April 19, 2007

"American Idol"

continues to dominate television ratings with a product that just isn't terribly deplorable. The success of the contest at finding unexploited commercial singing talent, especially female talent, shows up the inefficiency and corruption of the traditional music industry, which fails to maximize profits because too many male executives prefer to exploit their power to promote pretty but untalented girls who will sleep with them rather than to find the best singers. Further, the contest format gives nice, unassertive people like this year's standout, Melinda Doolittle (a 29-year-old professional back-up singer with a near Gladys Knight-quality voice but a shy, unassuming personality), a chance to shine in a business where pushiness is normally a prerequisite.

One striking difference between American Idol and the spate of lesser reality TV shows is that, surprisingly, it doesn't reward diva attitudes and bitchiness on the part of the contestants (the judges provide more than enough of that). The show has consistently resisted the temptation to put cameras in wherever it is that the contestants are lodged. It would be easy to encourage the contestants to engage in backstage backbiting and undermining each other on camera, like on Big Brother and all its imitators, but the show doesn't do that. One reason is that American Idol isn't American Idle -- the contestants who make it past the early auditions to Hollywood are working hard in rehearsal all week to get ready to put on two shows a week, and thus don't have as much time to connive against each other.

Another reason is because singing is a more objective undertaking than just being a media personality. Radio psychiatrist Dr. Drew Pinsky gave the standard Narcissistic Personality Inventory test to scores of minor celebrities that came on the "Loveline" radio show he hosted with Adam Carolla and found that the most narcissistic were the least talented -- the female reality TV stars of the moment were the most narcissistic, while the most talented, the musicians, were the least. If you are an excellent musician, you are always aware that there are truly great musicians out there. Melinda Doolittle knows that as good as she is, she's not as good as, say, Whitney Houston was in her (brief) prime.

Indeed, one of the rare pleasures of American Idol is the initial open audition shows when the talentless egomaniacs are sent home with curt, but valuable, advice to find a different career. In an America that constantly propagandizes about how everyone can achieve their goals if only they never forget their dreams, yada yada, Simon Cowell offers some useful English realism.

One thing that surprised Cowell a half decade ago was how little the American public cared about singers' looks. Being beautiful, like last year's runner-up Katherine McPhee, or cute, like the previous year's winner Carrie Underwood, helps, of course, but being fat (e.g., winner Rueben Stoddard), funny-looking (winner Fantasia and popular runner-up Clay Aiken), or gray-haired (winner Taylor Hicks) doesn't hurt as much as it would in Britain.

My wife has been guessing for some time that the winner this year will be 17-year-old Jordin Sparks, the cheerful mulatto daughter of a retired NFL cornerback and a blonde. Sparks, who has done some plus-sized modeling, is cute but not sexy, which is becoming in somebody so young. Sparks is a fine singer but not as strong as Doolittle or, when she's on her game, big LaKisha Jones. But the complex interaction of race and musical style just might favor young Sparks.

This year, the male singers have been below average, and without a strong white female country singer like Underwood or first winner Kelly Clarkson, the black women have dominated. Although they always put a cute white rocker chick in the top dozen, American Idol isn't conducive to singing electric guitar rock, for which you need your own small band, so that leaves country as the only genre where experienced white women have an advantage over black women on the show. The other good genres for the show are either black, such as Motown, or old-fashioned, such as show tunes, where the black advantage in raw vocal talent gives black women the advantage.

But there have been so many good black women this year, and they never have that all big a voting bloc among the public (the modal voter -- an adolescent white girl would prefer, all else being equal, to vote for somebody she identifies with), so they've cut into each other's vote, with LaKisha almost being sent home this week. (Howard Stern's novelty candidate Sanjaya was sent packing instead). The same thing happened in the third year, when Fantasia, who is black, won. Another tremendous black singer, Jennifer Hudson, the new Oscar-winner for "Dreamgirls," finished seventh, despite a lot of praise from the judges. Without Fantasia in the running, Hudson might well have won, but there wasn't enough support from the public for black women for both of them to make it to the last night.

