Friday, March 27, 2009

Good, but not TOOO Good.

Simon Cowell has just about the toughest job in the world. I mean that. I know what you're thinking...

"Muchacho! How can you say that? He's rich and he gets to be mean and people expect nothing else from him!"

And well yeah... that's true. But here's the thing... well...a couple of things..

1) I actually don't think he IS mean. You can sort of tell when you watch that he does actually like people, and he's never afraid to compliment someone if they actually deserve it. It's not his fault (well... probably it is because he's the boss) that he's the only judge really allowed or able to give actual, realistic opinions. I mean c'mon... Randy is a doof, Paula is Paula, and Kara just... I had high hopes that she'd be the legit female Simon and whatnot. A current songwriter with actual recent success, and she often sounds less coherant than Paula Abdul. So no... Simon's only mean in comparison to the cotton candy unicorns that the rest of them perpetrate on us every fucking week.

2) Simon's soul IS black and cold, true, but not why you'd think. And here's where I begin to explain my thesis... I think it's the worst thing in the world to know better and to understand nuance and levels, and yet feel compelled to ignore them based on forces that are not only outside of your personal control, but also soul-crushing. I think that's the situation Simon finds himself in... I think it's completely plausible that there are people they've had on that show who Simon actually might respect artistically, or really personally enjoy as an entertainer, but who he's destroyed them in critiques. Why? Because he knows that his comments do actually have an affect on voting, and his biggest nightmare is if someone wins who isn't readily marketable. It's not personal. It's not about his personal preferences. He wants to make money and Taylor Hicks ultimately makes him no money.

NOTE: Taylor Hicks is the perfect example here. He sort of captivated the idiot masses for a short time (due to the schtick), but in the long run went super, super stale very quickly. He's the only American Idol winner who was really more the winner of a reality show, and less a winner of a competition for entertainers. It's not that he was bad at what he does, because he's not, but he's a niche guy. More on that later. But I digress...

Simon's soul is black because it has to kill him to toss people under the bus who he probably finds more interesting in favor of pimping the safer bets. By "safer", I mean more generally marketable. I think Simon subscribes (as all people who want to make money over art should) to the Michael Eisner model (well.. early Eisner). Hit singles and doubles and take the sure things. If you play for the homerun, you strike out a lot more. It's probably less interesting on a creative level, but it's a way surer thing when it comes to making money.

3) He's got the finest line to walk when it comes the advice and criticisms he doles out. Everything he says is calculated to drive the person he WANTS to win toward winning. He knows that his target audience is middle America. The Average Joes who would rather listen comfortably to Nickleback than to be challenged by Radiohead. There's a reason why Radiohead wins Grammy's while Nickleback is the best selling group in the world right now. Simon knows this. His challenge every week is to subliminally lead America toward NOT voting out the people who combine being interesting/current/polished/skilled/versatile while also not being tooooo interesting/current/polished/skilled/versatile. There's a reason Michael Sarver will be on the tour. America eats that shit up. A current pair that stands out to me is Kris Allen (who I can barely ever remember) and Adam Lambert (who I can hardly stop listening to).

Two weeks ago, Adam Lambert did this crazy-ass rendition of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire". I personally loved it. Simon "hated" it. He called it "Horrific" and "self-indulgent". I'm gonna go out on a limb and say "Bullshit". I don't know if he liked it or not, and that's really irrelevant. I think that what Adam did was not by any measure "horrific". Possibly self-indulgent, but it wasn't his arrangement so whatever. Anyway... what I think happened was this: Adam did this wacky thing and it was during country week, which happens to be an important demographic, and Simon REALLY wants this dude to stick around so he dinged him a little. Like... "Get back a little closer to the middle and you'll win this thing." Adam wasn't in any real danger of going home THAT week because there were too many people less popular so it was the perfect time to "knock him down a peg" and get him to understand that it's okay to be different (David Cook's "Billie Jean") but not okay to be TOO different (Sanjaya...anything). It's great to be good (Jordin Sparks), but it's a little touchier to be GREAT (can't think of anyone right now, which is sort of the point... Maybe Jennifer Hudson or Melinda Dolittle (but then that's another thing altogether)).

