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.