Because she can sing black or white, Jordin Sparks thus looks well-poised to win the vote this year.

If she does well, that would be more evidence for a phenomenon I've been vaguely noticing for some time -- the rise of a Mulatto Elite in public life, to some extent displacing African-Americans raised in a conventionally black background. Perhaps it's just that there are more people with one black parent and one white parent today. But I suspect it's also that traditional African-Americans, in general, are getting ever more into their own narrow black groove and thus slowly losing touch with the rest of the country. For example, Levitt and Dubner wrote:

"The California data establish just how dissimilarly black and white parents have named their children over the past 25 years or so—a remnant, it seems, of the Black Power movement. The typical baby girl born in a black neighborhood in 1970 was given a name that was twice as common among blacks than whites. By 1980, she received a name that was 20 times more common among blacks. (Boys' names moved in the same direction but less aggressively—likely because parents of all races are less adventurous with boys' names than girls'.) Today, more than 40 percent of the black girls born in California in a given year receive a name that not one of the roughly 100,000 baby white girls received that year."

Giving your baby one of these stereotypically black names exposes your child to discrimination on the job market (as resume tests have shown). But blacks seem to be willing to have their children pay that price in the name of racial solidarity. Giving your baby a name like LaKisha is a way of branding her permanently with black culture so that she is less able to step away from it if she chooses.

As conventional blacks increasingly concentrate in only a handful of fields (e.g., just basketball and football in sports) and make a fetish of keepin' it real, of not "acting white," they are losing touch with the interests of the white majority, even as whites become ever more positive toward black talents. In their place, those individuals who are part black genetically, but had at least a partly white upbringing are able to flourish among whites by providing black skills without as much self-defeating black attitude. (Any connection between this trend and the popularity among whites of a certain Senator from Illinois is of course utterly coincidental.)


My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

30 comments:

Fred said...

"In their place, those individuals who are part black genetically, but had at least a partly white upbringing are able to flourish among whites by providing black skills without as much self-defeating black attitude."

Interesting. You could call this the golden age of the anti-Halle Berrys.

Anonymous said...

Giving your baby one of these stereotypically black names exposes your child to discrimination on the job market (as resume tests have shown). But blacks seem to be willing to have their children pay that price in the name of racial solidarity. Giving your baby a name like LaKisha is a way of branding her permanently with black culture so that she is less able to step away from it if she chooses.

There are some exceptions...

http://www.econ.yale.edu/faculty1/washington.htm

Grumpy Old Man said...

A mixed white-black child raised in both worlds will be more culturally mobile. On average, if the IQ-race data are correct, smarter, too.

It probably helps, too, if the black parent is West Indian or African, probably a cultural factor of some kind.

Go figure, as the late Kurt Vonnegut wrote.

Anonymous said...

So who did Prince sleep with in order to get his inexplicable 15-year run of shrieky, tinny-sounding chart-toppers? David Geffen?

Anonymous said...

Quite possibly Geffen haha.

What's interesting however is how Idol has dominated by appealing to 10-14 year old Girls. The Disney Channel audience. The ones who made the Olsen Twins worth ... a billion dollars (no kidding) and Hillary Duff worth ungodly amounts of money.

What does this demo like? Fantasies of being famous, very feminine, singing/dancing. With people applauding them. Look at who wins these things or even gets very far.

Extremely effeminate folks like Sanjaya or Aiken (won't scare the pre-teens) or sorta pretty girls like Kelly Clarkson with the oddities of Studdard and Hicks.

I don't think this is a failure of the music industry to find talent, as much as appealing to a demo that wasn't served since the Beatles broke up.

No straight guy would watch it without some sort of reward from his G/F, older women don't seem as attuned to this stuff. None of the singers has actually been successful in selling records. You don't see teen age boys aping Taylor Hicks, Studdard, or Clay Aiken. Their music isn't played on College Radio or at young adult parties.