Then you have silly Kris Allen who this week, during the Motown theme, sang some song or other... (I literally can't remember, because he's so fucking boring). Now Kris is the exact opposite of Adam Lambert in almost every way, but he's getting the same sort of push from the other direction. Kris is more than serviceable. He's talented. He's got the looks that girls plaster their rooms with and he can sing and play guitar, which pretty much makes him a walking dollar sign. The thing is... he's also kinda forgettable. He's so nice and simple and wholesome. He's like the Osmonds... Got the skills and the looks and whatnot, but you're still hungry for more when they're done assaulting you with their Book of Mormon or their songs or whatever. So what does Simon do? Simon knows that Kris is safe...the teen girls will save him for a while longer for sure... so he says the exact opposite thing he tells Adam "be more interesting. Have more swagger. Do something self indulgent."

It's a fine, fine line. Adam Lambert is great. He's not everyone's cup of tea, but there is absolutely no room for debate that he's a singular talent. He's totally unpredictable, even down to the modulations within his songs. This scares Simon, because it excites him at the possibilities, but it also doesn't always translate into sales. On the other hand Kris Allen is as predictable as a McDonalds McNugget. The same every time. He's got talent, but people also want to remember your concert five minutes after it's over. One of them Simon tries to rein in. One he tries to set loose a little. It's a fascinating balancing act to watch as he coaxes two front runners. Can't be too negative too often or the voters will start picking up on it and will follow suit (the only one this didn't work with was Taylor, and turns out Simon was right.) Can't be too positive or there'll be a "bandwagon backlash".

I was thinking about this a lot, and I am trying really really hard to think of a music icon who would have been a safe bet from the start. I can't think of one. This leads me to hypothesize that you can't predict the all-timers. You can predict the solid stars and the giant failures (usually), but it's nearly impossible to predict the ones that are the absolute grand-slam home runs, and so chasing them isn't a good business model (again with the Eisner singles and doubles.)

Elvis? Some people say he's the most influential entertainer of the 20th Century (I say Walt Disney, but whatever). That said, how do you predict a white boy from Mississippi who sings gospel and rock-a-billy becoming the biggest celebrity in the world based on this wacky new music?

Madonna? She's essentially a dancer with a serviceable voice (at best). If a music producer told me that they'd signed a dancer with a serviceable voice to a record deal and said that some day she'd be the richest, most successful female singer of all time, I'd tell them that I'm not a leprechaun and that I don't grant wishes. She basically become a star through sheer force of will and charisma. Not something quantifiable.

Michael Jackson? Now...he's a special case, because he was a star as a kid before he had any control over her personna and whatever, but let's say a completely unknown Michael Jackson showed up at Motown Records in 1983 or whatever and he was all "Salutations friends. I'm gonna be the most famous person on Earth in 2 years! Send me your chimps and small children!" I'm pretty sure that record executive calls the cops.

Anyway... It's a tough job Simon has is all I'm saying. You can't predict the legends. In fact, it's more a matter of not fucking up the sure things and hoping for the best.

Alan and I were discussing whether or not the mediocre ones know they're mediocre and merely playing to the middle... and I honestly don't know. Part of me wants to think that Nickelback knows that what they're doing is fluff and that they're okay with it, because they do their side projects to satiate their artistic insides and then they go tour and they bang really really hot dumb girls and roll around on their mattresses stuffed with cash. They are not without talent. I don't honestly believe you can be a success without having at least some talent.

