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