Idol Hands: The Trouble with Keith Urban, Fame & Talent Shows

Holly Gleason | September 18th, 2012

keithurbanIn the biting album track “The Long Run,” the title track, but never single from the Eagles’ follow-up to Hotel California, Don Henley practically spits out the rejoinder, “Did you do it for love? Did you do for money? Did you do it for fame? Think you had to, honey?” with all the churlish invective you’d expect from one of rock’s leading sourpusses. Bracing, biting, the perfect expression of disgust, rage and repulsion in a chugging song about betrayal. Obviously about a girl who cheated, those words now land as a direct hit on today’s reasons for doing reality television, especially talent contests, which seem to be the new ground zero for exposing music as over-sung renditions of other people’s hits interwoven with emotionally manipulative narrative and behind the scenes footage.

It is an elephant’s resuscitation center for the vain, the bloated, the fame junkies who believed their own hype – and forgot it was about the music – and the handlers who’ve always relied on momentum and marketing to fill the void. It started with the sweet, spaciness of Paula Abdul, a once upon a time pop/production darling who could dance, had a tie to the Jacksons and was too many young men’s coming of age self-help fantasy. If Abdul was the gateway drug to Kardashianity, her appearance on American Idol offered a sort of third act that seemed harmless and even encouraging. And then her star ascended. Business people and television execs did the math. It was a non-TMZ/paparazzi way of trainwrecking celebrity that America couldn’t turn away. The new math was incredible: high algebra with a twist of trigonometry!

Faded stars = TVQ (which is the measure of fame/name recognition) + crazy behaviour/must see tv.

And the stars, the more flamboyant the better, signed on, signed in to be inclusive in both their own over-exposure and vanity plumping. The fawning, the recognition everywhere they went, the illusion of expertise and encouragement: it was narcotic for all involved. Christina Aguilera, whose music career was choking on its own fumes in spite of that operatic range and ability to throw down power contra-alto lightning bolts and the failed multi-discipline establishing film Burlesque, hit The Voice after a trainwreck year of weight gain and questionably under the influence behaviour – and she was back! On everyone’s lips and radar. Britney Spears, Xtina’s rival in teen lustage, followed suit. Looking all-American blow up doll adorable, yet always with the promise of the next meltdown, crazy train gauntlet and implied I’ll-do-anything lust to maintain her fame and lifestyle. You couldn’t look away.

Even Steven Tyler, the throwdown rock wild child whose excessive living and shredding blues-torn vocals, fell sway to the siren’s song of easy fame. Never mind that Aerosmith is arguably the greatest hard rock band of the post-British/blues era – equal parts Stones/Zeppelin with a bit more overt tilt towards the carnal – and “Dream On,” an FM rock ballad for the ages. Beaming into people’s living rooms during prime time? The betrayal was complete enough, his Toxic Twin partner Joe Perry spent a year glowering about it… and Tyler eventually realized his sting had been blunted.

Still Blake Shelton, a solid country singer with a classic voice who’d been Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Braddock’s demo singer and was in an extended romance with his now-wife fiery Miranda Lambert, went from erratic single performance and being known more for his full-tilt tweeting to a certified superstar. Everyone knew the wry Oklahoman with the earnest bent once he became a Voice regular – and People/Rolling Stone cover boy! Still those covers had nothing to do with his music, his take on life or the reasons people believe in the songs that he sings. It’s about quips and exposure, how gorgeous he is (and once the style mongers got a hold of him, sheared the mullet and found leaner clothing, he was) and the fact that he seems real in a world of grabbing all you can as fast as you can.

