Sunday Tangent: Top ten performers who would not be successful if American Idol were the template for success


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Hi Blog.  As a Sunday Tangent (this time a complete and utter digression):

I see America has come up with its next American Idol (I won’t spoil the fun for those who are watching the show in Japan; we’re five weeks behind).  I will admit to being a fan of the show;  I like watching stars bloom, and its fun to watch performers handle several different genres every week, seeing who comes out in the wash over the course of months, and witnessing whose style lacks the versatility to mature and grow over what is admittedly a tough contest.  It has chosen genuine stars (like Carrie Underwood, Daughtry, and my favorite of them all — Adam Lambert), and the occasional underperformer (most famously Taylor Hicks — but I still enjoy his schtick as a lounge singer; I’d buy a ticket to see him in Vegas, as I would Wayne Newton or, yes, Barry Manilow!  Remember, I’m a big fan of Duran Duran, so there’s no accounting for taste.).

But there is something wrong with the runaway success of the American Idol model.  It focuses too much on the person as a vessel of natural singing talent (and occasionally performance), wants vocal fireworks just about every time there’s a chorus, and is (naturally) a sucker for covers instead of originality (forcing people to toe a fine line between “carry-okey” and “fresh contemporary originality”).  And with the upcoming departure of Simon Cowell, we will have only judges that are trying to be too nice and not own up that the occasional bad performer slipped through their filter (as happened this season, one reason I stopped watching at around the Top Ten).  Its success reminds me of the success of something like Star Wars, which made Hollywood feel the need for event movies every year instead of making serious art (whatever that means; but before you call me a snob, remember that MGM’s slogan is still “Ars Gratia Artis”, art for the sake of art), where quality was measured by financial income.  And the only music that sees much distribution these days is something with big-studio production values, a committee of songwriters and stage choreographers behind it, and a rock video.  Hark back to the occasional hiccups in the charts where real oddities were having hits (the Psychedelic era of the Sixties, the Progressive Rock era of the early Seventies (how the hell did Sugarloaf’s “Green-Eyed Lady” get into the Billboard Top Five in 1970?), Punk and then early (stress: early) New Wave, then, however briefly, Grunge?)  I think American Idol has contributed to the hammerlock the studios have over the music business, as they continue to watch and wonder why their music is so uninspiring and, yes, bringing in progressively less and less revenue?  We’re now back to rehashing (“contemporizing”) remakes and passing them off as new material.

As further proof of the flaws in the American Idol model for success, I’ve come up with a personal list of ten performers who I think would never have made it if in their day American Idol were the template for success.  The reason being:  They lack much (or any) natural singing talent.  But their ability to perform, songwrite, read the cultural zeitgeist of the moment, and keep their momentum and staying power over the years, have made them stars in their own right.  And deservedly so.  Think of how much less enriched the musical genres would be without the contributions of these people?  These are not mere singers, they are artists.


10. Simon Le Bon / Duran Duran. Sadly enough (and I’m a HUGE fan of both him and the group), Simon lacks the vocal range necessary for a competition like Idol.  He would pass the regional preliminaries, but would probably not get through to the top fifty or so.  Imagine Simon singing country or blues (the closest you can see is him singing covers of songs of artists that inspired the band on album THANK YOU) and you’ll get what I mean.  His voice is tuned for his band:  Pastel Pink and Magenta, minor notes, and off-kilter songs (try imagining anyone but him singing “Girls on Film” and not looking corny or silly).  He’s a master of his genre (however narrow, and I happen to like it), and his songwriting skills (check out some of the lyrics of “Breath after Breath”, or “Still Breathing” for example) are superb even after all these years.

9. David Bowie.  Yes, he can sing, but like Simon Le Bon he is a very stripey singer, whose voice grew over the years (witness how he sang back in the Sixties; “Space Oddity” or “Good Morning Girl” would not have made Idol), as did his creative talents (from Ziggy Stardust to the Serious Moonlight tours, who would imagine a guy in his fifties putting out “Hallo Spaceboy” or the 1.OUTSIDE album).  Bowie is an artist first, a singer/performer a far second, and a model who attracts and keeps models as wives third.  He keeps surprising us with how much he has inside (Idol would never be so patient to let him grow and “ch-ch-change” over decades).

8. Marilyn Manson.  I only have a few songs by him (not a real fan of his genre) so I won’t comment in depth, but I can recognize his vocal power and creative abilities.  That said, he’s not necessarily a singer, let alone a versatile one.  We did have a person who did a Mansonesque growly voice in auditions a few seasons back; he was laughed off stage.  It’s not a Simon Cowell “sing well” voice.

