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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

100 Doses: A Long-Term Cure for American Idol

One of the reasons I continue to watch and critique American Idol is simply that, like most of us, I kind of like playing the critic. The contestants of a show like AI make pretty easy targets, don’t they? At the end of the day, though, I’m not going to buy any of their albums, I’m not going to put down money to see any of them play live, and I can’t remember if I ever got around to voting for any of the contestants that I liked.

As Walter pointed out in a comment yesterday, these people aren’t really artists. They don’t write their own music, they don’t always even choose their own songs, and, if they win, I doubt very seriously that they’re given much in the way of artistic control over the songs, production, or arrangements. AI exists as a sort of lottery for moderately talented singers; the end result is pre-fab pop with not much of a shelf life.

When you look at it like that, though, the next questions should be obvious: what makes a song great? What makes a singer great?

I’m not sure that it can be easily quantified, although I would agree with Walter in that it isn’t purely about mechanics. The best-trained voice is no guaranty of a memorable (or even good) song, much less a great one. Which explains why Bob Dylan gets to have a music career.

(As an aside, if you were to be asked to identify the most influential American poet, who would name? I would suggest that Dylan might well fit the bill.)

That said, a truly horrible voice can render a good song unlistenable--so there is a low bar to be cleared when it comes to the mechanics, but the mechanics aren’t the deciding factor.

I don’t know what ingredients build a great song, but I do have my opinions about some songs that I consider to be great. And, one by one, I’m going to share 100 of those songs. They won’t be in any particular order (and Mark Lanegan might be a little over-represented), but they will be accompanied by MP3s and the reasons that I think the songs are so brilliant.

Some of the songs will be familiar, although popularity is no quick gauge of virtue.

Think of this as a cure for American Idol. A group of songs that make up a hell of a playlist with songs that you’ll hate and songs that you’ll love and a little bit of musical exploration for the class. The only two rules are that the songs have to have a prominent vocal, can’t be a cover of another artist’s music, and that I think that they are so damned good that they are worth sharing.

Ready for some fun? Good, because this was all a lengthy introduction to the first song on the list.

100 - Mark Lanegan, “Judas Touch”

It’s only appropriate that I start out with a Mark Lanegan song and this is one of the best. From the brilliant album, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, “Judas Touch” is a little drop of near-perfection. At only one minute and thirty-seven seconds long, it leaves a little too soon. Stuck somewhere between country and acoustic blues, the star is Lanegan’s voice on top of the simple guitar and brushed drum.

“Judas Touch” doesn’t cover new ground; it’s as familiar as a worn cliche. But Lanegan’s intimate voice is almost seductive and he remains one of the most distinct and fascinating voices in rock music.

Turn out the lights, close your eyes, and enjoy this gentle tune.

Download Judas Touch. (The file is no longer linked. Check back for Number 99 soon.)

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While the Idols are not necessarily artists (I think some are, or could be in the future), I strongly disagree with Walter’s contention that one must write songs to be an artist.

The idea that a band or singer must write their own music in order to be authentic or serious is of relatively recent vintage.  Like most things good and bad in today’s rock/pop music, we can probably blame it on the Beatles. Pre-Beatles, musicians could certainly be taken seriously without writing a lick of music or a single verse.  Elvis is the obvious example; he may have convinced some songwriters to give him a half-credit on some tracks, but he almost certainly didn’t do any actual authoring. Sometimes (horrors!) he didn’t even get to pick the songs he recorded. Yet he was still an artist… without his vocal choices and interpretations the music would have been very different.

There are plenty of other examples (Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Britney Spears come to mind). Are any of the Idols artists? I’m not sure… but at least some probably will be.

on May 24 2006 @ 02:21 PM

I would agree with you: a singer can be an artist without having to record their own music and songs. In fact, I was thinking about Elvis and Emmylou Harris as I wrote this. The artists that I respect most, though, trend heavily towards the groups and individuals who write their own music and lyrics.

As for Elvis, though, some of his artistic integrity was stripped away with some of the musical output from his movies.

As for whether the Idols are artists or not, I don’t have a strong opinion yet. I haven’t been impressed by any of the solo output that I’ve heard from any of the winners (and near-winners), although I still hope that a few of them. To be honest, though, the people who vote the most want something from their music that is quite a bit different than what I’m looking for. That isn’t a complaint, just a fact that goes far in explaining why I find a lot of the post-Idol output disappointing and dull.

on May 24 2006 @ 03:09 PM

I was going to mention the same thing. Many country and contemporary Christian vocalists don’t write their own songs. In fact, there’s an entire industry in Nashville for composers. Rich Mullins, an exceptional Christian artist who wrote his own material, got his start writing hits for the likes of Amy Grant.

Rock is different, and has different expectations about producing your own material. But even in Rock, many of the greats have recorded “covers,” which is nothing but another version of singing someone else’s song.

Kelly Clarkson seems to have become more “artistic” on her latest album. It’ll be interesting to see whether Taylor can infuse some artistry into his career. He definitely has a more unique presence than any of the idols I’ve seen to this point.

on May 24 2006 @ 06:41 PM

I think that musical artists should write their own music, but I do not think they are bad if they don’t. I like a lot of the American Idol singers. I think they have great voices. They aren’t any less of a singer if they don’t write their own music. I just think it would be better if they did.

I would like to hear Kelly Clarkson sing some music from Juno . I think she could do a lot with that album.

on Dec 16 2008 @ 12:58 PM
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