In defense of Phillip Phillips

So another Safe Scruffy White Guy with Guitar (SSWGWG) won American Idol yet again, beating out far better singers because so many pre-adolescent girls with cell-phones thought he was cute.  That’s what critics are saying.  I acknowledge the underlying problem, but I would argue that this year’s winner, Phillip Phillips, is different from all of the other SSWGWGs and that he is a worthy winner.

The format of singing contests favors the “big voice,” the kind with loud, swelling tones, vibratos, runs, riffs, and grandiose finales.  That style shows off various kinds of talent, for sure, but how much of that can you really listen to at one time?  I hear the American Idol style with little kids singing in school choruses and with “special music” for church.  In that sense, American Idol has had a detrimental influence on contemporary music.

Phillip Phillips, though, doesn’t sing like that.  And he has attained what has become rare:  a fresh, distinct sound.  He also shows actual musicianship and artistry, playing with the melodies and making interesting new arrangements of the old chestnuts that Idol made him sing.  And you have to like his integrity.  After Tommy Hilfiger, no less, told him to stop wearing grey shirts and to glam up his wardrobe, Phillip wore nothing but grey shirts!  And he refused to take part in those idiotic Ford commercials.

I shifted my allegiance to Phillip after realizing that I would much rather listen to an album of his laid-back, restrained, original singing than an album of Jessica’s virtuoso pop-operatic power ballads.

I’m curious about who all of the contestants will get recording contracts.  In the past, the country singers (Carrie Underwood, Scotty McCreery [last year's SSWGWG]) have launched big careers, as I suspect will be true of Skylar Laine.  But most “big voices” do not seem to have done all that well.  We only need a few Celine Dions and Mariah Careys.  And few of the SSWGWGs have found much success.  I suspect that Phillip Phillips may be a different story.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Van Edwards

    Despite the fact that Phillip is from my hometown (Leesburg, GA!), I’m also glad his style won out over the the ‘big voice’. I’ve never liked the type of voice you described (“the kind with loud, swelling tones, vibratos, runs, riffs, and grandiose finales”) because they all seem like carbon copies of Whitney. Of course you could say that Phillip is somewhat derivative as well, but to me, he has more range musically than the “big voices.”

  • Van Edwards

    Despite the fact that Phillip is from my hometown (Leesburg, GA!), I’m also glad his style won out over the the ‘big voice’. I’ve never liked the type of voice you described (“the kind with loud, swelling tones, vibratos, runs, riffs, and grandiose finales”) because they all seem like carbon copies of Whitney. Of course you could say that Phillip is somewhat derivative as well, but to me, he has more range musically than the “big voices.”

  • Phillip Washeim

    Ever watch The Voice. Seems they have more unique voices there.

  • Phillip Washeim

    Ever watch The Voice. Seems they have more unique voices there.

  • Jimmy Veith

    To my big brother “Dr. Veith”, the smartest person I know:

    You are absolutely correct and I agree with everything you said.

    We both grew up in the golden age of rock and roll, when uniqueness and creativity was highly valued. As a result, there was much more variety in popular music than there is today. I wonder why?

    Anyway, at the risk of sounding like an old person, I must say that music was much better when I was a kid.

  • Jimmy Veith

    To my big brother “Dr. Veith”, the smartest person I know:

    You are absolutely correct and I agree with everything you said.

    We both grew up in the golden age of rock and roll, when uniqueness and creativity was highly valued. As a result, there was much more variety in popular music than there is today. I wonder why?

    Anyway, at the risk of sounding like an old person, I must say that music was much better when I was a kid.

  • formerly just steve

    It’s not all that surprising to me that Phillips won, considering, as you rightly point out, “so many pre-adolescent girls with cell-phones thought he was cute.” Add to them all of the people who though we was truly talented. I’m a little disappointed that he won, though (to the extent I care much about any of it), because I suspect he will have less artistic control under the management and recording labels associated with Idol. In some ways, the runner-ups do better. I can say that this is one of only a couple former Idol contestants whose work I would ever consider buying and certainly the only one who I actually look forward to hearing more from.

  • formerly just steve

    It’s not all that surprising to me that Phillips won, considering, as you rightly point out, “so many pre-adolescent girls with cell-phones thought he was cute.” Add to them all of the people who though we was truly talented. I’m a little disappointed that he won, though (to the extent I care much about any of it), because I suspect he will have less artistic control under the management and recording labels associated with Idol. In some ways, the runner-ups do better. I can say that this is one of only a couple former Idol contestants whose work I would ever consider buying and certainly the only one who I actually look forward to hearing more from.

