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Idols get sent to Old School, not School of Rock

Theme nights display an embarrassing generation gap
/ Source: contributor

“American Idol” may purport to be all about finding the next pop superstar, but along the way, it’s spawned another booming industry: the rehabilitation of lost and forgotten musical legends.

Releasing a new album after an extended dry spell? Hoping to gain market share among your grandchildren’s generation? Look no further than a week's guest spot on “Idol,” which offers  millions of viewers to any old singer or band who deigns to legitimize “Idol” with his presence.

"Idol's" weekly theme selection forces the contestants to pick songs from a particular musical era or genre. While that can irritate a finalist already sure of their style, it does have a useful purpose in keeping the focus on the individual rather than a genre. Without themes, Bucky Covington would have performed country rock every week, and if that style happened to be the most popular among the voting public, he’d have won. Good luck marketing that album outside of North Carolina.

Themes also serve to torture the contestants by making them sing unfamiliar arrangements for songs that they’d never record even as part of a drunken bet. What makes for good television, though, would make for truly awful radio if these songs actually hit the airwaves. Last week's guest, Queen, hasn’t been a fixture on the charts since Taylor Hicks was opening shows for Jethro Tull in the 1970s.

Musicians topping the charts right now obviously aren’t racing to get on the program. And even if they were, there are negatives in surrounding the “Idol” finalists with their same-age contemporaries. (Beyoncé Knowles, to pick just one example, is younger than Hicks, Ellliott Yamin and Chris Daughtry, yet she didn't need a show to establish herself.)

Musicians who have put in the time and energy to rise to the top of the charts are understandably reluctant to endorse the notion that any yahoo with a personality and a halfway-decent voice can make it big just by singing in front of an audience two minutes a week for four months. That’s particularly true if the winner immediately becomes their direct competition, which is exactly what happens to those currently entrenched in the weekly Top 40.

Sixtysomething Rod Stewart’s hardly ‘Forever Young’If Kelly Clarkson thinks she’s a musical star for any other reason besides winning the first season of “Idol,” she’s kidding herself — but she’s not turning cartwheels to guest-star on her old show, because she no longer needs it. Why help someone like Kellie Pickler, Katharine McPhee or Paris Bennett make it big, since if they do, some of her fans might be tempted to buy their music instead of hers?

It’s also far from hip to be on the show, and doesn’t exactly give anyone participating on the show much in the way of street cred.   Heck, “Creed” hasn’t been on the charts in a couple of years (and technically doesn’t even exist at this point), and Simon Cowell said the band wouldn’t be caught dead performing on the show. And he’s probably right.

Of course, there are plenty of performers eager to show up, advise the contestants, and in most cases perform onstage. They just happen to be old. So far this season, the finalists have already heard from Stevie Wonder, Barry Manilow, Kenny Rogers and Queen. This week, it’s Rod Stewart’s turn to offer advice.

Can Rush and Billy Joel be far behind? What about Bananarama? The Beach Boys? Abba? Forget Top of the Charts. It’s more like Sedated in the Eighties.

It all makes sense if viewers consider “American Idol” to be a sort of musical classroom, where the contestants learn from those with greater wisdom than, say, Ryan Seacrest. After all, given the choice between Rock and Roll Hall of Famers and Jessica Simpson, it’s not hard to see who would offer advice better than “show your legs in a ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ remake.”

The producers work hard to make it seem as if “Idol” has transformed into “School of Rock,” with the musical guest lecturing each finalist on what they should be doing. Much like in a real  classroom, some have done a better job of reaching the finalists than others. This year’s Idols were mostly awestruck at meeting Stevie Wonder — had he told one of them to cover a Judy Garland tune instead, they’d have probably done it (even Chris Daughtry). On the other hand, some finalists appear to have showed up for Barry Manilow’s instruction only because they heard he was taking attendance.

But even when their guests are treated with rolled eyes and polite dismissals, like Great Aunt Mabel at Thanksgiving, there’s an additional benefit that comes from making the finalists sing different songs and talk to older musicians. It hides how far from camera-ready most of the remaining finalists really are.

During one week this season where the theme was songs from the 21st century, Shakira and Wyclef sang “Hips Don’t Lie” on the results show. Their act was more electric, by far, than anything any of the finalists have done so far. Big shocker there — both singers are a whole lot farther down the pop stardom road than any of the contestants are.

Compare that to Stevie Wonder, or Barry Manilow, or Kenny Rogers. All three performed, and all were fine, but none really clashed with the contestants because their musical stylings aren’t really Top 40 radio any more. Manilow could have given the performance of his life, and most of the audience would have nodded and said, “Yeah, my parents were really into him 20 years ago.” Shakira and Wyclef give the same performance they’ve given to all the late-night, early-morning and noontime talk shows, and everyone runs to their computers to download the song.

When “Idol” crowns its winner on May 24, that singer will be a lot closer to having that kind of fan base. Until then, it’s probably best that they be compared to someone other than their professional contemporaries.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.