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DEAD RINGER: The big trend on American Idol this year isn’t zaftig R&B divas with massive voices and tear-ringing hard luck stories, or perky heartland blondes who are a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll. For the last few weeks – since before the audition episodes began airing – there have been complaints that, more than ever before, the show’s producers are packing the preliminaries with professionals; seasoned singers with years of experience and even recording deals in their past.
As any child with a iPod knows, the record industry is in big trouble, but that trouble has been brewing for years now, and one of the early indicators of the accelerating death spiral was a famous article that ran on the front page of the Wall Street Journal almost six years ago. The subject of that article – a young Irish singer named Carly Hennessy whose debut album sold a mere 378 copies despite two years of grooming by MCA Records and a US$2.2 million dollar marketing budget – was chosen to represent the woes of an industry woefully out of touch with its audience, and hemorrhaging cash as its core customers, young people in their teens and twenties, were figuring out that they probably didn’t need to pay money for CDs with only one or two decent tracks.
That same Carly Hennessy, as Verne Gay of Newsday pointed out in an article on the newspaper’s TV blog yesterday, is now the freshly tattooed Carly Smithson, whose audition for Idol this week was the story of “just another inspiring Horatio Alger tale of the aspiring Irish singer who got a ticket to Hollywood three years ago, only to have her hopes dashed by some U.S. Immigration troglodyte who denied her a visa.”
Hennessy/Smithson’s record tanked spectacularly, even despite the record company’s attempt to puff it up a bit by releasing a single, I’m Gonna Blow Your Mind, that featured some coy but hardly subtle allusions to oral sex as an icebreaker in a fledgling relationship. Reading between the lines, I somehow doubt if Ms. Hennessy/Smithson’s record tanked because it was considered too challenging or audacious, or featured radical arrangements inspired by the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as interpreted by a gamelan orchestra.
I’m imagining rote, slick, overproduced pop played by studio pros and produced by an industry veteran who probably runs his kids’ Christmas concert videos through Pro Tools to correct pitch issues. In short, exactly the sort of thing Idol is designed to celebrate, though its own track record lately has been rather winceworthy, with several of its anointed winners getting dropped from their bespoke record deals after record sales were discovered to be a fraction of phone-in votes. The Idol hangover for viewers is looking like one big case of buyer’s remorse, and Idol’s producers are reacting with obvious desperation. It’s looking like last year’s Sanjaya phenomenon was less an aberration than a symptom, as Idol viewers tried to show that they’re more interested in spectacle than singers.