  • helen

    We both grew up in the golden age of rock and roll,
    when uniqueness and creativity was highly valued.
    Anyway, at the risk of sounding like an old person,
    I must say that music was much better when I was a kid.

    LOL! I think music was always better when one was a kid.
    And I tuned out when “rock&roll” came in. :)

    Besides the jazz someone here pointed me to, (thanks for that, BTW!)
    I’ve been listening to very old things.
    Yesterday it was Judy Garland singing “Look for the Silver Lining”.
    Someone gave me two discs of soft jazz, one piano, one with sax and drum added,
    that his piano teacher recorded. Good music is still being done, (but not on the radio). :(

  • helen

    We both grew up in the golden age of rock and roll,
    when uniqueness and creativity was highly valued.
    Anyway, at the risk of sounding like an old person,
    I must say that music was much better when I was a kid.

    LOL! I think music was always better when one was a kid.
    And I tuned out when “rock&roll” came in. :)

    Besides the jazz someone here pointed me to, (thanks for that, BTW!)
    I’ve been listening to very old things.
    Yesterday it was Judy Garland singing “Look for the Silver Lining”.
    Someone gave me two discs of soft jazz, one piano, one with sax and drum added,
    that his piano teacher recorded. Good music is still being done, (but not on the radio). :(

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Jimmy (@3), I wouldn’t pick a fight with you if you were merely to express the nearly universal notion that music was better when you were young. That’s just another way of saying “I’m old and no longer interested in new music.”

    But “there was much more variety in popular music than there is today”? I’m sorry, no. The music world is vastly more fragmented now than it used to be. There is a crazy amount of variety going on out there.

    The problem today (if it is, in fact, a problem) is that we don’t all have one source (i.e., radio) for learning about music. Back in the day (yes, even back in my day), you turned on the radio to hear new songs. If you wanted to hear some obscure music, you had to hope that your radio market had a radio station playing obscure music. Or you could hope to have a cool record store in town.

    Today, however, there are a ridiculous number of ways to hear new music. Music blogs, podcasts, iTunes, Spotify, and a gazillion other streaming and sharing options. Of all the music being listened to, I’d bet that a rather small percentage of it is actually being listened to on the radio.

    Which means that “popular” music isn’t nearly as popular as it used to be. I’ve seen this statistic somewhere, about what being a Billboard #1 means in 2012 vs. what it meant in the 70s. The dropoff is huge!

    Anyhow, point being, the variety is still there — in fact, I would very much argue, there’s vastly more variety today in what kids are listening to today than back in your or my day. But if you’re looking for what’s popular, you’re going to have to think outside the radio.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Jimmy (@3), I wouldn’t pick a fight with you if you were merely to express the nearly universal notion that music was better when you were young. That’s just another way of saying “I’m old and no longer interested in new music.”

    But “there was much more variety in popular music than there is today”? I’m sorry, no. The music world is vastly more fragmented now than it used to be. There is a crazy amount of variety going on out there.

    The problem today (if it is, in fact, a problem) is that we don’t all have one source (i.e., radio) for learning about music. Back in the day (yes, even back in my day), you turned on the radio to hear new songs. If you wanted to hear some obscure music, you had to hope that your radio market had a radio station playing obscure music. Or you could hope to have a cool record store in town.

    Today, however, there are a ridiculous number of ways to hear new music. Music blogs, podcasts, iTunes, Spotify, and a gazillion other streaming and sharing options. Of all the music being listened to, I’d bet that a rather small percentage of it is actually being listened to on the radio.

    Which means that “popular” music isn’t nearly as popular as it used to be. I’ve seen this statistic somewhere, about what being a Billboard #1 means in 2012 vs. what it meant in the 70s. The dropoff is huge!

    Anyhow, point being, the variety is still there — in fact, I would very much argue, there’s vastly more variety today in what kids are listening to today than back in your or my day. But if you’re looking for what’s popular, you’re going to have to think outside the radio.

  • Jimmy Veith

    Todd @ 6. You stated “I wouldn’t pick a fight with you if you were merely to express the nearly universal notion that music was better when you were young. That’s just another way of saying ‘I’m old and no longer interested in new music.’ “

    As always, you make a good point and well said. However, just because most people think that music was best when they were kids, does not disprove that when I happened to be a kid, the music that I grew up listening to was much better then.

