June 2005

Arts & Letters

Queen Emily of the High Cs

By Kerryn Goldsworthy

“Why are you wasting your time watching that appalling trash?” asked the music critic I recently got into a conversation with about Australian Idol. When I say “music critic” I mean someone who goes regularly to the high-end stuff, to recitals and chamber music and such, and is properly equipped to comment on things like middle-European neo-romanticism, the alienating discords of serialism, or the textural contrast between legato bowings and staccato pizzicato. I envy her savagely and want to be her, but in the meantime I was defending my ground. “Because I want to write about it.”

“But it’s crap,” she said.

“Yes, but it’s interesting crap that one-and-a-half million people watch, and companies are making millions of dollars out of it by sucking in nine-year-olds with mobile phones. The contestants are interesting, and so is the group dynamic, and the dramas from week to week, and the whole issue of the difference between successful TV and good TV. And it brings up some intriguing issues about singing and performance, like the difference between technique on the one hand and emotion and commitment and belief on the other. Art and meaning, even.”

“Yes, but it’s still crap,” she said.

We could have gone on like this for days in a welter of mutual incomprehension. Only later did it dawn on me that the essence of this doomed conversation was the same fundamental incoherence that sits at the heart of Australian Idol (Channel Ten, Sundays & Mondays, 8.30 p.m.). The conversation, like the show, was an example of how you grind the gears of your brain whenever you try to think about quality and popularity in the same sentence. On Australian Idol, putatively a talent contest, the winner is decided by public elimination, by a vote, rather than by any knowledgeable analysis of his or her performances. To apply the democratic principle to something as undemocratic as musical talent makes about as much sense as deciding who wins at the Olympics by voting for the cutest athlete. Judging by some of the finalists who survive into Idol’s last six or seven every year, most of the phone-in voters ­– as well as quite a lot of the contestants – wouldn’t know their staccato pizzicato from a hole in the ground.

Two of the judges, Mark Holden and Marcia Hines, know a great deal about music and about “the industry”. The third judge is 2Day FM’s Kyle “Great Head for Radio” Sandilands, getting paid a lot of money to do an excellent impression of a charmless, pig-rude bogan. His job is to be the nasty one, appointed by producers following slavishly in the formula footsteps of the original American Idol – except that according to the formula, the nasty one is also supposed to be witty. So they’ve made a bold departure there at least.

The three judges still give their critiques and advice to the contestants after each performance even though, by contrast with the competition’s earlier stages, they no longer have the power to give people the boot. The finalists are entirely at the mercy of whoever’s parents are most prepared to pick up the extortionate bill for multiple phone voting; in the Idol universe, “vote early and vote often” isn’t a joke. The contestant who gets the fewest audience votes each week is the one who has to leave in a glare of humiliating publicity. This method has a kind of primary-school cruelty about it – like being the last kid left unchosen when the captains are picking their teams.

The high-end music critic is right, of course. Much of Australian Idol is crap or worse. The shamelessness and mindlessness of some of the spin and packaging is insulting to the demographic it’s aiming at. Much of the interminable between-songs padding is advertorial promotion – as distinct from the actual commercial breaks, which are so long you can do the washing-up in them. The patter written for the two hosts, James Mathison and Andrew G, is so banal that Mathison has taken to delivering it as parody, presumably so that he doesn’t actually die of boredom. Mathison’s strange delivery makes him sound like a man on Valium having trouble with his dentures. Andrew G wears so much product on his sub-Farrah Fawcett-Majors hair that he looks in danger of catching on fire whenever his head gets too close to the studio lights. One of their tasks is to drag out the suspense before the verdict announcements – for long stretches of prime-time silence, broken only by what sounds like the theme music from Jaws, make for cheap and profitable TV.

The big money goes to Fremantle Media, Channel Ten and the telcos. Much of the studio audience’s hysteria is artificially whipped up for the cameras. Comments and gimmicks that have obviously been planned, rigged or scripted are passed off as spontaneous. Among all this dross are the contestants themselves, perennially interesting in the way they manage their vulnerability and their ambition within the shifting group dynamic. Watching them from week to week as they drop off the perch one by one, after the fashion of the Ten Green Bottles, is like reading a 19th-century novel in serial instalments. Characters develop, dramas happen, alliances are made and broken, strengths demonstrated and weaknesses exposed. There’s also a Pygmalion element in the intriguing spectacle of young performers challenging themselves, learning new skills and being transformed by the competition, by its stylists and its demands. There was a lovely “by George, I think she’s got it” moment on this year’s Big Band Night when contestant Anne Robertson, having learned scat-singing from scratch during the week, gave an elegant exhibition of it on the night. “Anne,” said Marcia Hines, “knowledge is power.”