AI is totally a TV phenom, aimed squarely at the Disney Channel demo.

I'd also take issue with Steve's view that "black skills without self-defeating black attitude" are the paths to success. I just don't see anything new, visceral, and emotion-generating coming out of the African-American community that makes people jump on African-American artists and music.

Nothing like Motown, or Rap, or Soul, or Funk. It's been a complete and total cultural dead end. And one I think Steve sort of danced around: Black fear of assimilation.

The great genius of African-American music has always rested on cultural borrowing from White culture and reworking music, fashion, and food to their liking with considerable improvements.

I'd love to see an African-American borrowing of the earnest Emo guys with skinny pants borrowed off their older sisters and eyeliner that made fun of it and improved on the base musicality. The way Ragtime sped up and made fun of very slyly European Waltzes.

Instead it all goes the other way. Dynamite Hack or Ben Folds ridicule the conventions of Rap Videos and Gangsta Rap. Sad sad sad.

Steve Sailer said...

In a time of low music sales, American Idol stars have done pretty well:

> Album standings (for one album unless otherwise noted):

1. Kelly Clarkson: 8.3 million (2 albums)

2. Carrie Underwood: 5.3 million

3. Clay Aiken: 4.5 million (3 albums)

The two white country singer women look well-positioned to be major fixtures in their field.

Clay Aiken appeals to fans of Barry Manilow.

Oscar said...

... the inefficiency and corruption of the traditional music industry, which fails to maximize profits because too many male executives prefer to exploit their power to promote pretty but untalented girls who will sleep with them rather than to find the best singers.

I don't know if that's true, that the lustfulness of executives could create such a glaring inefficiency in such a huge and competitve industry. I actually think it's the opposite, that the music industry is super-efficient, that its managers realize that after a certain threshold point, great vocal ability starts not to be such a big deal. The quality of the song becomes much more important. So why not get someone who is also hot to sing it?
Obviously sex and glamour sell.

The dynamic on American Idol is different only because, ironically, the audience is not voting for the contestant who has the greatest potential to become an actual American idol. All kinds of other variables are coming into play, e.g. superior vocal talent (beyond the mere proficiency required by the market), but more importantly, characteristics such as humility and homeliness: the ability to neutralize envy and resentment.

In other words, the masses do not realize that, were it not for the fact that they watch these contestants week after week, and develop an attachment to them, they would never buy their recordings, much less actually "idolize" them the way they would a pre-packaged sexy cipher. Given a catchy pop song written by some fat, bald, Jewish guy, they would rather hear (and watch videos of) a glamorous hottie singing it, and not some fat, winsome mulatto.site

Steve Sailer said...

The big question is why there are so few good songs these days.

I'm increasingly coming around to the view that the rock music peak era of roughly 1962-1982 was the product of the electric guitar and musicians working out all the amazing things that could be done with it, kind of like the Romantic era in music was driven by the piano, which could play soft and loud, unlike the harpsichord.

The subsequent era of digitally-produced music seems to lack stylistic coherence. There's too much possibility so music becomes kind of ho hum. If you can do anything with a computer, well, anything you do isn't as exciting as doing it with a limited instrument like an electric guitar.

Slimmer said...

"I'd love to see an African-American borrowing of the earnest Emo guys with skinny pants borrowed off their older sisters and eyeliner that made fun of it and improved on the base musicality."
Well, the singer's not American, but the band Bloc Party might be what you're looking for.

Anonymous said...

"But I suspect it's also that traditional African-Americans, in general, are getting ever more into their own narrow black groove and thus slowly losing touch with the rest of the country."

The article on Drudge about a rapper who wouldn't help police seems to validate that idea, but take it much further. This guy didn't help police against people who did HIM harm; those are the "rules".