    I think that most students of music can identify certain periods of time when a particular genre of music really blossomed and hit its stride. As for rock and roll, which was the popular music of the day, the golden age happened to be from 1965 to the mid 70’s. Somebody had to be a kid then, and it happened to be me.

    You stated: “But ‘there was much more variety in popular music than there is today’? I’m sorry, no. The music world is vastly more fragmented now than it used to be. There is a crazy amount of variety going on out there.”
    I still think I am correct. Keep in mind that I limited my statement to “popular music”. The popular music of my day was rock and roll. I think the popular music of today is contemporary country music. There is some good stuff out there, but for the most part it all sounds alike. Same old background music, bad sounding electric guitars making “walls of sound”, and a bunch of good looking guys and galls singing about acting ignorant are being proud of it. (However, even in contemporary country music there is some good stuff out there. I really like and respect some of them such as Brad Paisley, Randy Travis and Allen Jackson.)
    I agree with the points you made in the next three paragraphs. But don’t you think that if there were groups out there today that were producing the kind of high quality and a variety of music like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and The Eagles, that even old and uninformed guys like myself would know about it?

  • Jimmy Veith

    Todd @ 6. You stated “I wouldn’t pick a fight with you if you were merely to express the nearly universal notion that music was better when you were young. That’s just another way of saying ‘I’m old and no longer interested in new music.’ “

    As always, you make a good point and well said. However, just because most people think that music was best when they were kids, does not disprove that when I happened to be a kid, the music that I grew up listening to was much better then.

    I think that most students of music can identify certain periods of time when a particular genre of music really blossomed and hit its stride. As for rock and roll, which was the popular music of the day, the golden age happened to be from 1965 to the mid 70’s. Somebody had to be a kid then, and it happened to be me.

    You stated: “But ‘there was much more variety in popular music than there is today’? I’m sorry, no. The music world is vastly more fragmented now than it used to be. There is a crazy amount of variety going on out there.”
    I still think I am correct. Keep in mind that I limited my statement to “popular music”. The popular music of my day was rock and roll. I think the popular music of today is contemporary country music. There is some good stuff out there, but for the most part it all sounds alike. Same old background music, bad sounding electric guitars making “walls of sound”, and a bunch of good looking guys and galls singing about acting ignorant are being proud of it. (However, even in contemporary country music there is some good stuff out there. I really like and respect some of them such as Brad Paisley, Randy Travis and Allen Jackson.)
    I agree with the points you made in the next three paragraphs. But don’t you think that if there were groups out there today that were producing the kind of high quality and a variety of music like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and The Eagles, that even old and uninformed guys like myself would know about it?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Jimmy (@7) said:

    I think the popular music of today is contemporary country music.

    Well, there’s the problem then! You’re as much as admitting to a narrow experience with popular music.

    After all, the Billboard Hot 100 provides us a fairly objective list at what is popular, at least according to their published metric:

    The week’s most popular songs across all genres, ranked by radio airplay audience impressions as measured by Nielsen BDS, sales data as compiled by Nielsen SoundScan and streaming activity data provided by online music sources.

    Anyhow, this week, there’s not a country tune in the top 100 until all the way down at #20. In the top 30 songs this week, there are 3 country tunes that I could find.

    But check out the other genres there. You’ve got a fairly indie-rock song by Gotye at #1 (“Somebody That I Used to Know” — which I personally really like; not something I often say about songs on the Hot 100 list). You’ve got some straight-up pop. Some hip-hop. Some rock. Some dance/electronic music. And, yeah, some country.

    In short, what used to just be called “rock” has splintered into thousands of different subgenres that are all over the map. There’s vastly more diversity in the niche markets, but even in a list of the top 100 songs, there’s still quite a bit of diversity — and, I would argue, more than you would have found 40 or 50 years ago.

    if there were groups out there today that were producing the kind of high quality and a variety of music like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and The Eagles, that even old and uninformed guys like myself would know about it?

    Well, no. Again, the music world is deeply fragmented today. You could literally pick one subgenre (or, depending on what that means to you, even a subsubgenre) and spend all your time just exploring all the artists in it. Some would almost certainly rise to the level of the artists you name — provided that you enjoy that particular type of music, of course.

