Friday, May 26, 2006

Video Killed The Radio Star

Once upon a time, the most important characteristics for pop music stars were their voices and their ability to compose. You didn’t have to have both – you could sing someone else’s music, or compose for someone else’s voice – but you usually needed something special in one category or the other.

Physical attractiveness was useful, of course, but not critical. Cass Elliot was the butt of jokes about her weight…but nobody laughed while she was singing. Jim Morrison and Mick Jagger became sex symbols because of their musical talents – certainly not because of their faces. Yvonne Elliman, Steve Tyler, Alice Cooper, Phil Collins…some very popular singers are not merely unattractive, but downright ugly! Nobody cared all that much, since the closest you could get to them was the front row of a concert, and their sound was really your only connection with them.

Over the last 20 years or so, though, that has changed. Sure, the stars always worked to enhance their appearance. Some bands used their appearance to attract attention – KISS springs to mind. When MTV made pop music a video art form, though, appearance became more and more important. Since then, it has gotten worse. Madonna does some pretty good songs, but she’d have never made it without showing herself off. Brittney Spears and Jessica Simpson could probably lip-sync old Buddy Holly tunes and still be popular - in fact, that might be an improvement.

I think American Idol has finally finished the job, though. Clearly, an unattractive person is never going to make the final few rounds in Idol – he or she will be probably never even be a finalist, and will certainly not get the votes to stay til the end. And for unknown reasons (though my personal guess is that the U.S. has lost its collective mind), not only is Idol the most popular show on TV, but the winners and some of the more popular losers have truly become respected and popular musical stars. Since the recording studios can only really plug a certain number of stars, and since they like a sure thing as well as anyone, those manufactured icons of glitz are pushing aside other great singers – potentially better artists, but not able to make the cut on screen.

It probably doesn’t matter in the long run. The Recording Industry Ass. of America, with their “anti-piracy” attacks on their customer base, may well kill the entire industry anyway. But are karaoke singers writ large really supposed to be the future of music?

My apologies to The Buggles for the title of this entry.

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