Music? What’s that? Not even a conduit. Just a device with which to invest people in the drama of who will win. Think of it as gladiators with vocal chords, cock fighting without the heel razors and pecking each other’s eyes out. All in the same of steroidal vocalists who will be forgotten three weeks into the next season. So when word came that Keith Urban was headed to Australia to do their Voice, but the reason given was a way to spend time with his and wife Nicole Kidman’s families, there was a grace that was given. After all, those careers take money to support even when there appears to be calm in the pool of “the work,” and perhaps Down Under, it’s different.
Brad Paisley’s name started floating for American Idol. A noted quipster and CMA Awards host, he seemed to take the brokerage of visibility with aplomb – and his records had turned to paler, less funny Xeroxes of the novelty songs that had come before. For him, like Shelton, this might be the way to reinvigorate a stalled franchise… because momentum lasts long after the career has stalled, then stopped. But Paisley, for whatever reason, fell apart. The deal didn’t happen. Was it waking up and realizing that if he was ever to be an artist, this would be a death knell? Was the touring revenue going to crater… and once it does, only hits will revive it? And as Shelton’s touring proves, being in someone’s living room does not mean they’re coming to see your show with all that music they still don’t care about when you hit town.

Just as suddenly, Urban’s name started swirling again. A kind man with a definite sense of both songs and guitar-slinging, his voice is as comforting and engaging as any on country radio. He looked like a rock star; his humility made him a cross between a rock start of mystique like Eric Clapton and a saintly icon like Vince Gill. But that would never happen. Right? Urban was one of the last vestiges of dignity and real music in Nashville. NEVER. Nevernevernever. Until the announcement was made. And what does it mean? Is Urban, with the new youthquake emerging, suddenly concerned about how long he’s been doing it? Was the money that great? The need for visibility that strong? Enough to be sandwiched the diva Mariah Carey and the freakish popster Nicki Minaj? Both people whose talent was obscured by cult of personality, vacuous song choices and the sense they are the great them? Was this a fit?

Because Urban’s career isn’t running on fumes. Fear? I’d’ve never thought it, but the why remains obscure – and his talent the least negotiable thing in all of it.
No doubt there will be a tumble of explanations, reassurances of how humbling it is to give back, to help people find their dreams, support their quest… You can hear the clichés and  jargon rumbling down the hill, waiting to be applied. But in the end, what does this say about our culture? Has music come to be so meaningless to the masses, the only way to get or keep their attention is being spoon-fed via an idiot box in the living room? Sadly, I hope not; honestly, I fear so. For if Keith Urban feels the need to do this, who’s next?

I once counseled an artist who had many of these opportunities brought to them to think carefully, ask themselves, “What would Tom Petty do? Bruce Springsteen?” Because those men held their music high, and their fans in a place of grace and dignity. Management saw the opportunity to make obscene amounts of money, through the show, syndication, licensing (most junk) based on brand recognition. It’s true, and it’s business. But for some, it’s about the music. The music. At least, it always was. If Keith Urban can do this, I’m not sure what I think any more. Or why decisions get made. Perhaps the world has changed that much, and we let it. But it’s something to think about…

Rather than deriding that which is cheesy and mainstream, let’s figure out how to support that which is great… invite the mainstream in, give them reasons to believe. That’s my hope, by the way: that Urban’s presence will be the cold rag that clears the fever-pitch bling-grab. Let his quiet witness for artistry stand as the contrast to the bigger, louder, wow – and maybe wake people up to what can be, with a little talent, good songs and the will to do it right.

  1. Barry Mazor
    September 18, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Yes.

  2. Karlie
    September 18, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    Pretty fantastic piece.

  3. CraigR.
    September 18, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    Great essay.

  4. Rick
    September 18, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    So Holly, do you feel batter now that you’ve gotten that off your chest?…(lol)

    Favorite lines: “Has music come to be so meaningless to the masses, the only way to get or keep their attention is being spoon-fed via an idiot box in the living room? Sadly, I hope not; honestly, I fear so.” I don’t watch any of the current talent competition shows. I did watch “Nashville Star” until the major network killed it off, but that’s water under the bridge. I refuse to let my love of great music be diluted by the whims of pop culture! Et tu, TV?

    That was a brilliant piece filled with real passion. I’m just not sure the subject matter is worthy of such an investment…

  5. Devin
    September 18, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    It’s all very true, just a couple things I don’t agree completely with.

