Earlier this week, "American Idol" launched a new season. Prior to the show's launch, star judge Randy Jackson told the Associated Press that "[Idol] is the greatest music talent show ever," while his colleague Paula Abdul confessed to getting "a kick out of the fact that there's not a day, not an hour, that goes by without someone talking about it, asking about it."
"American Idol" is an incredibly successful venture. On the upside, it gives American viewers something they seem to cherish: entertainment and competition together, like a Vegas show and a football game rolled into one.
On the downside, the show's premise -- that a karaoke-style talent show can pull a singer out of obscurity and shove them straight into the hearts (and pocketbooks) of eager Americans, minus the headaches normally associated with investing in an artist (such as letting them develop their talent over time, and touring to gain grassroots support brick by brick) -- is the ultimate victory of corporate cynicism over musical idealism. "American Idol" insists that anyone can be a pop star, if they're groomed accordingly. Reality suggests that not everyone should be a pop star, just as everyone shouldn't be a doctor, or a pilot or president of the United States.
As the band Supernova, the ensemble born from the rock talent show "Rockstar Supernova" (which last year helped washed-up pop stars INXS find a new singer), comes to town for a gig in Shea's Performing Arts Center on Saturday, and "American Idol" prepares to claim the largest viewing audience in the country once again, I've designed my own fictional music talent show, named it "New Pop Visionary," and jotted down a few guidelines for a contest that might give us a pop star worth having.
Clive Davis, eat your heart out!
Most televised talent contests concentrate solely on a singer's pitch, and how effectively the performer "sells" the song to the viewer. By contrast, "New Pop Visionary" hopes you will save all your contrived moves for the inevitable music video and that any tendencies toward over-singing, a la Christina Aguilera, et al, will be kept on a short leash. Intonation is important, but what's more important here is your ability to inhabit the song, to tell the story with a blend of musicality and emotional conviction. We need to believe you care about the song, the way you and the band are presenting it, and music in general, at least as much as you care about "getting famous."
Idol's Randy Jackson is a seasoned recording session bassist whose biggest claim to fame is that he replaced original bassist Ross Valory in Journey for one album and, later, played on Bruce Springsteen's only lousy record, "Human Touch." Paula Abdul is a choreographer, former cheerleader and has-been dance-pop diva. Simon Cowell is ... well, Simon Cowell. "New Pop Visionary" will enlist a panel of judges with far more impressive resumes.
Who better to judge the interpretive and songwriting skills of contestants than one of the finest writers and interpreters still working?
The Public Enemy mastermind is one of the few figures in hip-hop who truly knows R&B, soul, funk, pop and rock music. Chuck will speak the truth.
Fridman is a first-rate bassist and the finest record producer of his generation. His work with the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev is without peer.
Farrell led Jane's Addiction, started Lollapalooza and since then has immersed himself in DJ culture and urged the cross-pollinization of myriad pop music styles. He's a pop visionary himself.
Few artists have pushed the boundaries of popular music with as much conviction and virtuosity as has Joni Mitchell. Her influence runs deep in contemporary pop, but her level of genius has not been matched.
On special nights, contestants will perform their favorite songs by renowned artists, with those artists in attendance. We'll skip the obvious and go straight for some of the prime living architects of what we now consider pop music.
No other artist in popular music has remained as relevant for as long as Bowie, who turned 60 earlier this month, his credibility among several generations of listeners and his artistic integrity wholly intact.
Yorke knows that skewed beauty is often more interesting than the obvious, surface variety. His work with Radiohead has provided us with the most daring popular music of the past 15 years.
With Roxy Music, and in his own solo career, Ferry made it clear that one could be a suave pop star and still a cutting-edge artist.
The childlike conscience of the bunch, Young represents the timeless truism that, often, three chords, a good melody and some heartfelt lyrics are all you need.
At this point, Dylan appears to us like God's cranky kid brother. His presence on the show will dissuade contestants from making too big a deal of themselves. Who would want to be a poser when Dylan's in the house?
Bell, of Nickelodeon's ridiculously popular TV series "Drake & Josh," also happens to be a fine songwriter and performer with a clear and present Beatles obsession. Barely 20, he stands as proof that modern pop music, made by kids for kids, needn't be brain-dead or blatantly trend-hopping.
