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.

That form overwhelms content

I have spared you my American Idol reflections up to this point, that show being one of my pop-culture vices, but a recent performance was so emblematic that I cannot help but comment upon it.  Joshua Ledet, arguably the best singer in the contest (who made the top three but, unfortunately, got voted off before this week’s finale), sang as his personal choice John Lennon’s “Imagine.”  Now that has to be one of my least favorite songs, a treacly anthem to atheism.  Joshua, though, has made much of the fact that he’s all about the church, his father being a pastor, and singing gospel songs or non-gospel songs with gospel stylings every chance he gets.  He sang “Imagine”–“Imagine there’s no Heaven;it’s easy if you try/No hell below us; above us only sky”–not to go against type, though, but, according to what he was telling the judges, because of its uplifting and inspirational message!  He obviously didn’t understand what he was singing.  The reason, I would suggest, is because the music sounds uplifting and inspirational–in a peculiarly sappy way–and that overwhelms for most listeners the nihilistic lyrics.

This is the same principle demonstrated by the avant garde East German playwright Bertolt Brecht who wrote with musical collaborator Kurt Weill the song “Mack the Knife” for his play The Threepenny Opera.  You know the song, which has become a “standard” of light jazz and lounge crooners.  It’s got a light swinging tune.   But notice the words, all about how a shark has teeth that are razor sharp and is like Mack, who will kill you with his blade.  The melody is sunshiny and peaceful, but the lyrics are dark and violent.  Brecht was purposefully playing form off against content.  Usually, the two go together, mutually re-enforcing each other.  But Brecht was trying to write a song in which the two go in opposite directions.  In his experiment, he believed that the form would overwhelm the content, that audiences would pick up on the happy melody and consider it a happy song with the disturbing lyrics having no impact!  And he was right, as evidenced every time “Mack the Knife” gets played in an elevator or as Muzak in a shopping mall.

This is important to realize when it comes to contemporary Christian music.   The assumption has been that to make Christianity relevant and to communicate with the culture, all we have to do is take “secular” forms–rock, metal, hip-hop, whatever–and put Christian words to it.   But Brecht’s experiment with “Mack the Knife” and Joshua Ledet’s performance on American Idol prove that it’s not so simple.   Death metal with Christian words will come across as and will have the effect of death metal, with the Christian words hardly registering.  Form is not neutral.  Form will drown out the content.

What we need from contemporary Christian artists (musicians, painters, filmmakers, authors) is not slavish following of other people’s styles, attempting to Christianize them; rather, we need original styles, ones that can carry the Christian message and that other people will imitate (thereby promulgating, even unintentionally, the Christian content).

American Idol finale

I have been sparing you this year my interest in American Idol, the popular talent show that causes the American public to exercise aesthetic judgments.  But now we are at the finale.  The last two standing are Scotty McCreary and Laure Alaina, 17 and 16 years old respectively.  They are both country singers, interestingly enough, and refreshingly free of attitude and vulgarity.   This season is being hailed as one of the best ever in terms of talent.  Simon Cowell is not on anymore, so the criticisms have been kinder and gentler, to put it mildly.  The replacements for Cowell and Paula Abdul, Steve Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, have been surprisingly likable.  They compete tonight, with the winner being announced on Wednesday.

I think some of you must follow the show, despite the snide remarks I have endured in previous years (“Dr. Veith!  You are the highbrow culture critic!  How can you watch this dreck?”), so I address only you fellow-travelers:  What do you think of the show this season?  What were the highlights?  Has justice been done?  Who deserves to win?

American Idol this time around

Yes, I’m following American Idol again, despite the way some of you have been giving me a hard time about this particular guilty pleasure.  Last night the 13 finalists were selected.  I would just like to note that I picked every one of the male performers and voted for four of them.  The one female contestant that I was pulling for, Naima Adedapo from Milwaukee, did not get enough votes from the public, but the judges put her back in as a “wild card.”  My favorite and the one I’m predicting to win is Jacob Lusk.  As Steven Tyler said, we need his kind of singing again, a strong, jazzy, standards-kind-of-voice.  Naima is much the same way.   These are adult voices.  It’s time adults made music for adults, as opposed to kids making music for kids, or kids making music for adults.

