(death to Idol worshippers)
You know, I used to get angry just thinking about this, but it had been weeks before I actually started writing about it. My mood's changed considerably since then. Well, I'm here, you're here, and we may as well discuss it anyway…
It was slightly over a decade ago that MTV premiered the first season of The Real World, advertising it as "television's first real life soap opera." I have no problems admitting that I was hooked from the first episode. I have that entire season on tape. I've watched bits and pieces from future seasons, some of which I really got into, but no other season had the effect on me that the first one did. As it caught on, copycat shows spawned in its wake, each of them with its own different twist. After a while, even game shows started getting more intense, playing for higher stakes with more of an adrenaline rush. Even PBS played their hand at a "reality"/game show hybrid, setting it back in the frontier period to give it an educational edge, I guess.
Seeing as how pop music will forever be a companion of pop culture, it wasn't long before the creators of The Real World would chronicle the birth of a boy band. As annoying as Making The Band was, it really did society a favor: it exposed some truth to the pop consumer, the fact that someone is putting in a lot of time and effort to make sure that they spend their money on an act that is tailor made for them. The show revealed exactly how most music listeners are being duped, that it had less to do with music and everything to do with marketing, demographics, image, and a "hook." But what did some people do? THEY BOUGHT IT ANYWAY. They went out in droves and plunked down their dollars (or mommy and daddy's dollars) and put more forgettable faces on the map. How many 12-13 year-olds are talking about O-Town now (or Eden's Crush, for that matter)?
But it was the runaway success of American Idol that represented the ultimate in superstar obsession for me. It was bad enough that the show had one judge who couldn't wait to tell people "don't give up your day job" in as many ways as possible. It was bad enough that one of the other judges used to choreograph dance steps for pop stars a generation ago. But its conclusion and aftermath is a further legitimization of the artificial. The million dollar contract for first place, the winner of the contest later validated with the number one spot on Billboard charts, a "Greatest Moments" CD and nationwide tour…it's all a bit much.
Besides that, superstar status ain't what it used to be. Michael Jackson was a superstar before he hit puberty, still recognized as the King of Pop. I think it's safe to say that stardom has not been kind to him. Millions of dollars couldn't keep Mariah Carey from going insane, either. Even Britney needed to take time off. And speaking of Britney, what's with all these "Anti-Britneys" popping up all over the place (read: female singer who wears considerably more clothes and plays at least one instrument)? At the end of the day, the "anti-" marketing scheme is still a marketing scheme.
Whatever happened to time set aside for artist development? Gone are the days when an artist didn't break through until their third or fourth album. Everybody needs a hit now, yesterday, last week, last month. Nowadays, you have to be bangin' straight out the starting gate. Power radio works with small play lists and short life spans for that new single - three months, if you're lucky. Shelf space in the stores costs money. Top 40 airtime (particularly during AM and PM rush hour) also costs money. Between radio and MTV, it shouldn't come as a surprise as to why America's attention span is so short. So not only have CD prices gone through the roof due to advertising costs, but the masses end up spending way too much on whatever's hot at the moment...and usually doesn't last past Minute Rice.
(And other thing: who said that pop music had to be vapid? Cornelius and Stereolab are two examples of artists who can make something sweet to the ear that still leaves an impact on your mind. Even The Cardigans still managed to pull that off after great success with silly and inventive Black Sabbath covers.)
If I ever get within earshot of Kelly Clarkson, I gotta let her know the real deal. What's a million dollar contract when you don't even own your song, your voice, yourself? "We're gonna make you a big star. Oh, by the way…YOU OWN NOTHING." The way I see it, indentured servitude is not dead: it's currently spinning in heavy rotation on Top 40 radio.