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.