- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2007

After “American Idol’s” five years and six seasons on the air, all but the mediaphobes among us can recite the names of the national “pop”-ularity contest’s victors: Kelly, Ruben, Fantasia, Carrie and Taylor — to be joined on Wednesday by whoever wins this year’s competition. (In Las Vegas, the money’s on Jordin).

These winners have gotten their more or less fluky chances at stardom because some intern or executive along the way thought they’d make for good TV. Some are legitimate talents whom critics and the public alike have embraced — such as season one champ Kelly Clarkson, a rising talent bent on forging a distinctive musical identity, and, most recently, Jennifer Hudson, who made the leap from season three’s No. 7 to “Dreamgirl” incarnate.

Other “Idol” stars, however, have raked in millions and gotten a crack at the music industry’s most prestigious awards without ever having developed the skills, craft and savvy that artists used to spend long years learning the hard way — in cramped tour buses and smoke-filled bars. (Mr. Hicks and Chris Daughtry, we’re not talking about you here.)

We know what these overnight sensations have won in taking a shortcut to fame and riches.

But what have they lost?

Let us remember that “American Idol” is a program based on pop music, which always has been more about commercial appeal than artistry. In these terms, of course, the show is a monstrous success: “A.I.” is a $2.5 billion franchise.

But doesn’t it seem a little unfair that someone like season five’s Kellie Pickler — a middling vocal talent with a certain charming, Southern-accented cluelessness and essentially no industry experience — can waltz onto a TV show, earn just the sixth most votes, and sell more than 500,000 copies of her debut disc?

We don’t mean to pull a Faith Hill, but, “What?”

“I don’t know another way to get this much buzz before you even put out a record,” says Bill Smith, program director for the recording arts program at Full Sail Real World Education in Winter Park, Fla.

Buzz, in “A.I.” season four winner Carrie Underwood’s case, translated into a debut album (2005’s “Some Hearts”) that went five times platinum faster than any female country musician’s in Billboard history and scored enough trophies — including the best-new-artist Grammy — to warrant her purchasing a “gorgeous curio cabinet” to house them.

Miss Underwood is a beautiful young lady from the farms of Checotah, Okla., who sang in church and pursued music modestly for a time. She sings about Jesus and other uplifting subjects, making her a good anti-Britney role model. But her part in the Bob Wills/Don Henley tribute at this winter’s Grammys left the Internet littered with talk of her “overwrought,” “passionless” or just “OK” renditions. Some complained about her “lack of character,” a comment that evokes “A.I.” judge Randy Jackson’s 2004 comments after her very first audition piece: “I would work … more on the emotion and stage presence.”

“I can’t count how many times she changed hands on the microphone during that performance [of ‘Desperado’],” says Mike Campbell, head of the vocal department at Musicians Institute in Los Angeles. (We counted: about 20.) “That’s nerves and not really having performance experience,” he adds.

Mr. Campbell should know: Listed in “Who’s Who Among American Teachers” (in 2005) as well as Scott Yanow’s “Jazz Singers: The Top 500,” he has lent his vocals to concerts and recordings by some of the century’s most cherished artists, from Ella Fitzgerald to Quincy Jones.

He cut his teeth the old-fashioned way: plying the club circuit, where night after night he learned the nuances of his trade in front of small audiences who tolerated a novice’s minor mistakes. The process may have been lengthy, but it finely tuned his art, carefully notching and sculpting it at each turn.

Livingston Taylor (James’ brother) has been making music for 40 years and has taught at the illustrious Berklee College of Music in Boston for close to 20. What concerns him about “A.I.” is that it doesn’t test a vocalist’s instrument and interaction the way a solo gig does.

“American Idol” production values are the sort “that are afforded to people that have millions of dollars of advertising revenue at their disposal,” Mr. Livingston notes. “You could put a drunk Santa Claus up there with that band and those songs and it’s gonna be very, very good.”

In addition to getting the star treatment during taping (the best band, coaches, stylists, camerawork and so forth), after the finale, the show’s top 10 “earn” a 15,000-seat venue tour. For many, this is their first exposure to road life, and they’re tasting it from inside the luxurious miniature village of a tour bus.

Season five’s Ace Young told People magazine he and the gang traveled “in style” in a vehicle equipped with “satellite TV, surround sound, DVD players, two lounge rooms, bathrooms, a kitchen and TV monitors in every bunk.”

“Most of the people I know who got anywhere in the [music] business traveled around in a beat-up van,” Mr. Smith says.

When it comes time to record, 19 Entertainment (the parent company that produces “A.I.”) conscripts a four-star team — which usually means: Step aside, Contestant, we’ll let you know when we need you to step in and sing these songs we made up for you.

In short, “A.I.” makes huge short-term investments in its stars but isn’t nurturing artistry, vision, subtlety. It’s not helping these young performers grow roots and develop an appreciation for what’s been handed to them on a silver “A.I.”-emblazoned platter.

Like the program’s snippet-style showcasing, it’s about being big. Huge. As quickly as possible.

Mr. Campbell believes the show is magnifying an existing trend. “Young people and record companies are looking for instant success,” he says. “[They] aren’t really looking to build someone over a period of time anymore. People like Al Jarreau and Bonnie Raitt had two to five albums to find their audience. [Now, music] is like TV; if you’re not a hit in the first 20 minutes, you’re canceled.”

Pop-music expert and educator Dan Kimpel suspects that “American Idol” voters are judging something more — and less — than musical performances. “It really has a lot less to do with the singing attributes than the [contestant’s] story,” he says. Though he’s a strong supporter of Miss Underwood’s talents, he notes that her humble farm-girl background “taps into that pop mythology, the idea of somebody that comes from nowhere to somewhere.”

It’s the quintessential modern American folktale — work pretty hard, and you, too, can be rescued by someone who’ll make you a real-life Cinderella. The best part is that “A.I.” voters get to feel like they’re responsible for crowning this fairy-tale prince or princess, for helping this struggling somebody “make it.”

The trouble is, the real artists who have put in the time and paid their dues are losing ground — as well as album sales and industry honors — to a few TV-trained performers who range from inexperienced to merely the sum of the parts that 19 Entertainment gave them.

“When I want to see an artist,” Mr. Campbell says, “I want to be moved; I don’t want to just be impressed.”

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