- The powers that be at American Idol had better not leave big winner Ruben out to dangle. I rooted for the large brutha to win Fox’s singing sweepstakes because I want them to make good on their stardom promise for someone who breaks the perky mold.
For the last couple of weeks, Emily’s been teasing me about my professed disinterest in American Idol. “So, are you coming over to watch tonight with Catherine and me, or are you going to continue to pretend not to care?”
The truth is, until the final night, I never watched American Idol alone. For one thing, I didn’t need to: between my addicted girlfriend and all the chatter in the media, I was kept abreast of the minutest movements in the weekly horserace. More important, there are so many things that offend me to my critic’s core about the singing contest: the institutionalized pressure to oversing, the lionization of songwriters like Diane Warren, the growing creepiness of Paula Abdul. But at a time when the music business is largely dormant, anything that gets people excited again about music-making – however schlocky – is, I’ve decided, a good thing. Over the last couple of weeks, I watched bits and pieces with Emily, and on Wednesday night, alone in my apartment, I actually caught the big finale while flipping from Law and Order.
This is the second time I’ve been wrong about the outcome of American Idol. I watched almost none of the first season, but as word got back to me about the final showdown between Kelly Clarkson and Justin “Sideshow Bob” Guarini, I predicted that Guarini, the goofy Teen Beat favorite, would prevail. I factored in the show’s enormous pubescent-girl fan base and the piss-poor tastes of the American public. I was wrong then, just as I was wrong this week when I forecast that ready-for-Broadway Clay Aiken would take the prize. I’ll give America a little credit – as Emily theorized, they may vote for all the wrong reasons in the early weeks of the contest, but in the final showdown, they get serious about the merits of the candidates. This explains how the clearly superior Clarkson won last year and the all-around more interesting Ruben Studdard prevailed this week. A more cynical explanation is that the voters in the early weeks are all starstruck teens and pop-schlock fans, and that people with relatively more refined tastes only tune in – or vote – during the final week. Please try to restrain your guffaws at my use of the word “refined” in the last sentence.
The other thing that’s been consistent about my Idol forecasts is that I’ve rooted for the least-pop of the two candidates. Of course, between Kelly and Justin, the choice was between pop and poppier. But this year’s contest offered a true apples-and-oranges choice – or at least, apples-and-pears, between Ruben’s and Clay’s two distinct kinds of schlock.
I joined Emily in rooting for Ruben. Her reasons were pretty straightforward: gentle-bear Ruben is so genuine, good-hearted and cute, you want to give him a hug. Emily practically cooed every time he came on screen. I can’t picture her saying “ohhhhhhh…” that many times unless she paused in front of a pet store with three dozen kittens in the window. The truth is, we both feel Ruben has a pretty wobbly voice – he can be powerful or erratic. But he’s got more soul, in every sense of that word, than Clay – he of the technically perfect, is-he-real-or-is-he-Memorex voice.
Ruben’s warmth won me over, too, but my main reason for rooting for him was I wanted to see the corporate behemoths behind Idol really tested. Let’s tally their score so far. In America, they’re one-for-one thanks to Clarkson. Her debut single (”A Moment Like This” backed with “Before Your Love”) topped the charts in a walk last October, and amazingly, the six-month delay in releasing her album didn’t hurt it at all, as Thankful debuted at #1 in April. The Idol juggernaut has had similar chart success throughout the world – the show is knows as Pop Idol throughout Europe, and several countries have had their own editions. In Britain, both the winner and the runner-up of the first contest, Will Young and Gareth Gates, have had chart-topping hits. But importantly, all of these big chart successes have come from squeaky-clean, white-bread überpop stars.
The svengalis behind Idol are BMG Entertainment and its family of labels, including RCA, which handles Clarkson; and British impresario Simon Fuller (not to be confused with the TV show’s host, Simon Cowell), whose 19 Productions conceived the show and owns the rights to all of its musical output. What these entities have in common is an innate understanding of how to market Euro or Euro-like megapop: power ballads, pop standards, chirpy boy-band-type hits. There’s no evidence, so far, that 19 knows how to market full-on R&B to an American audience; many of BMG’s labels have had tremendous success in this arena (BMG artists include Whitney Houston and R. Kelly), but the Idol promotional phenomenon is still relatively new to them, and there’s no evidence it will have the same effect on black/urban audiences that it had on middle-American ones.
Ruben Studdard is the test case. Immediately – wisely – BMG announced that Studdard would be signed not to its old-school pop label RCA, with Clarkson, but to J Records, Clive Davis’s two-year-old mega-boutique label. J has already succeeded in breaking Alicia Keys and was in the process of reviving the career of soul balladeer Luther Vandross before his tragic stroke last month. Pairing Ruben with the label of Luther is minor marketing genius – plus-sized, big-voiced Vandross is Studdard’s clear musical model. The press has been lazily referring to one of Studdard’s signature songs as “the Carpenters hit ‘Superstar’,” but the real reason Ruben covered that ’70s chestnut is that it was revived in the early ’80s in a huge hit remake by Vandross. (Besides, “Superstar” was one of the few Carpenters hits they didn’t write – it was penned by veterans Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett.)
The bottom line is this: The people have boldly chosen a plus-size, down home African-American as their American Idol; can BMG and J take him to the same lofty heights as Clarkson? You can sense the 19/BMG camps hedging their bets already. They’ve also signed runner-up Clay Aiken, to RCA. Both Studdard and Aiken will have single releases in stores in the next couple of weeks. This follows the U.K. model, where both winner Young and silver-medalist Gates scored hits and filled 19’s coffers. Interestingly, BMG and 19 have not done for last year’s runner-up, Justin Guarini, what they’re doing for Aiken. Theories abound – the two Simons never really liked Justin; the vote between Ruben and Clay this year was so close, they were effectively both winners; given Clay’s Disney-friendly voice, his career probably has a big Broadway upside. But I think the real reason is, Clay Aiken is (notwithstanding his rumored sexuality) a clean-cut known quantity, an easy-to-market white boy. I’m not claiming racism here; I just think it’s a simple case of corporate entities investing in their core competency while taking a flyer on a riskier proposition with equally big upside potential.
That said, if Ruben Studdard ends up being an official American Idol but not an actual American idol, we will have witnessed the limits of this star-making machine. It’ll be fascinating to watch. Meantime, over at Amazon’s music homepage, the #1 preorder for the past week has been the single “This Is the Night”/”On the Wings of Love” by Clay Aiken. Ruben Studdard’s “Flying Without Wings”/”Superstar” is #2, but until a couple of days ago, it wasn’t even in the top 10.