No one on American Idol can sing. There—I've said it. I've said it for all of us: for anyone just now awakening to the truth; for everyone who has secretly thought it and never said it; for all the people who'd like to say it but can't because it's taking all their moral fortitude just to resist the evil suction force of Fox-TV's karaoke sinkhole.
Idol-ites Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken find their way to Seattle this week, and a thick, dark cloud of debased American standards is going to float right over KeyArena with them. Don't tell me I'm overstating the case: Fox's amateur hour is currently the No. 1 show in the nation—and have you read the customer reviews on Amazon.com lately? "Skydivers have a saying that 'only skydivers know why the birds sing,'" writes a lovesick CD buyer in Harrisburg, Penn. "I think Mr. Aiken may also know the reason the birds sing!!!" This is war, citizens.
And do spare me the outrage. Kelly has some pipes on her, sure, and she got a little mileage out of that semicatchy, psuedo-Whitney, ersatz-Janet "Miss Independent" single. And, no, there's nothing reprehensible about "Invisible," the moony first cut from Clay's debut collection Measure of a Man (a CD title that some sly corporate bastard is surely hugging himself over even as we speak). OK—they're nice people and not out to harm anyone directly. They're just a couple of kids trying to make good. Based on the 60-watt charisma she flickered in that From Justin to Kelly thing, Clarkson isn't capable of conquering anyone, anyway, and as for Aiken, well . . . if you left him alone for the night with your Barry Manilow record collection and your drunk, willing teenage daughter, let's just say that "Mandy" is the only thing that would be played out come morning.
But this isn't about niceties. This is about stopping the juggernaut that is American Idol. With the notable exception of Extreme Makeover, a program intent on selling us a whole other kind of plastic, Idol may be the most perniciously superficial reality show on television. Elimidate, you say? The Fifth Wheel? Both vile, without a doubt—but Americans are going to be absurdly drunk and lecherous regardless of whether or not a camera is around to zoom in on the humiliation. American Idol, on the other hand, is busy expanding and exploiting the idea that you deserve to be acclaimed and beloved if you have the wherewithal to get on TV, stay reasonably within key, and not crumble under the remonstrations of a surly Englishman. We're talking about a show that's giving Paula Abdul another 15 minutes of fame.
You used to have to have something in order to be famous, some quality that set you apart from ordinary people. Yes, there were always bland, boring Pat Boones and Perry Comos out there to give that cozy feeling of conformity to whoever happened to need it, but as a general rule the people we looked up to had a sense of difference, particularly if they were wooing us with song. Idol would have us believe that singing is mostly a matter of hitting the right notes. Singing, however, is about more than a pretty way with a high C: Billie Holiday could sing, despite the fact that she sounded like an alley cat that had been skinned alive and dipped in a fifth of gin; Tom Waits is a singer, though, technically speaking, his vocal capabilities put him just this side of the Cookie Monster; even Madonna, a woman who often wouldn't know pitch unless it ended up on the bottom of one of her Manolo Blahniks, has a way with a tune. Good singing means a little something extra coming through the song—some pain, some resignation, some thrilling audacity—and the ability for us to find ourselves in that voice. American Idol is selling us earnest voices filled with nothing so much as the desire to sell, and if we find ourselves in that, we're in trouble. If anything, Simon Cowell isn't enough of an asshole.
Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken play KeyArena at 7 p.m. Thurs., April 7. $35/$45.