Quick hit: More about Paula Abdul

I’m catching up on a backlog of links I found over the past couple weeks so don’t hate on this one being late.  The NYT summed up some of the drama behind Paula Abdul’s contract negotiations (and their dramatic ending via Twitter–text message breakup much?) a few weeks ago.  If you were interested in the story when I discussed it earlier you might want to take a look.  Unfortunately the Idol producers don’t seem to have taken me up on my suggestion of Sarah Palin as Paula’s replacement…

Soviet kitsch (not the Regina Spektor kind)

So this isn’t strictly music…but this line of thinking can certainly apply to musical analysis as well.  Saturday’s Wall Street Journal has an interesting examination of dictatorial kitsch (thanks to my partner Matt for bringing it to my attention).  Check out the picture behind Clinton and Kim Jong Il in the article–I’m sure this is not the first time you’ve seen or heard some form of dictatorial art and thought, “My G-d, this is TERRIBLE.”

What’s interesting to me about this take on Soviet kitsch is its implicit assertion that only art from totalitarian regimes (or from similar circumstances) is “ideological.”  It’s clearly more blatantly ideological than, say, Thomas Kinkade’s work.  But scratch the surface of any cultural product and you’ll find ideology or politics of some kind.  Let’s scratch Thomas Kinkade real quick for argument’s sake.

Take a look at some of his work and try to answer these questions: What lifestyle does he normatize by his portrayal of what is “all-American”?  In his blandness, what settings does he expect will be familiar and unfamiliar to his viewers?  How do you think Kinkade feels about cities?  What kind of people do you think live in his “regular all-American” cottages and on his Main Streets?  He’s not trying to push a creepy cult of personality in the same way as Kim or Saddam, but he’s pushing something, for sure.  (Note–I don’t mean that Kinkade is trying to control his audience in any way, for good or bad.  I’m just saying that artists are shaped by, and shape, their ideological milieux, and that it’s important to think about how and why this is happening.)

Within the musical realm, we always turn to Shostakovich as the classic example of audio art influenced (or constrained) by totalitarianism, and programmatic readings of his work are quite popular among armchair conductors and critics.  What ideological message might be implicit in, say, Philip Glass’s work?  In Beyoncé’s work?  In American Idol?

Update: Paula’s next steps

It’s unfortunate that Paula Abdul is now looking at acting–she had a small role in Drop Dead Diva recently–instead of being a judge or commentator.  That supportive, kooky, vapid je ne sais quoi is hard to reproduce when she can’t just be herself.  Never fear, though: in the HuffPo she’s said that

I’m never going to change who I am at the core.


In other news, producers have announced that Posh and Katy Perry are going to be guest judges.  Katy Perry just kind of annoys me, but I think that Posh could be the right mix of crazy and crazy-in-a-good-way.

Why I was hoping Paula Abdul would stay on American Idol

The point of American Idol isn’t the music.  If viewers just wanted to hear good singers, they have any number of options that waste less time and brain cells than watching Idol once a week: that is, albums, YouTube videos, concert footage, etc.

Why do people watch it, then?  For the bad music.  That’s why it’s amusing: we can watch people like Alexis Cohen (RIP), William Hung, or Sanjaya.  Yeah, we love Jennifer Hudson (speaking of Motown style) and Adam Lambert because they can actually sing.  But we buy their albums and see their films regardless of American Idol–that is to say, they have appeal that can carry them beyond their 15 minutes of novelty fame.  But the other ones would never come to public attention without the show.

Better entertainment than some of the truly horrific performances, though, are the judges.  I’m not talking about Randy and Kara.  I mean Simon Cowell’s snark and Paula Abdul’s absurdity.  This last is what Salon writers hated on a few weeks ago:

…Paula Abdul is a disaster in slow motion.  Every time the camera turns its focus to her, she smiles weakly and looks embarrassed, then searches wildly for something to say.  She stumbles on her words, giggles nervously, and trails off halfway mid-sentence, or is interrupted by an impatient Cowell.  It’s like handing a 2-year-old a Mr. Microphone.

From the few times I’ve seen the show (and from my little brother Donovan’s testimony, who loves it so much that he once told me to call him back in an hour when I called him inadvertently during Idol to say happy birthday), this is more or less an accurate description.

Americans by and large don’t watch TV for competence (with the notable exception of successful shows like Mad Men, et al.).  We watch the talking heads spewing what we know to be inaccuracies (i.e. Lou Dobbs and the Obama birther conspiracy), reality shows that make a point of sleep-depriving and inebriating their contestants for maximum argument potential, etc.  I’m not judging; I’m just telling it like it is.

And we don’t watch American Idol to see good music.  We watch it to see Paula make a train wreck of herself, hope at least a few contestants do the same, listen to Simon tear both apart, and when all that’s over with, perhaps hear a decent singer or two.

That’s why I’m actually sad that Paula’s leaving, unlike Salon’s TV staff.  The pop-music phenomenon that is American Idol is, in the end, much more dependent on Americans’ taste for spectacular failure and the rare burst of success against steep odds: that is, more dependent on our ideas about the music business than on our ideas about the aesthetics of music itself.  Without the quirks of the many personalities involved in making it, Idol producers won’t have a show, even if they keep sifting through the chaff of the American quest for fame and finding decent performers.

UPDATE: Speaking of Obama birthers…Salon thinks Orly Taitz should be the next Paula Abdul.  Orly Taitz is indeed an amusing nutjob, but I’m more partial to their suggestion of Sarah Palin.  It’s perfect for all involved: America loves to watch Palin self-immolate (the fake America, that is–the real America loves her non-ironically); Palin loves America’s attention; Palin will need a job once she realizes that she has no chance in the next election cycle.  Courtney Love is potentially also a good choice, but she seems less pugilistic than Sarah Palin, which means she wouldn’t be as funny.

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