"American Idol" goes for the glitz, but our show will shy away from presenting a music talent show as if it was just another episode of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." "New Pop Visionary" will be filmed entirely on location inside the Mercury Lounge, a well-equipped original music club in New York City's East Village. Since unknown and largely unproven musicians don't normally appear on million-dollar soundstages, as "Idol" suggests, we'll be keeping it real by placing struggling musicians in their natural environment -- the dark, humble nightclub. The Mercury Lounge has the benefit of wonderful live sound, and since our show will concentrate on the music, that's the most important item on the checklist. And hey, if the judges work up a thirst and feel like ordering a pint from the bar, who's to stop them?
The house band will play theme music of its own composition, and will also take us into and out of commercial breaks. Since this theme will need to be both immediately catchy and worthy of repeated listening, the theme will be a rock tune with an instantly identifiable guitar riff -- think something like AC/DC's "Back in Black" or Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog."
There will be no host, a la Ryan Seacrest, but rather, the panel of judges will run the show in a friendly and informative manner. Again, the idea is to take the Hollywood-style glitz and glitter out of the picture and keep the show's focus on the music. "New Pop Visionary" will be far from boring and dry, however. Instead, it will let the music and the musicians provide the thrills through their playing and on-stage personalities.
Performers will cover a selection of well-written songs provided by the judges, as well as one of their own compositions, each week. There will be no prerecorded tracks. The house band will perform live, and the contestant will work on the arrangements of the tunes with the band prior to televised performance. Contestants will be urged to do more than just sing -- i.e, play an instrument of some sort. This should help us avoid trainwrecks like last season's Taylor Hicks meltdown on "American Idol." Idle hands are the tools of the devil, after all!
>Choosing the winner
On "American Idol," the winner of the contest is chosen by you, the viewer. No offense, television-watching masses, but "New Pop Visionary" is not interested in what you think. You've had your chance, America! And you gave us Clay Aiken.
Democracy is a great idea, but when it comes to pop music, too much democracy means a dumbing-down of the music. Go ahead and vote with your wallet, after the winner has been chosen, and a recording contract has been awarded. Don't like the winner? Don't buy their record. Agree that they should've taken the top prize? Head off to your favorite record store and drop some cash.
We'll leave the voting on the show itself to qualified professional musicians, folks who have made music their lives, not just a passing interest.
No one who participates in "New Pop Visionary" will be allowed to sign endorsement deals with corporate brands for a period of five years following their involvement in the contest. By that point, they'll either be totally forgotten or a well-established recording artist.
The idea here is to rescue some of the dignity that being a musician -- even a pop musician -- might provide. Fans of artists are usually disgusted when they see a musician they've invested themselves in shamelessly shilling for a Ford SUV, a soft drink, a television show, or a fast-food restaurant. We'll save them the severe discomfort that Who fans endure every time "CSI: Miami" comes on the tube and the one-time zeitgeist-capturing anthem "Won't Get Fooled Again" is reduced to a mere TV jingle.
If you win the contest, you'll be given a lump sum to spend however you wish. When it comes time for you to ink a deal with a record company, don't expect us to help you!
If you already have a mortgage, you might want to think twice about signing up with a major record label, which is essentially a bank willing to loan you money, your career being the collateral. These folks want an immediate return on their investment and will very certainly be dropping by the recording studio to control the direction your record is taking. An independent label with a bit of a promotional budget might be a better route to take. You won't be just another artist on a spread sheet there, and you won't end up owing them money at the end of the day.
The key point concerning your debut record will be the producer you work with. Should you choose a big-name producer -- Timbaland, or John Shanks, for example -- count on dropping your whole budget just to get them to walk in the door. A more intelligent route would involve a seasoned producer you're familiar with, whose records you know well and actually like, and whose style of production you imagine might be cohesive with your own vision for your record. Don't just grab a "name" producer because he or she had five smash hits last year, or you'll end up sounding less like yourself and more like last year's big hits.
Best of luck, everyone. Fame awaits! Just be careful what you wish for.