    Taking one of these roles does not preclude one from making good music, or music with integrity. It makes it easier NOT to do that. But if Warner Brothers wanted Blake Shelton to go back to his Pure B.S. days (when his music was certainly more interesting than today), then he’d still be successful. They can do anything with the increased spotlight, but they choose not to, and that’s what frustrates me. It’s the perfect opportunity for Blake to make a real, meaningful, neo-traditional country album. He’s got the exposure, the popularity; it would sell. He could be a legitimate ambassador for country music. But Nashville isn’t interested.

    But I don’t blame Blake or Keith Urban or anyone else for taking these opportunities. It’s a chance to take your star higher than before and do great things for them financially. And at the end of the day, this music thing isn’t going to last forever, they’ve got set themselves up for the future. It’s easy to sit here and put the artistry and the integrity of music on some pedestal, but that doesn’t mean anything if no one’s listening.

    And only one little thing to nitpick. The comment about Blake Shelton’s concert attendance. Not sure the basis for that. He sold out a big arena in January when I went to see him. Might not be the same in every city, but I find it hard to believe he’s not successfully touring…

  6. nm
    September 19, 2012 at 9:11 am

    Devin, how do you know that the music Shelton is coming out with now is what Warner Brothers wants, or what Nashville is interested in, as distinct from what Shelton himself wants to be doing? He wouldn’t be the first country artist to go less traditional out of his own impulses.

  7. Carrie
    September 19, 2012 at 11:31 am

    Fascinating read. Thank you.

    (Devin, for as large as Blake’s star has become, he is not selling concert tickets nearly at the pace of his peers – the Aldean/Luke Bryan show was seeing sellouts at nearly every stop; Chesney needs no further documentation; Eric Church is closing in on sellout-every-time status. Keith, who was touring on the tail end of his last album, sold more than Blake. Similarly, Blake’s album sales are nowhere near that of Aldean, Bryan, Chesney, and Church. Radio sure will happily push his bland music straight to #1, but the sales don’t match his star power.)

  8. Mattb
    September 19, 2012 at 11:50 am

    Shelton’s music is still largely playing in a ‘country only’ audience, despite the exposure from those shows. Aldean, Bryan, Chesney and Church all have some cross-over appeal and their music appeals to more men too.

  9. Devin
    September 19, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    MattB said it before I could. Blake doesn’t transcend country music like the rest of those artists, especially Kenny. Not to mention demographics. The younger crowd that’s more likely to go to a concert is probably more in the Jason/Luke camp. And Eric Church’s music is far more interesting at the moment. I don’t know, maybe it’s disappointing to them that he isn’t selling out every show. But not everyone can do that. Somebody just has to be moderately successful.

    (For the record, I’ve seen Blake twice. Once in a bar/club and once in an arena. There’s no question that the smaller concert in the bar was more entertaining, more fun, and more Blake’s style (pre-Voice and Red River Blue.))

    @NM:
    I guess I don’t technically know this for sure. But I’ve been a fan of his for a long time, and seen many videos and read many interviews. I have no doubt that he reveres traditional country music. I know he’s damn good at singing it. It’s painfully obvious that he became more successful once he took a more contemporary, pop-country direction. But I still feel deep down that if you took away the pressure to have radio success, those aren’t the albums he would be making.

  10. Jon
    September 19, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    “But I still feel deep down that if you took away the pressure to have radio success, those aren’t the albums he would be making.”

    I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: projecting your own taste onto an artist you like, or believing that liking his or her work gives you some special insight into his or her taste, is never a good idea. It’s quite easy for an artist to revere traditional country music and be good at it, and yet for artistic reasons not want to put it at (or maybe even anywhere near) the center of what he or she does.

