American Idol is back. True to form, it launched with all the major players in place--Simon, Paula, Randy, Ryan--and reinvented itself by adding a fourth judge: Kara DioGuardi, a songwriter with an impressive client list (if you consider Ashlee Simpson impressive) and a backstory that includes being Paula Abduhl's roommate. Beyond that, the song remained the same, with the occasional bright light singer interspersed with pitifully deluded nonsingers, and hilarity abounding.
The judges clearly had their favorites. They made no effort to hide it; they'd tell a contestant outright not merely "You have talent" or "You have potential" or "You have a bright singing career ahead of you" but the more fundamental "I like you." For the contestants they liked, they went beyond performance critique or generic encouragement to what you might call life coaching, American Idol style.
In such unguarded moments the show offers a unique window into the music industry, illuminating the rationale for classic country superstars such as Dolly Parton, Broadway hitmakers such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, punk rock girls such as Gwen Stefani and pop idols such as Mariah Carey showing such unmitigated, unabashed respect for one another. To the outsider, the music these artists create can seem irreconcilable, even in some cases critiques against each other. What hath Webber to do with Carey, for example? More starkly, how can rocker David Cook and teen crooner David Archuletta be expected to both grow in their craft by sitting down with Dolly Parton? But within the industry these artists recognize not just the individual musicianship of their peers or mentors, but also the guild to which they've each joined themselves.
There's a particular worldview to this guild, if you take the unguarded comments of the judges seriously. There's the first test that contestants are subjected to: "Are you the next American Idol?" "Maybe," "Yesss?" and "I think so . . . ?" are all wrong answers; "You know it!" or some similar expression of audacity is correct. Decent but timid voices are weeded out, as are stage presences that appear contrived, as though the contestant knows she needs to take command but doesn't know how to do it. People who parrot their favorite artists are confronted; people who have been told by friends that they have a good voice are told by judges that they have a bad voice.
Those who exhibit some mix of teachability and moxie are ushered into the second circle of special knowledge: "You're going to need to be a lot more confident." "You have to envision yourself winning this." "I need to see you convince me that I should love you." Candidating for idolatry is not for the timid; contestants have to not merely want to be worship but somewhere deep down believe they deserve to be worshiped. This is not to say that they're not lovely people; you can be magnanimous and gregarious and benevolent, and still be a heretic. You can be a saint, as Martin Luther points out, and still be a sinner.
Step one: Be cocky. Step two: Get cockier. How then, an American Idol contestant might ask, shall I live? Week one of the 2009 season was especially unguarded. Simon encourages a contestant to "get mean." Paula encourages a contestant to "be selfish." Again and again the favored contestants are given the secret of success in the music biz: Look out for number one. Elevate yourself without wasting emotional energy on the well-being of the people around you. Charisma comes later, but for now remember that you're in a contest that whittles down mercilessly to one.
These are values in the music industry not because people in the music industry are uniquely hateful. I suspect that most people in the music industry are very nice, actually. No, these are carefully cultivated defense mechanisms, concluded by the guild of musicians to be essential to survival. To take the stage is to desire acclaim but to invite critique. Everyone, from the oldest to the youngest, from the skilled to the unskilled, forms an opinion about the products presented to them, and in the music industry those products are contained in a person--with a mind, a heart and a soul. How much strength a musician has is revealed by how they react to the scrutiny they're faced with.
That's why American Idol begins with mockery, and ends with mockery revisited. Mocking bad music is the privilege of the guild, and with the benefit of hindsight the audience (and even the performers) will laugh and acknowledge that the musicians were right. We may be calling in our votes, but the guild is calling the shots. Mercy is for the weak; the music industry is for the merciless.