Geoffrey Canada, an anti-violence advocate says, "It is now a cultural norm that is being preached in poor communities....It's like you can't be a black person if you have a set of values that say 'I will not watch a crime happen in my community without getting involved to stop it.'"

Prof. David Kennedy of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "I work in communities where the clearance rate for homicides has gone into the single digits," says Kennedy. The national rate for homicide clearance is 60 percent.

crashcup said...

You are absolutely right about Jordin Sparks. She is the best singer on American Idol this year and I suspect that she is going to win.

Anonymous said...

I love reading people pontificating about a subject they know nothing about. Thanks for the laughs.

Anonymous said...

If Jordin Sparks wins, it will ruin Steve's theory the winners always come from the old Confederate States because enough of those contestants grew up singing in church.

Anonymous said...

Jordin Sparks is probably the strongest contestant right now.

Big turn around for Lakisha, with the truly awesome voice. She started out strong when she was choosing her own genre. Now that Latin Week, Country Week and others have come by, she has shown how terrified she is outside of her very narrow comfort zone. She looked terrified on Latin Night. Lakisha just lacks that savvy versatility, which is telling.

Melinda is not confined to traditionally "black diva" songs, and did well in Latin Week and Country Week while keeping her own "black woman" flavor. But her endearing bordering on annoying quirkiness might bar her from winning.

Jordin Sparks was not my favorite at first, but she is pulling her act together and presenting herself more like a grown woman. She is truly versatile, and pulled off the Latin Week and Country Week performances with poise and (remarkably) genre authenticity. She could look Puerto Rican, and was one of the few contestants to do well on Latin Week. And pulled off some great Country-style vocal tricks the next week.

The Justin Timberlake-esque Chris guy is weak, and now finally defended nasally as a "style of singing." No, it's a gimmick - it's a tired R&B gimmick that people are sick of. Thank you Simon for calling that out.

What comes off in these reality shows loud and clear is that American blacks have built a very insular cultural fortress for themselves, and it can't always stand up to the new level of cultural competition. It has global cool appeal, but not top-performing global pop sophistication. They fare very badly when required to be broader and more cosmopolitan people like Jordin Sparks. Too many are mentally stuck in that little neighborhood/plantation, and truly believe that is a model of the world. But the Latinos are giving them a run for their money as "cool ethnic alternative American culture." Check out J-Lo's new video, where she is no longer going for the rounded pseudo-sister look and actually comes off as a more chiseled Latina in a dusty, rural (Texan or Mexican) setting. Still, no Latinos made it through to the top Idol rounds (except for one Mexican-Phillipino guy).

Ransen said...

Jordin is not just "cute" but sexy to those guys who like big girls. Steve should know better than most that guys are highly variable in all ways, and therefore in their sexual preferences specifically. Oh yeah, Carrie Underwood is super sexy as well.

Peter said...

The show has consistently resisted the temptation to put cameras in wherever it is that the contestants are lodged. It would be easy to encourage the contestants to engage in backstage backbiting and undermining each other on camera, like on Big Brother and all its imitators, but the show doesn't do that.

I enjoyed the first season of Top Chef but found the recently completed second season barely watchable. The show began focusing far less on the cooking competition - we never saw more than brief snippets of the contestants actually cooking stuff - and far more on their "backstage" personality conflicts, culminating in an incident that was disturbingly close to a prison rape.

Anonymous said...

I've long assumed that a rough rule of thumb is that, among non-mulatto blacks, there's about an even split between assimilable types who are reasonably comfortable interacting with white people and non-assimilable types who only seem to be comfortable with their own kind. (This isn't, however, the impression I get in Chicago where the assimilating category seems smaller). While having some white blood undoubtedly raises the odds of assimilating, manner of speach is a better indicator than skin color. One young, dark ghetto person I know sounds surprisingly just like a young white suburban person. Another with a more typically black, I Love New York type of delivery doesn't just seem to ignore white people but almost seems to tune them out completely, to carry on as if they are invisible.

tggp said...

