On Creativity, Credit, and the Popular Idol

My wife is watching American Idol. As you can tell, I am not. I don’t strictly loathe the program; I just really, really don’t like it.

I’m aware it’s a very popular little show. Not just my wife watches it, apparently; there’s a guy at work who mentioned in passing as well. And, as long I’m being honest with you all, I don’t actually mind the talent on display, even if it does seem like a grossly overblown, shameless televised debutante ball for people with a little more lung than the rest of us.

The key thing for me is, what talent exactly is on display? There is something indeed unique and special about the contestants on American Idol (at least, those that make it through the first few rounds). Whether they’ve got a Dave Grohl grin or don’t care two whits about their audience, most of the people up on that stage share a common talent: their voice. They are, for the most part, good singers. Some are great, and would be at home on Broadway, or at the opera.

And I am a huge fan of musical talent. Alfred Brendel, Yo-Yo Ma and Isaac Stern are unparalleled to this day (and I am quite fortunate to have a recording of Brahms’ chamber music with most of these fellows playing). Joe Satriani and Eddie Van Halen can shred like none other. Mike Portnoy is an astonishing drummer, and hey – love him or hate him Axel Rose can sing. These are all exceptionally talented musicians, performers who rank in the top 1% of their art. But – and here is the argument’s focus – how far does their credit and fame extend?

As much as I enjoy consuming media (books, music, movies, etc.), I also create it as well. I am by training a musician and a composer. I am by my own hand a writer. And I have made a couple of terrible home movies. And whether it is in poring over the score of Beethoven’s sixth symphony, or marveling at the poetry of Dickens’ words, or admiring the artistry of Coppola’s Dracula, it is always driven home to me the intense passion, the sweat and tears, the frustration and the determination, that these artists have invested in their work.

Think, for a moment, about the song you’re listening to. Is it three, four, five minutes long? How long did it take to write, rehearse, perform and record that music? Chances are, several months. Production began last year on The Hobbit, which is due for release this Christmas. And the script was in the works ten years ago. Stephen King began work on his Dark Tower series in 1975 and is still working on it today. These are creations of human imagination, and while many of us have wild fantasies, stories and songs that run through our hears, these few are the ones with the bravery, the foolishness, and the love of self-immolation to commit those fantasies to permanence.

Yet in all of this, music – and specifically popular music – stands alone in several ways from all others. I won’t comment on the idea that pop songs are created for money; all art is, in one form or another. Nor will I say anything about the formulaic characteristic that defines most pop music; how many Agatha Christie clones are out there in the literary world?

No, the one thing that I can’t help but notice – the one thing that frustrates me to no end, and drives to to tears to think of it – is the credit given to the creators of these works. What springs to mind when I say The Hobbit, Vertigo, Titanic, Alien, Dune, or The Pit and the Pendulum? More likely than not, J.R.R. Tolkien, Alfred Hitchcock, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Frank Herbert and Edgar Allen Poe. Yet if I ask you who wrote any one of Britney Spears’ eleven Top 10 songs, how many of you would be able to answer, Max Martin?

Turns out, Max Martin wrote chart-topping songs for The Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Katy Perry, and even Usher. Now I don’t typically listen boy bands, pop rock or hip hop. Not out of any sense of pride – it just doesn’t speak to me. My tastes do vary – anything from The Cure and The Sisters of Mercy to Iron Maiden and Napalm Death, along with more or less the entire canon of western classical music from the 1600s on. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I started to wonder why I was attracted to these styles of music in particular. The answer that came to me, ultimately, was art. These musical styles represent art in its highest form. Like looking at a Picasso or reading Jules Verne, through the art you are in touch with the artist, and you have the chance, if you slow down, to marvel at every brush stroke, or wonder how the writer chose their words, and why they hold such magic.

When I listen to Porcupine Tree (one of my favorite bands), I don’t just hear the music. I hear Steven Wilson, writer, producer, singer, performer, making sure every single sound I hear is there on purpose, for me to recognize and revel in. I imagine him sitting in a studio, expensive headphones on, changing the reverb from 5 milliseconds to 6 milliseconds, smiling, and thinking – that’s perfect.

I wonder if Britney Spears ever does that.

In classical music, the composer is prized above all else, even the performer. “Simon Rattle conducts Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony” – the work of art belongs to the composer.

In film, it is the director, though the producer, screenwriter, and composer are all credited as well; “Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.”

In literature – surprise – the author.

And even in contemporary popular music – rock, rap, jazz, punk, metal, house and hip-hop – it is rarely questioned that the artist and songwriter are not the same. We assume that Kurt Cobain had some hand in writing the music and lyrics to Smells Like Teen Spirit. Even Flo Rida wrote “Good Feeling” (under his real name of Tramar Dillard). So what happened to generic-brand pop? When did the performers begin to overshadow the creators?

So I won’t cry shame on American Idol; after all, showcasing talent is (ostensibly) what the show is all about. I have no problem with a nobody from Arkansas being given a shot at fame. But spare a thought for the songwriters who gave their lives to make this happen. Continue to give them credit as you sing.

And who knows? Maybe one day we’ll have a talent show for songwriters and composers. Admittedly, it would be a lot less fun to watch. But it would certainly be more interesting.