There’s an interview with T Bone Burnett in Rolling Stone (can I say “in” Rolling Stone if I’ve read it online? or is it “on” Rolling Stone?) where he discusses the process of creating the music in Nashville, and along the way he mentions another music-driven television show: “Well, I can just say, look, American Idol has been on the air for, you know, 10 years [12 seasons, actually], and they’ve broken two artists. With all of that air time, and all of that hullabaloo, and all of those phone calls and all of that advertising and everything else, they’ve broken two artists.” That’s something I’ve been saying for years, and before anyone starts throwing around names like Jennifer Hudson and Adam Lambert, let’s be clear that Hudson didn’t win and didn’t become a star based on anything Idol-related, and that Lambert (likewise an also-ran) is only a relative star because compared to Taylor Hicks and Lee DeWyze, he has a personality. These audience-participation game shows might fall under the general banner of Reality Television, but they’re pure fiction: they ask us to accept the premise that the contestants are exceptionally gifted, and that untold riches and fame await them at the end of the season if they’re fortunate enough to get mentored by Adam Levine and embraced by American voters. In two seasons, The Voice hasn’t launched one voice onto the airwaves (another archaic term, I know). Not one winner or runner-up has sold albums. Who won X Factor? Is that even still on?

I caught the last moments of last night’s Voice finale, and the level of absurdity was staggering. Carson Daly, ratcheting up the suspense, called the finalists “These three incredible artists,” a phrase that contains one fact (there were three people standing next to him) and two whoppers (“incredible” and “artists”). It’s madness. He should have said, “These three remaining contestants, two of whom you will never hear from again for the rest of your life, so say so long.” As for the winner, Cassadee Pope seems professional and composed and nice, and friends of mine have worked with her and like her, so I wish nothing but good fortune. Maybe she’ll be the one Voice that matters, but she has to be created musically from scratch; nothing these singers are asked to do to get through the TV show has anything to do with becoming a real recording star. No one expects, at this point, a visionary artist to emerge from these shows, but how about a credible pop vessel?

Meanwhile, over on Nashville, T Bone and company are sneaking quality songs into prime time every single week, and although the two lead actresses aren’t the most gifted vocalists (they wouldn’t get far in Idol auditions), they bring the attitude, and as I said after the pilot aired, all Connie Britton needs to do to capture my heart is wear that Loveless Cafe t-shirt and say “y’all” a few times per episode. Nashville is another type of fiction: few of the songs on the show are likely candidates to be real country music hits, and I was outraged when, in one scene at the Bluebird Cafe, two characters were having a conversation at the bar while someone was singing. Don’t they realize there’s a No Talking edict at the Bluebird, that the club’s t-shirts have “Shhh!” written on them? Shut up! But episode after episode, the songs connect, and just like in real life Nashville, the show’s interactions are set in motion by songwriting sessions; it’s the city’s catch phrase: want to get together and write?

What T Bone and Buddy Miller are doing is getting writers from in and out of town — John Paul White (The Civil Wars), Kacey Musgraves, Rodney Crowell, Elvis Costello, Natalie Hemby, Hillary Lindsey, Arum Rae — to contribute first-rate songs that move the narrative and reveal character. Sometimes the quiet-please policy is enforced, and you watch a song start to finish at the Bluebird (it’s going to be even more difficult to get into that tiny club now…) like “No One Will Ever Love You” by Connie Britton and Charles Esten and “If I Didn’t Know Better” by Sam Palladio and Clare Bowen. Over on the music shows, you hear, night after night, truncated karaoke versions of songs you’ve heard a billion times by singers who are coached with no goal in mind except winning this dopey pop pageant, but in this soap opera, it’s about new songs. It may not be completely realistic, but sometimes — like when Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere are persuaded to collaborate on “Wrong Song,” or the Stella kids (Lennon and Maisy) do a talent-show version of “Telescope,” or Palladio & Bowen do their sort-of-Civil Wars duets — it’s better than the real thing. And certainly so much better than what’s going on in The X-Voice’s land of broken dreams.

4 responses to “shhh!

  1. James Spinaddict

    I’ve been waiting for a music-related show like Nashville for ALL of my teen and adult life. Knowing my fuel for all things music I’m often asked for my feelings about those reality “star search” fests where the main challange is who has more artificial talent, the panels or the contestants. this brilliant post is my gratefully stolen response. Thanks Mitch!

  2. While I endorse your premise about the fabulousness of Nashville, I think you’re being overly critical about what American Idol has “produced”. In the category of “broken” artist, what about Daughtry? Jennifer Hudson probably would have been unknown without Idol. And quite a few of them have far more of a career than they ever would have had (e.g., Fantasia, Ruben Studdard, Jordin Sparks, Kimberly Locke, Kellie Pickler, Constantine, etc.); in fact, all of them may have never left their home towns. Indeed, their track record is probably close to the Top 40 track record of labels. The “losers” are the Voice, X Factor and Glee.

  3. I’d be very surprised if Daughtry has a career, and Jennifer Hudson’s success, as T Bone points out in his interview, is about Dreamgirls and not Idol. I’m not saying that some alumni haven’t accomplished more than they would have without the show (like Kat, and certainly singers like Kellie and Clay), but of the show’s winners — the whole premise of the show is to pick an Idol — two out of twelve isn’t a great batting average.

  4. As first and foremost a TV show, I don’t think that 2 out of 12 is that bad (especially compared to the ratio for record companies that sign artists with this as their main purpose). This is especially the case when you realize that all of the contestants have been essentially passed on by the major record companies for various reasons. I think the more interesting questions is why these shows now are delivering so much less than before; is it because the best unsigned artists have already been scooped up? That was a good argument when the middle years were less successful than the early years, but it seems less valid today. Another possible explanation is that the existence of Youtube makes it unnecessary to go the AI route; would Justin Bieber gone to AI 10 years ago? Frankly I’ve been surprised by the absence of traction for Dia Frampton; it will be interesting with Cassadee Pope; if nothing happens, I would say that these shows may have become negatives, rather than positives. Meanwhile, what’s with Columbia and Lea Michele?!?

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