it makes no difference why, perhaps the only thing worse than wasting time watching it, is wasting time talking about not watching it

For me its entertaining, gives me something to talk about in the carpool besides how crappy things are at work and I have an evil side that roots for failure. Somehow that low brow cultural phenomenom doesn't keep me from liking The Who, U2, Wheezer, Michelle Branch, Rebecca St James, REM, and Mozart.

Simon said...

"From what I have heard, this and the Mariah-ization (mellisma?) of any song is basically the cornerstone of what is deemed intrepretation on AI. I have always assumed it is because the singers can't actually find or support the true note."

That's assuredly a part of it, but I'm loath to say that so many people have such a poor sense of pitch that they can't get the right note. I prefer the alternative theory: that it has become (and worse yet, is taught) that when landing on a note, one should immediately apply vibrato. I was listening to Performance Today a couple of months ago, and they had Hilary Hahn - an extremely celebrated violinist - playing something or other, and it was just horrible. It was as if she was determined that every note had to be wobbled immediately, and that really isn't the case. Vibrato adds color; using it any time a note needs to be sustained, for the entire length of the note, is like those guys who play hammond organ and leave the rotor set to fast for entire sections. This is a problem that is invisible in fast passages, and Hahn is a gifted player in that regard, but it just seems that - perhaps because she's been taught to, perhaps because she thinks it's whats expected, or perhaps because she really just doesn't know any better - any note longer than a quaver has to have vibrato. The American Idol folks, I suspect, are no different.

"For me its entertaining, gives me something to talk about in the carpool besides how crappy things are at work and I have an evil side that roots for failure. Somehow that low brow cultural phenomenom doesn't keep me from liking The Who, U2, Wheezer, Michelle Branch, Rebecca St James, REM, and Mozart."

"American Idol" may not actively prevent you from liking The Who, U2, Wheezer, Michelle Branch, Rebecca St James, REM, and Mozart, but it is responsible for fostering a musical climate which inhibits the arrival of the next U2, Wheezer, Michelle Branch, Rebecca St James, REM, or Mozart. You can't grow a garden in stony ground, and composers and bands making good music will founder if they can't make a living doing it.

perry said...

Simon, Simon.. Pop music exists as a way to hook people into the idea of music, at which point if they are interested enough can diverge and find their specific tastes.

I can listen to any number of local NYC acts with as much enthusiasm as I ever listened to U2 with. The more music out there, the better.

If all American Idol ever does is open up more people to listening to music, or opening up a kid to the idea that you can make music as a career, than we're all the better for it..

Even if, as i'd wholeheartedly agree, the actual music that the folks that graduate from AI put out for the most part, to me, sucks.

(This by the way is the EXACT same story I tell people who are anti-starbucks. Larger coffee market means better coffee for all, even though starbucks is kinda.. well.. bitter)

SteveR said...

Simon, I agree about the vibrato crap, music has suffered since she became popular.

I think I agree with Perry, some of the best music of my time came from artists going against the norm, wanting to be different. To the extent AmIdol encourages mediocre music, somewhere in America, some kid on a guitar or piano, is doing something great.

Elizabeth said...

Overheard among student workers in History office yesterday: two girls talking AI. One insists there are no real singers on AI. "But isn't there one who sounds like Ray Charles?" "Oh yeah, the one with bad teeth."

Sippican--Shankar has another daughter, too, and she's got the tabla and sitar thing going. Anoushka Shankar has quite a few CDs out, and I enjoy her work a lot. I like Norah Jones, too, but have only a few songs in my iTunes library.

Simon said...

I would certainly agree that pop music exists to hook people into more serious music about as much as Starbucks really does exist to expand the market for coffee consumption in the United States. I suppose the difference is that I don't think Starbucks has any goal so transcendant and noble, I suspect they exist for the reason most people go into business: to turn a profit. While in doing so they may have the effect of turning more people into coffee connoisseurs (a result which, given the quality of the average Starbucks cup of coffee, I suspect would be gravely injurious to their business interests), it is assuredly tangential at best to their goal. Likewise, pop music exists for one reason, and only one reason: to make money. American Idol is thus the apotheosis of that principal, insofar as it finally drops all pretense of having any other purpose or higher calling.

The instict to music is so innate to humanity that it predates written history; the idea that it would be injured or even slowed by the absence of the hot 100 singles cannot be taken seriously. Quite the opposite, in fact: far from "the more music out there, the better," the more music that is out there, the more danger that serious music will be subsumed and thus all music be transformed into background noise. Silence is an underrated virtue in this day and age.

Simon said...

"I agree about the vibrato crap, music has suffered since she became popular."