7. Michael Stipe / R.E.M.  One of the reasons why R.E.M. is a band I can like but not love is because their songs sound samey after awhile (one of the problems I have with The Blues as well; I can see myself enjoying The Blues while playing pool in a bar and getting progressively drunk, but not necessarily sit down and listen to The Blues in concert format).  Michael’s talent is as a poet who writes great lyrics and has a great band behind him, crafting well within their genre.  His tender cover of Lennon’s “#9 Dream” is excellent, but unusually so.  I wouldn’t want him to try lounge-y music, Sinatra Big Band, or show tunes, which are closer to the versatility of what Idol wants.  Yet if Michael was never heard of, we would lose the incredible beauty of “Losing My Religion” from the great world songbook.  That loss would make me cry.

6. Alice Cooper.  Look, admit it:  Alice Cooper just can’t sing.  He has trouble keeping in tune in STUDIO (!!) recordings of “Desperado” and “Halo of Flies”, for example.  But y’know, one doesn’t care.  Because he’s a great stage performer with great dramatic flair, good at making music and presenting a persona your parents will hate (which is all the more reason for disaffected teens to buy it).  He’s also put out great gut-wrenchers and head-bangers like “School’s Out” and “No More Mr Nice Guy”, even sensitive tunes like “Only Women Bleed”, and has enabled entire shock-jock artists to couple (if not substitute) visual talent for musical talent.  That said, he still can’t sing.  No Idol for you!

5. Kurt Cobain / Nirvana. This band is long after my time (I stop listening to charts, except for runaway successes, around 1987; it happens), so again, I won’t comment in depth. But this to me is a garage band who not only made it big, they inspired and legitimized a whole genre (Grunge), and still is making an impact with Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters. That said, the vocals on, say, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” do not fit Idol, and if the Idol model controlled everything, they’d still be in their garage. Enormous loss to the Generation X-ers and Y’s who still seem him as a near-holy figure, their very own idol.

4. David Byrne / Talking Heads.  David Byrne is also a voice you can’t imagine ever being successful (witness the vocal calisthenics on “Artists Only”, and all the fat suit antics during the STOP MAKING SENSE juggernaut of the Eighties).  But it fits the very iconoclastic music (best in the Seventies, get MORE SONGS ABOUT BUILDINGS AND FOOD, one of my favorite albums of all time), and before it devolved into self-parody, the Talking Heads made nerdy rock by Rhode Island School of Design artists into serious art.  But again, based only on how David looked when first starting out, Simon Cowell would have told him to get off the stage at the first cut.  Huge loss.

3. Peter Gabriel.  Peter, like many of the artists on this list, has a voice that grows on you as you familiarize yourself with the style (I wonder how many labels told early Genesis to get rid of their frontman) and, more importantly, the stage antics (they made albums into whole live-on-stage stories, and to this day the best concerts recorded on video are Gabriel’s:  Get SECRET WORLD LIVE or GROWING UP LIVE if you have any doubt, not to mention the groundbreaking EVE multimedia CD-ROM.  But again, he’s very genre specific (progressive rock), yet an enricher of all that he touches.  Idol would simply not “get” him.

2. Neil Young.  Neil is another one of those performers who should never have gotten on stage to sing (I have the feeling Crosby, Stills, and Nash did their best to keep him away from the mike disrupting their perfect harmonies) — just “shuddup and play yer guitar”.  But Neil nevertheless has the ability to just go up on stage with a guitar and an amp alone and make an evening of it (check out this LIVE RUST concert footage if you doubt that).  And then we get to his songs, with enormous range:  gutty grittiness (“Hey Hey, My My”,”Southern Man”), wonderful craftsmanship (“Cinnamon Girl”, “Heart of Gold”, “Old Man”, “The Loner”, “Down By the River”), as well as exquisite tenderness (“Sugar Mountain”, “I am a Child”, “Inca Queen”, “Lotta Love”).  He can even do blues (“On the Beach”, “Safeway Cart”).  He even puts out the flame at the Vancouver Olympics Closing.  But he can’t sing, except to match his own songs.  Too bad.  He’s a cultural treasure.

1. Bob Dylan.  Even Bowie sang that Dylan has “a voice like sand and glue”.  I never myself “got” Dylan (again, the voice is still too off-putting for me, and he was popular long before my time anyway), except for maybe two songs: “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (poetry that is great fun for a change) and  “Lay Lady Lay” (where the catchy vocals are by Johnny Cash anyway).  But he’s still around, still collaborating, still commanding the respect as a performer/songwriter that he deserves.  And once he made the (judicious) jump from Folk to Rock, he was if anything even more influential.  I’m again not a fan, so I won’t dwell.  But Idol would never have let him get near a televised mike, except as a joke, perhaps.  Too bad.  Dylan changed music, in many people’s view, as much as The Beatles.  And he did it without a great deal of vocal talent.

