Yes, for those of us who fancy that we have more sophisticated taste in music than the great hoi polloi that actually watch American Idol without irony, or because we have to because it’s our job , the obvious reason why Lee DeWyze won the 9th season over Crystal Bowersox, the far superior singer, is those damned little girls and their cell phones. There can’t be any other reason, can there? After all, ‘tween or early-teenage girls have been ruining “good” music for almost fifty years, ever since they used prehistoric communications media, or small weaponry, to tell Dick Clark to go fabricate some teen idols for them to swoon over. Don’t forget that their behavior made the Beatles stop touring – poor George was black and blue all over from the impact of jelly beans launched at him at high velocity. And let’s not forget that network meeting when a band of rebel 12-year-olds commandeered an NBC conference room and made executives fabricate the Monkees, or that period in the 1970s when they apparently made all programming decisions and brought us The Partridge Family and anything starring Bobby Sherman. At the same time, they were terrorizing executives at record companies, little Lilliputians tying up the Gullivers who normally held those positions. Yes, little girls have been ruining music for fifty years running.
That paragraph is absurd (well, most of it) but I am increasingly disturbed by the number of times I’ve seen ‘tween girls, and their forty-something moms, blamed for the sorry state of American Idol this season. Salon blogger Steven Axelrod, for example, refers to the “Midwestern tween speed-dial monsters.” Some block-texting likely occurred, but on this scale? Seriously? Little girls have been blamed for the sorry state of popular music, especially any depicted on network television, since Fabian and Bobby Rydell warbled on American Bandstand. The very first issue of Crawdaddy, arguably the first American journal of rock criticism, took pains to distinguish what would appear in its pages from the “what color socks does your idol wear?” discourse of fan magazines. Blaming little girls and their moms enables their continued marginalization in popular music realms, and supports ideologies that prop up the mythologies that are supposed to make us think that “good” popular music is authentic and non-commercial. I’ve written about this at great length elsewhere so won’t belabor the point, but I do want to suggest, no insist, that it’s time to put the blame for DeWyze and his ilk, many of whom were on American Idol last night, elsewhere.
That elsewhere is your HVAC system. Let me explain. Where do we most often hear American Idol-like music? In offices – business offices, doctor’s offices, dentist’s offices, and waiting rooms of all varieties. What do we hear? The Doobie Brothers, Chicago, the Bee Gees, Hall and Oates and the like … that is, groups trotted out last night on American Idol. Put them all together on soft rock radio and you have a nice, hum, one that does not require the least bit of attention but does provide a bit of distraction from the tedium of an office job, or sitting in a waiting room. You can learn to tune it out, like you tune out your appliances. DeWyze’s voice fits into the hum perfectly. It’s pleasant but doesn’t make any demands on the listener. Bowersox’s voice, with its rougher edges, stands out too much. That’s why the Idol judges started to prepare the audience for DeWyze’s win a few weeks ago.
This is not to start blaming another group of (primarily) women: secretaries, receptionists, and so on. Not in the least. It is to argue that as scholars, we should question why “soft rock” exists, how it came to be the “approved” grease that keeps aspects of capitalism and society moving and distracted, but not too much to interfere with business as usual. We also need to study its naturalized position as appropriate music for grown-up women. That is, we should investigate the power driving the hum.
It’s time to stop blaming female ‘tweens for “bad” popular music. They’re about as responsible for it as your HVAC system. After all, twelve is the age where they’re supposed to be losing their self-esteem and starting to grapple with their hormones. The combination of American Idol and unfettered cellphone access doesn’t suddenly turn them into a crazed horde that can subvert the top-ranked television program. Instead, blame your utilities.
(Addendum: My 12-year-old daughter, who does not have a cell phone, had me text in a vote for Crystal. So there.)