Blame Your HVAC

May 28, 2010
By | 7 Comments

Enough with the evil midwestern ‘tween meme already!

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.)


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7 Responses to “ Blame Your HVAC ”

  1. Kelli Marshall on May 28, 2010 at 10:16 AM

    “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.”

    — I’m assuming you’d argue the same for Kris Allen and Adam Lambert, the latter of whom, I would argue, is far more talented?

    • Norma Coates on May 29, 2010 at 8:11 AM

      No, not Lambert. He didn’t win. My point is about the winners.

      Since writing this, I happened upon a tidbit on a Twitter feed. Someone who claims to have been in the audience at the finals said that every man he spoke to voted for DeWyze. So maybe we should be blaming the guys, not tween girls. We need to question why the default position is always to blame girls and women for what some perceive as triumphs of musical (and other?) mediocrity – something that’s been happening for 50 years.

      • Kelli Marshall on May 29, 2010 at 8:59 PM

        Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear above. Sorry! How’s this? Wouldn’t you say that a/the reason Kris Allen won last year is that his voice, like Lee’s, has 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”? And that Lambert’s voice (as well as his look perhaps), like Bowersox’s, doesn’t fit that (bland) mold?

  2. Norma Coates on May 30, 2010 at 6:44 AM

    Sorry for not getting your meaning! Yes, absolutely. But I’d also say that there was a lot more behind Lambert’s defeat, based upon gender, sexuality, etc. I only started watching the show in season 6 (around the time my daughter became a ‘tween). The runner-up that year was Blake, but he was rather horrid in my opinion. Jordin Sparks fit the hum very well – bland, forgettable but not entirely unpleasant. The best of the bunch, also in my opinion, was Melinda, but perhaps like Crystal, her voice wasn’t right. I almost wrote “ethnic” there, and I think that’s probably something to consider.

    Of course, I don’t know how David Cook fits into this. That “classic rock” sound is another type of hum. I could probably link that to the recent resurgence of Journey, thanks to Glee and the Sopranos. And maybe the fact that men do vote for Idol factors in, too. (I must admit to liking Cook more than I’ve liked any other contender on the show except maybe Bowersox.) I suppose that there’s a paper in this, but I’m not sure I want to do the research to write it!

  3. Derek Johnson on May 30, 2010 at 9:34 AM

    Great post, Norma! I usually find myself underwhelmed by both finalists, but I too appreciated Bowersox’s talent.

    Is your point here that success on Idol is all about the voice, and not the look, or is there room for the image of these performers in this critique as well? Is there a visual “hum” that winners are supposed to fit into? Bowersox, with her dreads and her awkwardness in evening gown and heels, didn’t fit the “pleasant” visual hum of most commercial media and their representations of femininity, whereas what’s-his-name (I can’t even remember off the top of my head he blends in so well!) meshes with the general mix of dudes we usually see on television, in print ads, etc. That’s not all that clever or revelatory a point, on its own, but I like the idea of a “hum” to make sense of this homogenized visual culture too.

    • Norma Coates on May 31, 2010 at 8:30 AM

      Hi Derek. My original point was more of a rant about tween girls and middle-aged women (which about covers the gamut in our house if you don’t count one of the cats) are consistently blamed for “bad” music, even by those who should know better. But the feedback from you and Kelli, and Vicky Johnson via off-line communication, has raised some other interesting areas to explore. I love your idea of a visual hum and think that there’s something there. I sense a SCMS panel coming together… You’re very right, Bowersox never looked comfortable with her makeover, and still kept the dreads and the just-below-the-lip piercing throughout the competition. DeWyze really cleaned up and seemed to become more comfortable in his skin. He fit the visual hum; she (and Adam Lambert) didn’t.

      I’m serious about putting a SCMS panel together. Anyone?

      • Mary Beltran on June 1, 2010 at 3:08 PM

        I have no great comments to add, but wanted to note how much I enjoyed the post. Thanks, Norma!