In praise of Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton, like other country singers, is self-deprecating enough to allow herself to be turned into a caricature. But Dolly is a great artist. She is a master of those “ancient tones” that come out of mountain music, and she can also bring those same qualities into her contemporary song-writing. Last night, she was the rather unlikely singing coach and song provider for “American Idol,” which, one would think, would prove a tough challenge for these young, pop, rock-tinged singers.

But the test of the songwriter part of a singer-songwriter is that the songs also work when other people perform them. Bob Dylan, for example, has a totally unique voice and totally unique songs. And yet, when other people perform them–from the Byrds to Garth Brooks– they still work!

And Dolly Parton is the same way. The “Idols” did quite well with her songs, I thought, in some cases rendering them in non-country styles but the strength of the songs still came through. (I’m thinking particularly of David Cook’s alterna-arrangement of “Sparrow.” For a non-”Idol” example, listen to what Whitney Houston does with “I Will Always Love You.”)

The vocation of the restaurateur

I caught the chef Gordon Ramsey on my new favorite show, BBC’s comedy car show “Top Gear,” and since he could drive really fast, I decided to watch his show Hell’s Kitchen.

This is a sort of American Idol of cookery, only the sole judge is Ramsey, the Simon Cowell of chefs. The different cooks compete in doing the various tasks required in a professional kitchen and the winner gets to run one of Ramsey’s restaurants.

Watching the show reminds us of the hard work and high pressure that professional restaurant workers have to deal with. Ramsey is like a drill sergeant, demanding excellent work, quality preparations, and outstanding service for the customers. He yells at the contestants and cusses them out (carefully bleeped) when they fall short, but he also teaches and mentors.

The show can demonstrate to young people the demands of the no-coddling real world of demanding bosses and high performance standards. We often see the customers enjoying their peaceful dinner, unaware of the turmoil that it took to prepare it. The show makes us appreciate the vocation of the professionals who prepare us our daily bread.

(I just caught the reruns. The new season premiers tonight after “American Idol.”)

Aesthetics & American Idol

OK, OK, I know I was bad-mouthing “American Idol” this season when it first started, but nevertheless I have been watching and it has gotten interesting. The certain winner will be David Archuleta, who has all of the teeny-bopper votes of last season’s Sanjaya with the added advantage that he can actually sing well. The two best singers, however, in my opinion, are the Irish waitress with the unfortunate tattoos Carly Smithson and the rocker with Tulsa connections David Cook.

That doesn’t mean I LIKE them the best. In this ongoing seminar on aesthetics that we have been conducting, it is important to realize that there is a huge difference between saying “that is good” and “I like that.” The former is an objective statement. The latter is a subjective response. Most confusions about aesthetic matters come from mixing up the two kinds of judgments. Indeed, ignoring the first one, considering the objective merits, and thinking that LIKING something is that same as recognizing its beauty. We can LIKE all kinds of things–things that make us feel gooey inside, nostalgic associations, easy jolts of hedonism, things we agree with, appeals to our sinful nature (which is why Hollywood goes the way it does)–whereas discerning beauty requires knowledge of the art form and careful attention and reflection. Growing in taste involves learning to subjectively “like” what is objectively “good.”

Anyway, the two performers on Idol that I LIKE, though I’m not saying they are necessarily as good as the others, are Brook White, who sends forth such a positive and joyful vibe, and Michael Johns, the bloke from Australia, who sings with soul but who does not overdo the special effects like the others tend to.

Remember the aesthetic lesson of the day: DON’T GO BY WHAT YOU LIKE. GO BY WHAT IS GOOD.

Supreme Court to reconsider profanity ban

Supreme Court to Review FCC Ban on Profanity. This refers to the ban on bad words on broadcast television, which has already been loosened quite a bit. I wager that the court will open the floodgates.

Still trying with American Idol

I have been hanging in there with “American Idol,” even though it has failed to grab me this season.  The announcers keep hyping, breathlessly, that “this is the best talent ever!” but I have seen nothing to make me think so.  In fact, now that the show has winnowed the herd to the top 24, I was struck by how many I hadn’t even seen before!  (I think I missed one audition show, so maybe they were all on that. But I also should have seen them on subsequent shows, hearing them try out on “Hollywood Week.”  Or maybe I did see them, but they left absolutely no impression.)  If this is the case, that some of the top contestants were edited out of the auditions, presumably because the producers didn’t think them interesting, that is a serious production fault.  (I wonder how far ahead these shows are taped.  You would think that if a contestant made it through another level of elimination, the producers could edit his or her performance into the previous week’s episode.)  Of the ones I’ve heard, the Aussie guy should be hard to beat.

“Lost” hermeneutics

Here is a rather amusing site in which two Washington Post staffers offer close readings of each “Lost” episode. It’s like theologians exegeting the Bible. But useful for us “Lost” fans, since they pick up all those details and hidden clues that most of us miss. (For example, the site links to an “screen caps and easter egg” site of “Lost” clues that gives us a clear stop-frame of the blurry Man in Jacob’s chair: and it is clearly Jack’s father!)