One study suggests music popularity is such a crap-shoot it's doubtful that AmId is doing a better job than the music industry at picking talent. Me, I can't understand how anyone can like the crap that fills the airwaves, but I've been informed by many people that I have horrible taste in music.

Anonymous said...

as for Steve's idea that music was more authentic/higher quality pre-1982 when possibilities of electric guitar were being explored, I previously threw in an out-of-place comment about the movie the namesake, raising the issue of pre-1980 authenticity and the feeling that the experience of life in general was somehow more satisfying then vs. now. I think this issue is explored by the younger generation of film makers to some degree with nostalgic presentations of the 70s. Still no one really puts his finger on the underlying causes of the change. The "quality of life" is such a vague concept that I'm not even sure most people would agree a change occurred. Still, some ideas for the change (in no particular order) include: (1) increasing IQ under the flynn effect and explosion of media outlets result in unprecedented identity oriented self-consciousness. post-1980 you are much more likely to be interacting with someone whose actions are guided by implications for their own self definition, rather than with someone who is behaving more naturally, following some genuine external interest. (2) post-1980, media begins taking up a lot of brain space and time, subtracting time for quality relationships. kids are distracted at the dinner table because they are missing a debut mtv video or thinking about whether walter payton will reach 1,500 yards. the explosion of sports coverage, in particular, subtracts time from worthier, hands-on activities. (3) animal spirits leave the work committed less time for relationships. women, in particular, plunge into the workforce under feminism and cuts in taxes on marginal income for families. (4) materials become more synthetic, even as product quality improves. the car, the dishes, etc. no longer seem "real". Increasing substitution of digital for analog puts people a further remove from nature. (5) the media and entertainment businesses become more rationally managed for profit. the marketing business becomes more sophisticated at identifying demographics. the focus of the media is less on extracting things from real life (such as reasonably good bands like, say, Boston) and presenting them to the public, and more on finding matches to preconceived models (like the copycat act Def Leppard) that will fly with one demographic or another and then ramming them down the public's throat. at the same time, media/entertainment executives who gained power riding the waves of the young boomers begin to enter middle age, losing a bit of their creative feel/ethics and becoming hardened for-profit charicatures of their former selves. artists are corrupted by financial incentives of stardom and marginal performers are motivated to pass themselves off as talented, muddying the pop culture. (6) there is a sense of less energy generally because boomers have moved past young adulthood. (7) people simply choose an asthetic that it polished but artificial.

More than anything, the record business seemed to reflect the change, so studying it might yield some useful insights.

Anonymous said...

the pre-digital requirement that all players be technically competent or even masters of their instruments undoubtedly selected for performers with better artistic judgement. it might be worthwhile to dismiss all supposed art not requiring technical ability (some abstract visual art, rap music, etc.) along Tom Wolfe's Hooking Up lines.

Anonymous said...

also, as far as pre-1980 authenticity goes, didn't one-liners in say, Clint Eastwood or James Bond movies come off a lot more convincingly than one liners today? Maybe back then the hero's joke/irony was fresh, while now it's more a matter of writing some dialogue to fit the hero's joke/irony template, and actors are a little too self-conscious in their deliveries.

playrink said...

comment above (Anon @ 12:30) - wonderfully compelling, likely to occupy my thoughts for a while. humble request: pls elaborate on point three, which begins: "animal spirits leave the work committed less time..."

Anonymous said...

Building on the points here, it's interesting that one of the few genuinely creative, sonically interesting people to have emerged in hip-hop these past few years has been Dangermouse, a very light-skinned black guy who grew up in a mostly white suburb and found listening to white rock revelatory and inspiring. A lot of what he's done with Gnarls Barkley has been conbining white and black musical cultures in an organic way that's far more interesting than, say, Run-DMC doing "Walk This Way" (God, I'm dating myself....)

Steve Sailer said...