    But how to find those artists? The cost of making (and, more importantly, distributing) music is vastly cheaper than it used to be. You don’t need a record contract and radio play to make it these days. So you might discover a High Quality artist on the radio. Or you might only hear about them from a friend on Facebook. Or trolling through Facebook posts. Depends on your friends, I guess.

    I’m not exactly listening to new music these days, whether it’s because I’m the parent of two young children, or because I’ve already amassed a fairly large collection (by some people’s standards), or just because I’m 37. That said, I’d argue that, I don’t know, Radiohead and Sufjan Stevens rise to your challenge. Maybe some Elliott Smith for your more singer-songwriter stuff. Of course, I detest the Eagles, so I’m not sure our tastes line up.

    Anyhow, point being, you almost certainly will have to do more work to discover what’s going on out there today. It doesn’t just come to you over the radio anymore, like it used to come to you and everyone else in your town. Nowadays you have to sift through all the noise. It helps to know people who are listening to good music, especially if they talk about it on Facebook or whatever.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Jimmy (@7) said:

    I think the popular music of today is contemporary country music.

    Well, there’s the problem then! You’re as much as admitting to a narrow experience with popular music.

    After all, the Billboard Hot 100 provides us a fairly objective list at what is popular, at least according to their published metric:

    The week’s most popular songs across all genres, ranked by radio airplay audience impressions as measured by Nielsen BDS, sales data as compiled by Nielsen SoundScan and streaming activity data provided by online music sources.

    Anyhow, this week, there’s not a country tune in the top 100 until all the way down at #20. In the top 30 songs this week, there are 3 country tunes that I could find.

    But check out the other genres there. You’ve got a fairly indie-rock song by Gotye at #1 (“Somebody That I Used to Know” — which I personally really like; not something I often say about songs on the Hot 100 list). You’ve got some straight-up pop. Some hip-hop. Some rock. Some dance/electronic music. And, yeah, some country.

    In short, what used to just be called “rock” has splintered into thousands of different subgenres that are all over the map. There’s vastly more diversity in the niche markets, but even in a list of the top 100 songs, there’s still quite a bit of diversity — and, I would argue, more than you would have found 40 or 50 years ago.

    if there were groups out there today that were producing the kind of high quality and a variety of music like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and The Eagles, that even old and uninformed guys like myself would know about it?

    Well, no. Again, the music world is deeply fragmented today. You could literally pick one subgenre (or, depending on what that means to you, even a subsubgenre) and spend all your time just exploring all the artists in it. Some would almost certainly rise to the level of the artists you name — provided that you enjoy that particular type of music, of course.

    But how to find those artists? The cost of making (and, more importantly, distributing) music is vastly cheaper than it used to be. You don’t need a record contract and radio play to make it these days. So you might discover a High Quality artist on the radio. Or you might only hear about them from a friend on Facebook. Or trolling through Facebook posts. Depends on your friends, I guess.

    I’m not exactly listening to new music these days, whether it’s because I’m the parent of two young children, or because I’ve already amassed a fairly large collection (by some people’s standards), or just because I’m 37. That said, I’d argue that, I don’t know, Radiohead and Sufjan Stevens rise to your challenge. Maybe some Elliott Smith for your more singer-songwriter stuff. Of course, I detest the Eagles, so I’m not sure our tastes line up.

    Anyhow, point being, you almost certainly will have to do more work to discover what’s going on out there today. It doesn’t just come to you over the radio anymore, like it used to come to you and everyone else in your town. Nowadays you have to sift through all the noise. It helps to know people who are listening to good music, especially if they talk about it on Facebook or whatever.

  • Jimmy Veith

    tODD: Again, you make some good points. I like the way you used objective data from the Billboard Hot 100 to prove your point, even on a subject matter that is fairly subjective.
    My observation that the popular music of today is contemporary country music, may have something to do with geography. (When I turn on the radio in Oklahoma, contemporary country music is about all I hear. Although, there are lots of Spanish language stations that play only Mexican music.) Maybe I should have used contemporary country music as just an example of the sameness and lack of creativity.
    But the lack of creativity could also be seen in other music genres such as hip-hop, rap, punk rock, and most pop music (although that is such a large category that it is hard to say there is little variety). This is my subjective judgment as an amateur musician and can not be proven with statistics.
    The type of music that I personally play is bluegrass. I have heard people who don’t listen to a lot of bluegrass say that “it all sounds alike to me”. So I recognize that the really good stuff may be hard to distinguish from the really bad stuff if you don’t train your ear to hear and appreciate the subtle things that are going on that that makes such a big difference. (Maybe if I listed to more rap music for example, I too could learn to appreciate the differences, but I don’t think so.)
    I do like all kinds of music and agree with your assertion that we have to search it out. So I will check out Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens and Elliott Smith. I will let you know what I think.
    If you want to listen to some crazy good contemporary bluegrass, check out the Punch Brothers or Cadillac Sky.
    By the way, I can’t believe you don’t like the Eagles. Don’t you ever get a “peaceful easy feeling, that won’t let you down”? Tell me it is not true!

