Saturday, May 26, 2007

American Idiot Meets American Idol

OK, I'll admit it: I watched American Idol. I've not watched it before, thinking myself above that sort of thing, but this year I got sucked in. I was irritated that Melinda Doolittle didn't win but satisfied that Jordin Sparks did. And I'll admit it: I think Simon Cowell always tells the truth, and I respect him for it.

But that's not why I'm writing this post. I'm writing this post because I am still trying to figure out why the Beatles were on such prominent display on the American Idol finale. Songs from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band showcased winners from previous seasons and showed why, for example, Carrie Underwood ("She's Leaving Home") has outpaced Taylor Hicks ("A Day in the Life," in which Hicks, in shiny silk shirt, stuck his finger to his temple and "pulled a trigger" to emphasize the line "He blew his mind out in a car") in the hearts and minds of the American Idolatrous public.

But that's not why I'm writing this post. I'm writing this post because I am still trying to figure out why Greenday chose American Idol to showcase their version of John Lennon's "Working Class Hero." It seems like a clash of competing idolatries: Idol is to Disneyworld what Greenday is to Lollapalooza. Idol doesn't swear. Greenday swears a lot; John Lennon, in "Working Class Hero," swears a lot.

I went along with it when Celine Dion sang alongside Elvis Presley earlier in the season, when Idol gave back. The whole thing made sense in American Idol World; it was acceptably surreal. But this mashup of power punk meets anti-establishment icon meets quintessential American mystique was supremely surreal and just left me confused.

I've had a hard time respecting Greenday; in the early 1990s they were just another punk band singing ephemeral lyrics about generic punk themes--leave me alone, I know I'm a loser, that sort of thing. They were immature even at their most mature; the surprisingly poignant "Good Riddance" was an acoustic farewell song with melancholy, sentimental lyrics, but it was sung too fast and with too much edge, like a high schooler auditioning for the Homecoming entertainment committee who had a semester left to learn nuance.

Greenday lost prominence for a while but then resurfaced in the last couple of years with American Idiot. Punk had lost its prominence as well, so now Greenday are the godfathers of the genre. And they've grown up; they're writing angry songs in place of their earlier self-indulgent songs. They've effectively taken on the Bush administration and won a great deal of critical acclaim. They're now important. And apparently they've discovered John Lennon.

But that's not why I'm writing this post. I'm writing this post because Greenday chose "Working Class Hero" as a fitting tribute to John Lennon (which it is) but also as an appropriate offering to the "Save Darfur" project (which it isn't), and they chose to draw attention to it on national television on American Idol--which makes no sense.

American Idol is a twenty-first century manifestation of the Horatio Alger vision for America: here even the poorest, the most downtrodden, can with pluck and fortitude become something great. Even an obscure, working-class neopeasant with a good singing voice can become an American Idol.

Of course, Jordin is the daughter of a former professional football player; Blake Lewis (this season's runner-up) has performed with Sir Mix-a-Lot; Melinda toured with the Winans; and even the song-contest winner, Scott Krippayne, has a long resume within the Christian music industry. These are not singers minding their own business who stumbled into greatness. They're not working-class heroes; they're industry insiders who became American idols.

So, in a sense, the joke's on us. And I find myself wondering whether Greenday was trying to make that point. People unfamiliar with the song "Working-Class Hero" will probably remember the line "A working-class hero is something to be," but they need to remember that the prophetic message of the song is more insidious: "You're still f---ing peasants, as far as I can see."

5 comments:

Christianne said...

This was an excellent post. Totally thoughtful, and totally understandable, even for those of us who 1) don't have near as much knowledge of music and 2) didn't watch American Idol at all this season. Well, I take that back. I caught about 30 minutes of the finale, just because my colleagues hyped that "tonight's the American Idol finale!!!!" enough times that day.

I caught enough to see Carrie Underwood perform "I'll Stand By You," which helped somewhat validate to me why she won the Country Music Female Vocalist of the Year award the previous week (another awards show I only caught for about 30 minutes, and I don't even listen to country music, nor had I ever heard Carrie Underwood perform before).

I also caught enough to then watch Green Day perform. I, too, was caught unawares by that addition to the lineup for the night. Why the heck is Green Day on Idol?? my husband and I asked ourselves (though we thoroughly enjoyed their performance, surprisingly). And I'll own right now to my ignorance that they were performing a Beatles cover. See? There's my lack of knowledge of the music industry showing up for probably the third time in this one comment for you.

So we, too, were puzzled, and I love the perspective of irony you give here. I also loved learning more about music and the politics therein from you in this post. Look forward to more posts like these in the future!

Christianne said...

Oh, and by the way, we also caught enough of the finale to see Sanjaya show up, praised alongside Thomas Lincoln and Albert Einstein. (What the heck??!) And to be honest, his lackluster performance with the guy from Aerosmith is what convinced that we'd finally had enough. Somebody please enlighten me: why is everyone hyped up on this Sanjaya dude? He can't sing that well (at least from what we heard), and he's not that original of a performer (at least from what we watched). Help!

Pete Juvinall said...

I agree with christianne - you need to let your music geek out Dave :).

About the closest I've come to liking, really liking, an American Idol winner was the rocker from a couple of seasons back (I think). I even got the single off iTunes when it came out and bought the record with some free download credits from Sony Connect and I was less that impressed.

I think for me, it's all about manufacturing hype. All the winners seem so, well, manufactured in their performance, style, etc. I think in this day of Internet fueled Post Modernism, it's almost impossible to manufacture musical talent without it coming off super hokey.

I had a interesting conversation with a middle-school nephew recently where I asked him what he like musically and he said 'Green Day. Ever hear of them'. Oh yeah, I said 'Dookie' was really popular when I was in college. He was floored. He thought they were a enw band.

Kate Stewart said...

To add irony to irony, John Lennon didn't even grow up "working class." Besides slumming in Hamburg, in early Beatledom, he knew a pretty secure life with his auntie in Woolton, which is a pretty "posh" suburb of working class Liverpool. Hey, I have been there! :) His family issues, another story.

Oh yeah, and talk about feeling OLD. I was into Green Day when they played a show on my friend's boyfriend's patio back in 1991 - fresh off of Gilman Street - back when Green Day were the new face in the East Bay/Lookout! Records scene after Operation Ivy packed their bags and Jesse Michaels fled to a monastery in South America. :)


For what it's worth - I thought LaKisha Jones was the best one.

Pda said...

Hey Dave!!
Paul Adelsman here. You may remember me from a little known band called...PEJ!

Yeah, long story short, no PEJ is not together, I'm doing well, and yes, I have a blog. Pdastories.blogspot.com

I heard about your page from an old friend of mine from the Vision Quest days. Amy Bianchi (Now she's married and goes by the last name Oun). Anyway, hope you're well!
Paul