The difference between them and a John Lennon is that the dudes in Nickelback are at peace with (at the least) or even embrace (more likely) their middle of the road confomity and they suckle at that teet until it runs dry. I do think there's probably some delusion in there too... like they probably occasionally write a song where they're all "This is it! This is the one where the artistic and the mainstream finally collide and we take it to that iconic level" and it's just another one of the 50 songs that sound exactly the same as all the others. On the other hand, I have no problem seeing John Lennon thinking that every song he ever wrote was total shit, and he pops out Imagine or Yesterday. Or even one of the 50 other legendary songs.

I guess my extremely long-winded point is that Simon Cowell's goal isn't to find the next John Lennon or Elvis. His goal is to find the next Nickelback. That may kill him every day, and it may just make him seem awfully mean to guys like Kris Allen who have the talent but no personality, so they just need a little nudge to be truly commercially viable. And it may kill him worse to kinda ding Adam Lambert who artistically is an unknown on this type of show and possibly has the ability to do amazing things, but might just be a little too scary for general American consumption in his current form.

Does anyone have any thoughts on this? Is it possible to predict greatness? Discuss...


djphob said...

Only halfway through because I had two things that I didn't want to forget to ask-- Who has Simon let go before their time bc of the Taylor Hicks point? I'm just wondering if there's any proof to it.

Also, I didn't know Kris Allen had such a following?

Beefy Muchacho said...

I don't think I understand your question about Taylor Hicks... Please rephrase...

As for Kris Allen, it sure seems to me that he's got a pretty big following. He's not been in danger, and he's got legions of girls screaming every time. I think that's pretty telling when there was literally NO footage of him from auditions.

djphob said...

Like, you say Simon purposefully says bad things to send people home so there's not another Taylor Hicks. I'm wondering if there's an example.

Beefy Muchacho said...

Well... first, maybe I wasn't absolutely clear but he's been doing it all along, not just after Taylor. Taylor is just where it didn't work.

He was more critical of Blake Lewis than he was of Jordin Sparks (even though Blake was better objectively). The guy wasn't marketable.

I think the best example of it is actually one where it worked the best... your favorite, Jason Castro. Jason Castro is undoubtedly one of the more interesting performers they've ever had, but he's not sale-able at all... so after the Hallelujah performance it was looking like he had the following to go for a while. You'll remember that every week after that, Simon was more and more critical and negative toward him (Even when Paula and Randy, who have no sway or power, were positive). That kind of negative reinforcement wears down the fanbase. He ended up out at what? 5th place?

Anonymous said...

Here's my comment:

Adam Lambert is my fave too. Incredible, mostly original, at least shocking performances and unbelievable vocals aside...I like feeling a little dirty after watching him sing.


Beefy Muchacho said...

But dirty in a fun way. And yeah...the dude is ridiculous. I am watching the show to see what he does at this point.

djphob said...

I feel dirty after I watch Glambert, alright.

I think he just gives them constructive criticism. They want a record deal, he tells them what they need to do. Are you saying he doesn't criticize where criticism is due? I guess I am missing your point? LOL

Beefy Muchacho said...

I'm saying that his criticism for the people he thinks he has a chance is:
a) More specific
b) More invested.

Take this past week for example...

Anoop, who may be generally likable or harmless or whatever, but who also has no chance of winning whatsoever gets "That was wannabe karaoke Zzzzzzzz" and Matt Giraud, who Simon seems to like gets things like "Pick a better song for your voice! Think about things a little more! You can do this!" kind of things. I mean... he's always mean, but sometimes he's a little more constructive, which has 2 effects.

1) It helps those people get better.
2) It subliminally shows the audience who Simon gives two shits about, and thus plants voting seeds.

Adam is going to get exactly the commments he got this week for the forseeable future exactly because he's as great as he should be. So Simon says "I'm happy for you. You're having fun, and they all love you. $$$$$$$"

Kris gets that positive reinforcement he needed after doing what Simon instructed (get confidence). Now if he keeps doing that, Simon will get on the general happy positive kick, because no more tweaking is needed.