  • Jimmy Veith

    tODD: Again, you make some good points. I like the way you used objective data from the Billboard Hot 100 to prove your point, even on a subject matter that is fairly subjective.
    My observation that the popular music of today is contemporary country music, may have something to do with geography. (When I turn on the radio in Oklahoma, contemporary country music is about all I hear. Although, there are lots of Spanish language stations that play only Mexican music.) Maybe I should have used contemporary country music as just an example of the sameness and lack of creativity.
    But the lack of creativity could also be seen in other music genres such as hip-hop, rap, punk rock, and most pop music (although that is such a large category that it is hard to say there is little variety). This is my subjective judgment as an amateur musician and can not be proven with statistics.
    The type of music that I personally play is bluegrass. I have heard people who don’t listen to a lot of bluegrass say that “it all sounds alike to me”. So I recognize that the really good stuff may be hard to distinguish from the really bad stuff if you don’t train your ear to hear and appreciate the subtle things that are going on that that makes such a big difference. (Maybe if I listed to more rap music for example, I too could learn to appreciate the differences, but I don’t think so.)
    I do like all kinds of music and agree with your assertion that we have to search it out. So I will check out Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens and Elliott Smith. I will let you know what I think.
    If you want to listen to some crazy good contemporary bluegrass, check out the Punch Brothers or Cadillac Sky.
    By the way, I can’t believe you don’t like the Eagles. Don’t you ever get a “peaceful easy feeling, that won’t let you down”? Tell me it is not true!

  • DAvid R

    In general, I agree with th earticle’s points in defense of Philip Philips. The didn’t miss a beat when singing alongside CCR on a couple selections impressed me. Not many of our younger singers know much about CCR, let alone listen to them

    However, I would differ from some of the points of view that country music sounds the same. It’s very diverse today between the tradition three-chord sound, the country-western, and other strands. Okay, I’m admit my country music bias, here. But, I was really pulling for Skylar Laine to go further than she did. I personally loved her singing right with REba on the AI finale.

  • DAvid R

    In general, I agree with th earticle’s points in defense of Philip Philips. The didn’t miss a beat when singing alongside CCR on a couple selections impressed me. Not many of our younger singers know much about CCR, let alone listen to them

    However, I would differ from some of the points of view that country music sounds the same. It’s very diverse today between the tradition three-chord sound, the country-western, and other strands. Okay, I’m admit my country music bias, here. But, I was really pulling for Skylar Laine to go further than she did. I personally loved her singing right with REba on the AI finale.

  • Jimmy Veith

    tODD: I sampled a few videos from your list, and I must say that I was impressed. I don’t think our musical tastes are that far apart.
    I really liked Sufjan Stevens and Elliott Smith, and want to hear more.

    Radiohead, was good, but it seemed like all the songs I listened to projected the same mood. Maybe its just me, or I may have not listened to a big enough sample.

    If you take a listen to the Punch Brothers, be sure to sample lots of their stuff. Some of their songs are almost too weird, but the musicianship is superb. With Cadillac Sky, make sure you listen to “Born Lonesome”, great song.

    Thanks.

  • Jimmy Veith

    tODD: I sampled a few videos from your list, and I must say that I was impressed. I don’t think our musical tastes are that far apart.
    I really liked Sufjan Stevens and Elliott Smith, and want to hear more.

    Radiohead, was good, but it seemed like all the songs I listened to projected the same mood. Maybe its just me, or I may have not listened to a big enough sample.

    If you take a listen to the Punch Brothers, be sure to sample lots of their stuff. Some of their songs are almost too weird, but the musicianship is superb. With Cadillac Sky, make sure you listen to “Born Lonesome”, great song.

    Thanks.


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