  11. HOLLY
    September 19, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    well, there are two strands of discussion now…
    doing what you love + what sells
    though i think on that level,
    an artist finds a way to make what he does in a way that they can have success

    but the original point of the essay is…
    when you rely on “fame” to become successful, versus music (of ANY, even the cheesy kind) people aren’t going to embrace your art. indeed. you’ll be a kardashian with a record deal instead of a glorious backside — and the people who know you, think you’re awesome/hot/sincere/a good guy are NOT likely to have any interest in your music or your concerts.
    it’s like rushing into a burning building…
    or trying to undo what actors have spent years trying to create beyond movies (and there aren’t a lot of people going to see russell crowe, jeff daniels, bruce willis or kevin costner in concert…)

    and that is where — by undermining their art — these judges reinvigorate their fame, but at the cost of the thing taht brought them.
    if ANYONE can reverse the trend, i’m putting my money on keith urban.

  12. Jon
    September 19, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    Point about the original point taken ;-). But I’m not convinced that participating in these shows – as a judge, coach, contestant, special guest performer, whatevs – really amounts to undermining one’s art, at least, not among the audiences following these artists. It might not enhance their ability to build new audiences, but that’s not the same thing.

  13. Devin
    September 19, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    To Jon’s first point: I don’t think I’m projecting. At the risk of invalidating my point by sounding like some obsessed super fan, in the hundreds of videos and interviews I’ve seen and read, he’s made comments about the type of music he’d like to make, that he didn’t like the heavy pop direction that modern country music was headed in, etc. Every song that he’s written himself and cut has had much more of a neo-traditional bent. And he spent the first 10 years of his career making that kind of music for the most part. I’d go out on a limb and say he didn’t have some career epiphany in the last year and decide that he was meant to sing loud, pop-country ballads all the time. It’s just a guess. But as mentioned, this is secondary to the main topic and not really important, and I’m just arguing because it’s the internet, and why not?

    Back to the main point. I don’t think that in the grand scheme of an artists career will these things really be remembered or considered when looking at their legacy or the merit of their music. This isn’t Blake’s first reality show gig. But I don’t know anyone who really remembers his stint on Nashville Star or Clash of the Choirs or who would say that either of those shows somehow invalidated the music he put out after that point.

    The only thing that bothers me about these judging/coaching gigs is that the artist transcends “singer” and becomes a “personality”. It takes away the focus and expectations of what they DO, and when those expectations go away, they turn in mediocre efforts. As I said earlier, it doesn’t take away their credibility or their capability of making good, smart music. It just makes it easier for them not to. I think that’s an important distinction.

  14. luckyoldsun
    September 19, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    I’d bet that the vast majority of artists make the music that they want to make. It must be quite a rush for someone to hear their music getting played on the radio and to have thousands of fans attending their concerts and cheering for them.
    If Blake Shelton is having success with the music that he’s making, I find it extremely unlikely that he’s thinking, even for a second, “Gee, I really wish I was making a different type of music.”

  15. Devin
    September 19, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    Alright fine. I know nothing about the music industry. All the stories I hear about label pressure to release this song and not that one, or to go with this kind of sound instead, blah blah blah must be exaggerated. There’s certainly no one in Nashville who’s making a certain type of music just because it’s more profitable/successful than another style that they may or may not prefer more.

  16. Jon
    September 20, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    The legitimacy a general observation may have does not obviate the need to provide evidence that it applies in a particular case.

  17. Jon
    September 20, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    And, by the way, that applies as much to luckyoldsun’s post as it does to Devin’s.

  18. TX Music Jim
    September 20, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    As much as I hate the talent shows like Idol, the voice etc. If I were Urban or Shelton and you wanted to drop buckets of cash on me to do the show. Yeah I think i’d sign the contract. If indeed it somehow costs them to some “artistic integrity” Somehow I think they’ll just keep doing what there doing. If anything the bigger platform should give artists like Blake the ability to dictate to the label the kind of music they want to make not the other way around. Apples and oranges I know but did Waylon sell out doing the Dukes of Hazzard. My least favorite Waylon record but he certianly made great music before and after that show was over. I imagine Shelton and Urban will do.

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