I have long gotten over any conflict between my image of myself as a woman of culture with two degrees and the fact that I am also a woman who watches American Idol on purpose. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gone from being all Frankfurt school about the “culture industry” to seeing value in the mainstream; it doesn’t need to be subversive to be pleasurable. Not all fun is ideologically suspect. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten a lot less concerned about what’s good, to the point that I always find myself mentally composing defenses of Taylor Swift against her detractors whenever I read feminist blogs about all the (totally present) virgin-whore issues in “You Belong With Me.”
So I watch American Idol. For me, it is partly about fun, not going to lie. It’s also partly about getting a lot of stuff about America, and also for reminding me, a Canadian, that America is a whole other country. I tend to think I “get” American culture because Canadian pop culture is so suffused with American products and American forms, but then I watch American Idol and I remember that the red states are real places where people live and love and are loved, not just Daily Show punchlines. It’s easy to forget that America isn’t just like a bigger Canada in a lot of really deep important ways.
But I just couldn’t handle Rolling Stones night last week.
It’s weird that of all the serious artists who’ve had their music karaoke’d on Idol — the Beatles, MJ, Leonard Cohen, Marvin Gaye, Dolly Parton — it’s the Rolling Stones that I just couldn’t hear covered. I actually thought Rolling Stones night would be good for Idol, since they write great blues-rock songs, and the vocals rely as much on personality as ability. I am not even that big a Stones fan — I like their music, but I would not ever list them as my favourite band. I think it’s because my dad does. I grew up listening to this music. I know the songs automatically; they’re part of my musical landscape, and a piece of my vocabulary of what rock n roll is. I can’t tell you what album every song is from, but I know the words and the melodies instinctively. This was the soundtrack of my childhood to the point that every now and then I’m shocked by the goodness of these songs, just because I heard them so much growing up that they are just there. It’s in my bones.
I started losing it when Andrew — who did that great version of “Straight Up” early in the season — sang “Gimme Shelter.” I don’t know how you can sing “War, children, it’s just a shot away” without conveying that you understand any of those words, but he manages. I wondered why I watch this show again.
Then pageant teen Katie came out and sang “Wild Horses,” which she interpreted as being about her dream of being on American Idol. Then I remembered that this show is produced by people who think the Susan Boyle version of “Wild Horses” was a good idea.
But here’s where I experienced a break. My AI feelings went from kind of amused affection and a fun investment to detached hate in five minutes. Tim Urban, coming up with “Under My Thumb”. Oh no he is not! Yes, yes he is. He is singing a totally earnest reggae guitarbro Jason Mraz “The Mellow Show” version of “Under My Thumb”, the nadir of rock misogyny.
Well, you can watch:
I don’t remember the last time I was just quivering with “what” at the TV. Everyone was like “Hey, it’s a fun song.” But it’s not a fun song, it’s a jam, sure, but it’s not a fun song. The only way to do that song nowadays is to go the Tina Turner feminist détournement route. In the posted clip, you can see the judges’ reactions. Obviously this kid is too stupid to understand what’s wrong with the words he was singing; but I kept waiting for everyone else to just kind of stare at him open-mouthed and then for Ellen to be like “Hey bud, maybe if you don’t want to alienate people as a potential ’sensitive’ pop musician, you shouldn’t sing songs about how you’ve ground your lady’s independence down so now she just does as she’s told?”
How is it not beyond the pale to go on TV in front of millions of women and sing “It’s down to me/ the way she talks when she’s spoken to”?
Ugh, I know this a post about how American Idol is really shallow and isn’t about art. Also, did you know that many of the lyrics to Rolling Stones songs are in fact somewhat sexist? I am blowing the lid off pop culture right here on my internet blog.
I have been on this intellectual trajectory where I’m all about analysis over evaluation; but maybe to the point where I felt weird about making distinctions and everything blurred into this sort of bland field where everything is “interesting” but nothing rocks my world (except Lady Gaga). Maybe this is part of why I’ve been posting less: I feel like everything’s kind of dissolved into pop culture soup.
Eventually you fall into this murk where like, Hannah Montana is just “interesting” even though it’s seriously the worst TV show ever made. And the worst part is, I haven’t even been writing all that much! Thinking everything is interesting is, at a certain point, not all that interesting at all. It is just as snobby in its own way as just straight-up hating Hannah Montana; it’s hard to do without being condescending or pretending disinterest that you just can’t have if you want to actually do any kind of cultural criticism.
I still stand by the idea that analysis is more important than evaluation, and I still don’t think our experiences of “high art” and “low art” are all that different. My experiences of lots of “bad” stuff isn’t really all that different in terms of reactions or pleasure — I still don’t know for sure if The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans was good or bad, but I sure loved it, and I loved it not all that different a way that I loved, say, Hiroshima, Mon Amour. I’ve always felt like this is kind of an “enlightened” point of view, a sense of being “above” discussions of “quality”; not because it can’t be measured, but more because there are more interesting things to talk about. This is somewhat true, but at the same time — some things are better than other things. I want to get good things back. I want to be able to care about those things more than other things. You don’t need to be a snob to do that.