American Idol exhausts me. The sheer number of months it takes to get to finalists – or even a group of finalists who seem like legitimate singers – takes it out of me. I don’t lack enthusiasm; American Idol is one of my favorite television shows, and I love television. It is just that American Idol is comprised of mostly crass careerists (star-wannabes) and too many stylized, faked voices. This is exactly why I welcome the replacement of American Idol with Nigel‘s other show: So You Think You Can Dance? So You Think…? is just a superior show, on all accounts. And much more interesting to watch and think about.
That said, I’m sorry to see how seriously So You Think…? is adopting the humiliate-a-quirky-person motif from American Idol. That motif is the worst of television, appealing to our inner grade-schooler and taking advantage of what we’d do and think if we just had (and now have) that minimal distance between a televisual image and real flesh. A sort of restaging of the Myth of Gyges proposed by Glaucon in Plato’s Republic. Ick.
So You Think…? has the same format as American Idol. The judges “select” dozens from thousands, then a dozen from dozens. Then, with that dozen or so selected from those dozens, you have audience participation – phoned in votes, which then lead to all sorts of drama about whether or not “America got it right.” But dance actually makes the question of “getting it right” all the more interesting. American Idol can count on a lot of getting right or near enough, save for the annual foray into cruelty-almost-minstrel-show, as with the Sanjaya stuff this just-finished season. We know how to get it right. After all, it is an “idol” contest, which means that we judge sex-appeal, charm, and pleasantness of singing. We get that as a country. We’ve been manufacturing these people for a long time. It’s been our business as a culture of business for decades: making multimedia stars. As old as Elvis moving from vinyl to live show madness to televised appearances to movies. So much of one’s youth can, at this point, be remembered and located in relation to idols. Tom Cruise and Michael Jackson. That’s me. Is it you? If both are creepy and strange, that means you’re younger than I am…
Dance is a little bit different. First, there is the question of expertise. I mean, really, who knows what is “right” and what is “compromised” or “faked” about a quick-step? Few dancers on the show will know. So, audience participation – the whole voting thing – is already sketchy. (Thankfully, and interestingly, that is exactly what the So You Think…? judges give us as viewers – a bit of education. Can you say the same about American Idol? Hardly, except maybe for the word “pitchy,” which seems to cover “didn’t like it” as much as some technical something.) As well, what does it even mean to win this contest? We know with American Idol, right? We’ll hear the winner on the radio, see them on lame morning television, maybe on various music television channels. The winner of So You Think…? gets to dance in Celine Dion’s show in Las Vegas (last year’s big prize). Let me be honest: I ain’t takin’ in that show. I know the drinks are free in the casino, but they’re not that free.
What it means to win So You Think…? is this second sense of difference. Dance, as a profession and passion, operates outside the straightforward spectacle of everyday media. I say “straightforward spectacle,” as something tells me the Celine Dion show is fully of spectacular madness. Vegas, etc. But the dancers themselves take the craft so seriously, and that just isn’t the same as singers, all of whom want to be stars – and that’s different that breaking into and working in a profession. Singers have the superstar aspiration thing. There are no real superstar lyrical or modern dancers. Sure, there are stars in dance subcultures – whether “high,” “low,” or “medium” cultural contexts – but that’s just different than “idol” culture, which is mass cultural consumption par excellence. I’ve seen countless top-40 hitmakers on People magazine. Never seen the “new face of lyrical” on the same. Still waiting.
So, tuning into So You Think…? is always an interesting move from the kooky spectacle of idol-production to another sort of contest. But mostly I find this aspect of the shift compelling: from the voice to the body as a way of saying yourself. I’ve always thought of the voice as the most inimitable, and therefore most startling, expression of self. A song can make you cry for the singer or even for history, as, say, when you hear a blues song about leaving everyone you love in cruel Mississippi for another life in Chicago, alone but at least not, the singer hopes, Jim Crow’s brutality. That is startling and pulls us into that suffering of history borne by a voice. The spectacle of “idol,” whether the show or the cultural referent of the show, has stolen a bit of that startlingness of the voice for me. Taylor Hicks as “blues” or “soul” singer is as hilarious as it is morally disgusting. So, I’m not convinced music can still carry that same depth of affect, or at least not easily. To see the body in that same context – both on the televisual stage and as this expression of self – puts danced expression in a precarious position. Were dance to end up the same commodified spectacle as the voice has become, with what are we left in terms of public expression?
And what is the pathos of the dancer? Is it different than the singer? What might that difference tell us about the eclipse of the voice? Or the invasion of the voice by the spectacle of idol-making?
This precariousness leads me to two other issues: a.) the risk of expression of self after an age of specialization and b.) the strangeness of the dancer vs. the familiarity of the singer.
But these will have to wait for another post…after another episode.