Conformity on American Idol

You Only Live OnceI came down to visit my sister and help her with her taxes. As a result, she tortured me by making me watch American Idol. There was an interesting woman auditioning for the show last night. She wasn’t much of a singer. In fact, I couldn’t catch the melody of the song that she was singing. In her defense, these are very tough a cappella auditions. But she clearly hadn’t ever done anything more than sing along with the radio. What was interesting about her was that she had a great back story: God told her to audition. Along with all the failed Republican presidential candidates who God told to run, I am coming to the opinion that God is an asshole. But the judges were pretty nice.

As a result of watching this bit of American Idol, I heard the story of Stephanie Sanson. She is the screamer (they have another woman singer) for the post-hardcore band You Only Live Once. Basically, it was just a stunt to get some publicity for the band. She stood before the judges and screamed out a bit of Adele’s Set Fire To The Rain. Here is the performance, but pay particular attention to the reactions of the judges:

I’ve made no secret of my dislike of American Idol, although I haven’t written specifically about it. But this little clip encapsulates what I hate about the show. I’m not a fan of Sanson’s style of singing. But I realize that it is a valid way to use a voice. It isn’t without art. And I doubt in that brief demonstration that the judges could tell how good she was. It was very telling at the end when Mariah Carey said, “I just want you to know that she plays piano and loves ballet.” It was soaked in sarcasm. But why? She was claiming that Sanson’s style of musical performance makes it impossible that she has taste in art more generally?

What this all shows is that the creators of American Idol have an extremely limited idea of musical art. It would never produce a John Lydon or Bob Dylan or even Elvis Presley. It is all about technique and never pushing the stylistic envelope. And that’s fine. Unfortunately, the show has a pernicious effect on the music that plays on major radio stations. Many people I know have lost their ability to appreciate anything but the most vanilla songs, production, and performances. And that’s especially sad at a time when there is more good music than at any time in history.

So all the American Idol audience can laugh at the screaming girl. They can all pretend that they have the line to perfect music. But they only harm themselves.


The band put out a video about what they were doing with the American Idol audition. Unfortunately, they don’t have much to say except that it was an attempt to get some publicity. It is, however, interesting that they all take what they do very seriously. It is a good contrast to the judges who ignorantly thought it was all a joke. Also on the video is a small sample of You Only Live Once: at the beginning and at the very end. The second one is a song they did in the studio and I rather like it. It is called Chasing Dreams. Check it out:

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Conformity on American Idol

  1. Pauline Kael once had a line, vis-a-vis Streisand; that it’s OK to act out your singing, but not OK to overact your singing. To me this is the crux of that "American Idol" style. It’s to the point where if I’m at a baseball game, I actually become relieved if the national anthem is performed my kids or a marching band — at least I don’t have to hear some "AI" wannabe stretching out every note in their most "I have pain AND healthy vocal cords" fashion.

    The title of that show says it all. It’s about becoming an idol, not an artist. There are tons of working performers and dedicated amateurs in every city who could blow "AI" contestants off the stage. But they’re actually making music, not aspiring to win a popularity contest centered on which aspirant has the most tragic story and shiny teeth.

  2. @JMF – That is pretty much the heart of it. I don’t doubt that for what they do, these people on AI are the best. The week before this last one I wrote about Elephant Revival. They create really enjoyable music, but it would never fly on AI. The point of AI is not enjoyment, it is pyrotechnics.

    It is also important to note that in order to get on AI, the singers have to sign terrible contracts that screw the most successful for years into the future. That is the worst thing about it.

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