Robertson is one of the reasons why the competition is pretty predictable this year. She and the freakishly talented Emily Williams, who has not yet sung a bad note and casually throws away perfect high Cs in rehearsal, are more naturally gifted than anyone else in the show’s entire three series. For these two not to end up facing off against each other in the grand final, something will have to go badly wrong. It could; last year’s early favourite Ricki-Lee Coulter was a shock elimination at number six on Beatles Night.

Coulter wasn’t the only one to stumble at the Lennon/McCartney hurdle. Last year’s winner Casey Donovan crashed spectacularly that same night when she sang “Eleanor Rigby”, forgot the words twice and was saved only by the phones of her frantic fans. Even worse, she sang it in several different wrong keys, making the same mistake James Kannis repeated this year with Stephen Stills’s “Love the One You’re With”. Both Donovan and Kannis were basing their performances on a contemporary cover version without looking closely enough at the originals, so neither had any real musical understanding of the songs and both, as a result, made some nasty mistakes in pitch.

Another generational-nightmare moment occurred in the first series when Guy Sebastian chose to perform “Climb Every Mountain” on 1960s Night. This was a witty idea, and since Sebastian can really sing (though it’s often hard to tell) it should have been a triumph. Anyone who saw Rufus Wainwright on tour this year will know what great theatre it is to see a 30-year-old get up onstage in the 21st century and sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” absolutely straight, with no irony and no ornamentation. Sebastian should have adopted the same approach.

Unfortunately, pop music in 2003 was dominated by the horrible melismatic yowling favoured by so-called pop divas and by Sebastian himself. This is the style in which one vocally dances around the note that the composer originally had in mind without ever quite alighting on it, instead singing about 20 notes per syllable rapidly up and down a two-octave scale. Irritating even when done well, it’s a noise that always makes me want to quote Henry Higgins’s command in My Fair Lady to the sobbing Eliza Doolittle: “Woman! Cease that detestable boo-hooing instantly!” Sebastian applied it to “Climb Every Mountain” with no apparent awareness of how inappropriate it was; the result was technically impressive but aesthetically so grotesque it should have got him voted out.

Last year’s two grand finalists provided an intriguing contest because they were such opposites. The winner, 16-year-old Donovan, made a lot of technical blunders but she was, and is, a wonderful interpreter of songs. Even her bad performances were full of heart, and some of them were full of soul as well. In defiance of the market strategists, teenage girls all over the country voted for her because she was no manufactured pop poppet but the real deal. They identified with her, were moved by her and wanted her to win. Anthony Callea, the runner-up, was the opposite. With lots of musical training and technique and a rich, warm voice to go with it, he still always looked and sounded a bit robotic and withheld, and the judges begged him week after week to loosen up and show more feeling. Donovan got votes because people were barracking for her; Callea got votes because he was an accomplished musician. It was as though they were in two different competitions, and it highlighted the confusion between popularity and quality that Australian Idol has never really come to grips with.

There’s general agreement that the show’s overall high point so far was the moment on last year’s Idol’s Choice Night when Callea, having sung his way through the fairly naff English lyrics to the first half of “The Prayer” in the correct and passionless manner that viewers had come to expect of him, then switched languages in mid-song to his ancestral Italian and, without warning, brought the house down. It was like watching a statue come magically to life. He didn’t just look like a different person; he looked like a different species. The audience had always admired him and he’d finally given them a reason to love him too.

Callea’s current single “Per Sempre” shows he understands the magical force of singing in his ancestral tongue. He knows how it transforms him and how well he does it. This song also has sloshy lyrics (same songwriter, in fact) and lush orchestration – but so does a lot of opera, especially if you don’t understand Italian and can simply wallow in the beautiful noise. You listen to it not for the lyrics but for the quality of the voice, and for the feeling behind the play of language. In harking back to the style of an earlier time in a different culture to find a musical mode that releases the inner Anthony, he’s produced something genuinely original and unique in the context of 21st-century Australian pop music – and if this single makes him a fortune, it’s no more than he deserves.

In fact, you could almost call it middle-European neo-romanticism. I bet he knows what staccato pizzicato is.

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