Thanks for the fine comments. I think I can guess who Anonymous of the long comment on the more ersatz nature of life in the digital age is.

Anonymous said...

Why fixate on the decline of music exclusively? Meaning what other artistic pursuit has also not declined in quality? Are we in a golden age of literature? art? stage? film? architecture?

We have begun our Weimar Republic phase. There is talent out there but the great cultural wave is suffused with the purile. Infantilism nihilism barbarism.

This country is under racial and cultural attack. Of course, the arts reflect the resulting crisis of confidence. Cultural confidence is a key ingredient for high artistic achievement. And so angry music is a reflection male insecurity. Feminized music also is a reflection of male insecurity.

People ask, why does [insert art form] suck these days? Because the culture sucks these days. The culture sucks because hate whitey is the core principle.

We are turning brown and going down. Duh.

Anonymous said...

playrink: "animal spirits leave the work committed less time for relationships". I think it was Keynes who introduced the concept of "animal spirits" to describe economic periods of otherwise unexplainable high work and consumption. why did people go nuts in the 20s and do nothing in the 30s? Ups and downs in animal spirits. what I meant was that the hard driving work/consumption culture that developed during the Reagan administration, with dads burning the midnight oil and moms going into the workforce in record numbers (where previously their extra income would have been taxed at 50% or more and it wasn't worth it) necessarily subtracted from "family and friends time". (People split hairs over minor economic policy differences between Clinton and Bush; in fact, there was one sea change in policy around 1980 and--whether cause or consequence of the spirit of the people--it occurred in conjunction with major cultural changes). In the stagnating 70s, people had more time for each other, moms were not in the workforce as much, etc. this is one factor contributing to change in the "feel of life". if you run down the laundry list of factors, you don't have to get too far before you start to think, well, it's no wonder things feel different now.

I'd say 160 iq pts. are probably enough to peg my id. however, here's my bio: Like Norberto Felix Cruz, anon mostly prefers to keep his head down. He no longer lives in Chi.

Anonymous said...

80's music did have a feeling of genuine fun and joi de vivre. Not so easy to come by now. Now youth music (rock, etc) is either whiney or lame, somehow lacking that spark. Even the downbeat music then had sincerity in it.

New stuff is dominated by tones of whining or threats, with some lackluster and uninspired dance thrown in. Not sure what that's all about.

fwood1 said...

"the focus of the media is less on extracting things from real life (such as reasonably good bands like, say, Boston) and presenting them to the public, and more on finding matches to preconceived models (like the copycat act Def Leppard"

Def Leppard wasn't a Boston copycat. Boston's roots were in prog; Leppard's roots were in metal.

Anonymous said...

it's pretty hard, though, to listen to "Photograph" (maybe Def Leppard's most popular tune) and not see the handwriting of a producer trying to mimick the Boston sound.

practicalidealistAD said...

Steve
I appreciate your thoughtful commentary.....
it is clear that you are well-read and clear-thinking. There is something I want to call to your attention, though.

There seems to be a common thread,
however subtle, of "white bias". It would
require lots of time to unravel all the
incidences of this predisposition, more time than
I have at this moment, but I did want to
at least draw your attention to the fact
that it is there and that is it offensive.

"...As conventional blacks increasingly concentrate in only a handful of fields (e.g., just basketball and football in sports) and make a fetish of keepin' it real, of not "acting white," they are losing touch with the interests of the white majority, even as whites become ever more positive toward black talents. In their place, those individuals who are part black genetically, but had at least a partly white upbringing are able to flourish among whites by providing stereotypically black skills without as much self-defeating black attitude....."

If you re-read this carefully, either alone, or with a fairly intelligent companion, you will see that it is full of over-generalizations, and that it reflects a certain, well, you might call it, racial arrogance, and finally, that it appears to presume that the reader is a part of the "white majority".

I know that you are doing your best, and I appreciate that, but you have a large readership and they deserve your attention to this.
Thank you.