Oh, I don't mean to single out Hahn as anything other than an example; the problem certainly isn't Hillary Hahn, and still less, the technique vibrato. The problem is its indiscriminate use. Using vibrato is like using capital letters other than for proper nouns: used SPARINGLY, that is, to add emphasis, it's not only fine, but indispensable. BUT WHEN YOU START TYPING ENTIRE SENTENCES USING NOTHING ELSE, IT STARTS TO BECOME OVERPOWERING - AND, EVENTUALLY, UNREADABLE. Listening to a singer (or instrumentalist) who hasn't learned to control their vibrato, as I see it, is like trying to read a book written in all capitals: it may be a virtuoso performance on a technical level, but it may, none-the-less, be unlistenable.

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave said...

So, here's a question for someone more knowledgeable about music than I: is Mariah Carey a talented singer?

I don't mean talented in the sense of "can she sell lots of records" but talented in the sense that one considers a vocalist to be talented.

I have heard conflicting claims about her (and Whitney Houston): she either signals the decline of western civilization or is the second coming of singers.

To my (layman's) mind, she is more talented than any A.I. singer, but I don't know that that's saying a lot. Interesting article on Carey's vocal range here.

SteveR said...


I was speaking of Mariah Carey and Melisma, not Hillary Hahn.

I just don't find her music distinctive, yeah she's got all those #1s but damned if I can identify any of them. Vocally she's very talented but that running up and down the scale for one word just doesn't appeal to me. Interesting article though.

Elizabeth said...


I am happy to add interest to your world, but I'm convinced it's a pretty fascinating place all on its own.

Thanks for asking about New Orleans--we ARE cousins! I haven't made a trek to Biloxi yet, only because I have to pace myself with the overwhelming experiences. We'll be going there in May with a friend who grew up there.

New Orleans, and the Gulf, face a long path to recovery. I am not thinking in terms of next month, or even next year.

The good stuff comes in little doses: my favorite Vietnamese restaurant re-opened last week. Wonderful! The bad stuff is all around, but there's a sense of "It's just like that right now. We're fixing it." Thanks for asking. I hope your family in Biloxi is getting by.

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elizabeth said...

Well, may God bless your aunts, Sippican. Just blocks from the beach--that's scary. They got hit much harder than we did by the force of the storm itself. It's the levee failures that have been the main source of our troubles.

I'm sitting in the front room of a shotgun right now, on a street full of them, in a neighborhood where they predominate, alongside Creole cottages and Victorian painted ladies.

We lost many of them forever in the Ninth Ward--it looks like a wave just flattened them. Many more are now being repaired in Broadmoor (gee, whooda thunk a place named Broad MOOR would flood), and Midcity. But they're an old architecture, and the worst-hit neighborhoods are those that developed later, as the city spread from its original, above-sea level "sliver by the river." Also, they seem to have survived the wind damage well--many were made of strong, water-tested barge boards, a way of recycling the barges that came down the river in the 19th century.

I think shotguns are more at risk from neglect by people who've moved to the suburbs and left grannie's house to rot. Post-Katrina, there are plans afoot to rescue some to increase our rental and lower-cost sales stock. We'll see...there are always plans afoot.

Steve Donohue said...

Somehow that low brow cultural phenomenom doesn't keep me from liking The Who, U2, Wheezer, Michelle Branch, Rebecca St James, REM, and Mozart.

Some of us are so imprudent as to throw the first 6 of those artists into the "low brow phenomenon" category you talk about- and on my really bad days, I'm ready to include Mozart as well.

Apropos as different thread in this same comment section, I believe that great artists are temporal, while great creators are timeless. Maybe the recording age change the dynamics somewhat, but I think the fact that few people know who actually created this music speaks to its mortality.

SteveR said...

I understand your point, but I am only around so long and my main interest in music is enjoying it. If what I like survives into the next century it matters not to me. I am enough of a Beatles fan to know what contribution George Martin made, or that Eric Clapton played the guitar on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" but sometime around 1978, I had to use my remaining brain cells in other ways.

Its like wine, if I like "two buck chuck" with my steak, thats all that matters. I can and do appreciate really good wine but its not exclusive.

perry said...


I still don't see how you can view music as a fixed pie - zero sum game. If I buy Carrie Underwood's CD, that in no way keeps me from buying a Bright Eyes CD or going to a concert for The National , who are both bands that I like quite seperately from what makes me enjoy a Britney Spears CD or watching American Idol.

The existence of anything any idol performer has ever or will ever put out in no way diminishes my ability or capacity to enjoy whatever other artists I choose to like, especially in the day and age of iTunes.

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.