Spontaneity in televised musical performances, R.I.P.

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This won't be an anti-American Idol blog post, but I am taking aim at American Idol; it won't
entirely condemn Rihanna, but it will subject Ri-Ri to some tough love. Idol and Rihanna are a mere jumping-off point, because watching the results show Wednesday night made me really confront something that's been bugging me for a long, long time: I hate watching singers sing on television most of the time.

Not bands, mind you.

Singers.

No, bands go out on Kimmel or Saturday Night Live or whatever, and they plug in, and rock out, and they are real, in one culturally understood sense, and people are cool with that realness. The Who blew goats at the last Super Bowl halftime show, but it was real. (Cue "When keeping it real goes wrong" joke here.)

Prince and the Rolling Stones electrified audiences during their Super Bowl halftime shows -- the former in the pouring rain! -- justifying their legend status by bringing home the bacon. Bands that play on SNL's historically awful sound stage reliably sound like crap, which doesn't scuttle other bands' eagerness to follow in the footsteps of Nirvana, Green Day, the B-52s, Queens of the Stone Age, Muse, and the dozens of other bands that have played the same historically awful sound stage.

I've never been in a band myself -- and at this point, that experience probably isn't going on my bucket list -- but I understand that contending with horrible sound systems and circumstances is just something you get used to when you're in a band. Amps will blow. Feedback will swallow songs whole. Some nimrod will set the levels wrong. Whatever. You make the best of things, deal with it, rock'n'roll.

For reasons I don't quite get, singers -- or their managers, labels, or network suits -- rarely get to wander out naked onto that proverbial limb; invariably, they can't work without safety nets. They lip-sync on Good Morning America or before baseball games or on awards shows -- or shows like Idol -- or they halfheartedly sing over pre-recorded tracks, while flailing around in eye-gouge conceptual couture or designer gowns and suits that cost more than your house.
I love rappers. Rappers don't pull this kind of shit, and you have to respect that; they huff, they puff, and they stunt, albeit (sometimes) with hypemen to keep the overall energy level from flagging -- but rappers actually rap on television.

On Wednesday night, Rihanna sang a little, but mostly she writhed around and strutted and swung big guitars and tried to look tough while backup singers and dancers grinded -- a crass, empty triumph of image over substance that made me embarrassed to be able to see and hear. There were a handful of moments where her actual voice was actually televised and she actually blew notes; I cringed, but I appreciated those failures more than any other aspect of her performance of "Rock Star."

Then there's Idol. Idol's at the point in the season where those buffed fresh faces left staggering to the finish line have to sing together in an asinine group routine that opens the show and film a brain-cell annihilating Ford commercial. In the latter, lip-syncing is unavoidable and makes sense; in the former, it's just awkward and obvious and smacks of fear on the part of the people running the show. The contestants either lack the professionalism to lipsync probably or don't care -- give Rihanna that, she knows what she's doing, there -- and while they owe whatever semblance of fame they attain to Idol, there's no earthy reason they should pretend to enjoy being yanked and marionnetted around a stage, mouthing to pre-recordings of themselves singing parts of a Beatles song. There's nothing fun about being part of a sham -- at least until that sham is making you millions of dollars and, incidentally, killing off what little spontaneity and excitement remain in the performance of music (and I do mean music, not whatever ancillary aspects some like to see appended to it and the people presenting it) on television.

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