Music fans, I’m talking die hard lovers of the craft who listen to everyone from R.E.M. and U2 to Soundgarden and Bob Dylan to The Beatles and Zeppelin to Wilco and Arcade Fire, we’re not supposed to like American Idol. It’s tantamount to thinking The Monkees were superior to The Fab Four (which they’re not, even though they’re still great). American Idol is supposed to be everything that’s wrong about the current music scene – a focus of style over substance; not talent kids getting a shot that they’ve never actually earned while bands slog it out in seedy dives. With dwindling ratings (relatively speaking) and a succession of less than memorable winners over the last few years (where have you gone, David Cook?), it surely seemed plausible that the series had lost its mojo, big time. In fact, this latest season, American Idol’s tenth, was destined to be a colossal failure with the absence of Simon Cowell, who decided to jump ship to steer his own show, The X Factor, which starts this fall on Fox. So why is Idol pulling in bigger numbers than last year?
Can anybody say Sassafras?
Admit it. Last summer, when the talk of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler joining the ranks of American Idol judges starting getting around, you thought it was a bad idea. We all did. Aerosmith is one of America’s greatest rock and roll bands ever. Heck, you can probably make a case for the group as the greatest North American act to come out of the 1970’s after K.C. and the Sunshine Band. The notion of Tyler, a defining frontman, to sit and judge a bunch of wannabee musicians just had a horrible ring to it. I thought it, you though it, and so did Aerosmith lead guitarist Joe Perry, who was livid at the notion that his bandmate and the Mick to Perry’s Keith who stoop so slow.
And then a funny thing happened. The tenth season of American Idol started airing and Steven Tyler started making entertaining television. There were rumours that Tyler would end up playing the Paula Abdul role, the perpetually stunned judge who didn’t make much sense and was a bit of a laughing stock. Fool us for thinking that could happen. All through the auditions, Tyler was fun and funny to watch; to be sure, the way he would flirt with the girls young enough to be his great granddaughters was over the top and a little much at times. But his comments to the hopefuls were insightful and encouraging, to those that made it through to Hollywood and even to the ones who didn’t get their shots. Unlike a pop star like Paula, a studio musician like Randy Jackson and a cold and calculated producer like Simon, Steven Tyler was and is a badass rock and roll star and he wouldn’t take anything less from the kids in front of him. Rather than losing credibility (and don’t forget, Aerosmith’s credibility did take a dive with I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing), Tyler’s honesty and cool have introduced a whole new world of listeners to Aerosmith.
However, Tyler isn’t the only reason American Idol has managed to make me tune in again and again this season. Jenny from the block has also been captivating and endearing. While she may not be the biggest superstar on the planet like she was during her P. Diddy and Bennifer exploits, Jennifer Lopez is still a massive celebrity. You’d think that she’d be aloof and disinterested in dealing with all the kids and appear to be acting her way through the season, but that just isn’t so. J-Lo is clearly enjoying her time on the show with Tyler and Randy and is invested in the success of all the aspiring singers. Her genuine sadness when she had to send Chris Medina home was a window into her heart that I don’t think any of us expected. Does the softer side of Jennifer mean I’m going to run out and buy her new album? No, but it does make me like her more than I ever did, and that’s saying something.
American Idol will never be a credible way to make a musician, but with a focus this year on ability and personality and new judges who bring real talent and longevity to the table, it’s definitely had a creative rebirth. And if it means that somewhere out there, a kid is downloading Aerosmith Rocks for the first time, than I think it’s all worth it.