A feature of “Hollywood Week” was a plump baby-faced 15 year old with an angelic voice getting thrown out of a group by, in effect, some mean cool kids.  The mean ones were all voted off, except for country-singer-with-a-deep-voice Scotty, who tearfully repented.

Also, I will say that the new judging team of Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, and veteran Randy Jackson has, to my surprise, done a good job.  I had assumed the dark lord Simon Cowell would be missed, but the more positive panel has worked well.

This new crop of finalists is very strong, surely one of the best.

With twist, `American Idol’ down to 13 contestants.

So if any of the rest of you are following the show, I would welcome your assessments and your predictions.  (If you aren’t and if your comment would just be something on the order of “why would anyone watch this show?” you can keep that to yourself.)

American Idol final two

Usually, my “American Idol” favorites never make it all that far.  This year, though, the two performers that I have been pulling for and voting for all along are the two finalists!   Crystal Bowersox and Lee DeWyze.

Of the two, I’m not sure who I want, since I like them both a lot.  Lee is a kind of diffident, shy guy, the sort who doesn’t make eye-contact when he talks, but he is a really fine contemporary singer.  Crystal is an alternative, bluesey Bonnie-Rait-type singer with amazing chops.  She never watched the show before, and she considered pulling out several times earlier.  Neither come across as egotistic divas, nor as pop star stereotypes.  Both are down-to-earth, non-assuming, and genuine musical artists.  Critics have said this year’s contestants are bland, but I’m tired of the Idol big voiced over-projections and I appreciate these two in particular.

Who deserves to win?  I’ll listen carefully to the final show next week.  I’d have to give the talent edge  to Crystal.  But I’d be glad to have Lee win it.

Any opinions?

DeWyze, Bowersox left to duel on ‘Idol’ finale.

Maddy Curtis update

Maddy Curtis, the 16-year-old from around here who became an “American Idol” contestant whom I have been blogging about was cut in the Hollywood round.  Ironically, that happened the very day her initial Boston audition was aired, so that her acclaim began at the very time as her disappointment.  Her  mom blogs about the whole experience, emphasizing how God is using all of this:

Well now you dear friends know what we were not allowed to reveal for the last month: Maddy did not make it through the Hollywood rounds.

In fact, what was ironic was that she was being cut at precisely the time the Boston auditions were airing on January 12. While I think she would have kept her composure, the cameras and interviewers have a tendency to needle you until you lose it. . . .

Maddy stopped crying in the elevator. We went up to our room and watched the Boston auditions – which we hadn’t seen – on YouTube.

Maddy was brushing her teeth when there was a knock on our door and I peeped out the peep hole and saw a camera crew. We didn’t answer. Maddy went to sleep peacefully and I stayed up all night reading emails.

Around 2 am, a paper was slipped under our door with our flight information for the next morning. No one ever came to say goodbye – even the producers who had seemed to love Maddy. It was a cold and disconnected feeling, and yet we felt connected to a larger world as in LAX people recognized Maddy and said hello.

For unbelievers, it might be hard to understand the peace with which Maddy and I traveled home. We knew God had accomplished some amazing things – some which we would find out about and some which we would never know. As they continue to be revealed, I will continue to share with you. But even that night, we felt like she had accomplished something special.

I am very grateful to American Idol for representing our daughter so well – though the way they clipped her song made no sense at all. I will be posting the song “The Nearness of You” – which Maddy sang at her Haiti Benefit – in a few days on YouTube. She executed the Ella Fitzgerald classic flawlessly – but it just wasn’t what American Idol was looking for :)

Tripp and I could not be prouder of our little girl. The big question was “Will she audition again?” The answer from Maddy is “No.” What she discovered is that she did not like the cameras and lack of spontaneity. The stage has always been her first love. And her family is grateful that God gave her the opportunity to immediately focus on helping others through the Maddy Sings for Haiti Benefit she did last weekend.

Maddy is receiving invitations to speak and perform at pro-life events and True Love Waits. Having been given a chance in the spotlight, the true purpose of Maddy’s life and her gifts has been revealed. It shouldn’t be surprising that God can use the things of the world to accomplish His purposes.

And even if nothing else happened, what happened is enough. . . .