I blame karaoke.
In the last five years, the success Britain's "Pop Idol" and spin-off "American Idol" revolutionized the music business. The premise was simple. Instead of sending A&R representatives all over the world to scout new talent, why not have a few cattle call auditions and televise the whole shebang? Pure genius, and cost effective. Naturally, the public ate it up, and "American Idol" became one of the most successful endeavors in the last decade.
It was only a matter of time before the country music industry jumped on the bandwagon, and in 2003, we were subjected to the twangy version, appropriately titled "Nashville Star." Stealing the "Idol" format -- all the way from the trio of alternately sympathetic-realistic-acerbic judges to the voting format -- the first season of "Nashville Star" actually produced a few talented and upwardly moving artists. Winner Buddy Jewell recently released his second album, and second runner-up Miranda Lambert's recording debut is one of the bright spots of this year. The second season found the show floundering a bit, as it seemed to get caught up in trying to manufacture its own identity. The "Nashville Star" breakthrough artists of 2004 Brad Cotter and George Canyon (no, I haven't heard from them again, either) are best left in the cutout bins.
The 2005 edition of "Nashville Star" hit the small screen with a little less momentum than in past seasons, so things were tweaked a bit to make it interesting. The new judges further cemented the caricatures, with country-pop singer Phil Vassar playing the cheerleader, Poison frontman-turned-Nashvillian Bret Michaels (WTF?) as the "image" guy, and producer Anastasia Brown as the harsh critic. In addition, this year's contestants really emphasized stereotypes in country music: the George Strait-esque cowboy dude, the sassy blonde with a big voice, the edgy "rocker," the sensitive balladeer, and the quirky rockabilly guy. Ugh.
In an attempt to get away from the overly polite, "aw shucks, all y'all should win" demeanor of the competitors, the producers even managed to generate some nonperformance controversy in the contestants' living quarters. A poorly manufactured confrontation pitted the aging veterans (the oldest being 33) who have "paid their dues" vs. the young bucks who were getting a quick ride to the top.
I will spare you the gory details and tell you that one of the young bucks, 18-year-old Erika Jo, won just in time to go to her high school prom and graduate with all the glory. Now she is on tour with the other top three contenders, the cowboy dude Jason Meadows, the sensitive balladeer Jayron Weaver (from Dallas, Ga.), and yep, the quirky rockabilly guy, Jody Evans. How about that?
Obviously, manufacturing stars is not a new phenomenon (Remember Fabian? The Monkees? Every pop singer and boy band since 1985?), but the practice raises a number of issues. Going back to the "Nashville Star" dues-paying debate, does it really make a difference if performers work their way up the ladder through traditional means of hard work and struggling? And does the process of "manufacturing" an artist suggest a lack of authentic talent? Clearly, the answer to both questions is "no." True talent is a natural ability in many cases, and almost all of the "Nashville Star" contestants have extensive performance backgrounds in local and regional music venues. The problem is more serious when artificial studio trickery -- devices such as AutoTune and ProTools -- is used to cover the lack of talent. When what you hear on the record is not what the person can actually do, that's fraud.
And what about the fans? Is the authenticity and lasting quality of the product all that important anymore, as long as the fans like it? It seems that two things are lacking in contemporary culture: a collective conscience and an attention span. We also have access to almost every world event, and that bombardment of information creates a problem. Regardless of the social significance of an event, it is so quickly overshadowed by the next one that people do not have time to integrate the significance of each event into their belief systems. People become conditioned to quickly changing stimuli, and if something is present in the media for too long, it becomes ... well ... boring.
So I say let Erika Jo and the three J's enjoy their moments in the spotlight. If she has the chops, she'll keep the ball rolling. If not, I hope she had a good time while it lasted, and the karaoke bar in Mt. Juliet will be waiting there for her.
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