That says a lot for how flexible the rock/pop market is, and how blind American Idol is to other types of influences.  This is why they should not have too much influence on on how the market picks talent.  Alas (and Idol’s waning power notwithstanding), the demands of Reality TV means instant success or no, take it or leave it.  I suspect we’re leaving a lot of good stuff behind and “undiscovered”, as it were.

Readers, feel free to add to the list of Idol-proof successful artists.  My list is obviously dated.  Maybe because so few people are getting through the filters these days.  How many of the artists mentioned in the above Top Ten even have their songs featured on Idol?

Thanks for indulging.  Arudou Debito in Sapporo


37 comments on “Sunday Tangent: Top ten performers who would not be successful if American Idol were the template for success

  • I’m with you that this season is hopelessly weak compared to last season. Any of the top ten from last season would walk this years show blind folded and hands behind their backs! This season only really has 2 “stars”…the others are either very limited, still ‘gorwing’..or, well, just better than the lot that got kicked out, rather than actually being any good.

    I think the great Leonard Cohen, Cowell would say he’s too despressing and the one true mega rock star ‘god’, Robert Plant (Led Zep), he would call him too self indulgent!

    But thanks to Cowell & FUller, it ahs allowed “complete no-bodys” to go from zero to hero or near hero, in a very short time frame with maximum exposure.

  • Thanks for this. I would also offer up Elliott Smith, Bill Callahan (aka Smog), and Tom Waits as singers who wouldn’t make it on American Idol but are able to make some incredibly powerful music. Nice Sunday article!

  • Your list is a good example why we should break the mould of X-factors and (American) Idols, a lot of people start to feel this way resulting in the rebellion that brought Rage Against the Machine to the #1 Christmas spot in the UK.

  • It’s funny. I’ve been thinking about this recently, too.

    A couple obvious candidates:

    1. Madonna. When asked in an interview if he thought she was a good singer, Barry Manilow cringed and said “she…well…sigh…she can carry a tune, I think.” Simon Cowell had a similar reaction a few years ago. I always wondered if that was the reason she never appeared as a guest coach on “American Idol”. But I’m guessing. Madonna created the MTV video genre in the 1980s. She was all visual performance and no vocal substance. She actually had to go back and take singing lessons (!!!) to improve her range (which didn’t help much) when she landed the lead role in the film adaptation of “Evita” in 1996. That speaks volumes.

    2. Frank Sinatra. Simon Cowell admitted a few years ago that Sinatra was all he ever listens to anymore in private. The follow-up question was, “Would Sinatra have won American Idol if he were alive today?” Big smile on his face, Cowell said “No.”

    I stopped watching the show after Season Five. I remember Season Five being a VERY big deal in Japan. Chris Daughtry should have won (not come in fourth!) And to loose out to the likes of Katherine McPhee and Taylor Hicks was an embarrassment to him, to American Idol, and to Simon Cowell. But Daughtry got the last laugh. He’s now the third most successful singer to come out of American Idol in terms of record sales.

  • Shows like American idol have always been around and are not responsible for the state of the music industry. The internet and free downloading, streaming have cut into industry profits in a big way and have an even greater impact on smaller artists. As the music industry struggles to survive it focuses solely on artists and musical forms it thinks will guarantee success. In other words, zero risk taking. Unfortunately past models for success in music are dying or dead. The 60s, 70s and to a lesser extent the 80s were the boom years for the industry and for artistry in pop/rock music. Music was a huge part of youth culture in the late 60s and there was plenty of money to be made selling LPs, which had come of age at that point. So people in the industry took chances on a wide range of music giving success to people who would never have made it in todays musical climate. Radio DJs like John Peel also played a big part in bringing ‘out there’ artists to the public. However, by the 80s corporate rock was fast becoming the norm, companies took less chances and creative artists became less and less visible. What keep the industry going in the late 80s and 90s (besides rap and grunge) was the switch over from LPs to CDs. Even today ‘remasters’ of old albums helps to prop up dying record companies. I think the internet and downloading were just the last nail in the coffin. Interesting music is still out there but you really have to look to find it and those artists will never make it big or even make a living off music like their 60s-90s counterparts. That’s just the sad state of music today. So my point is that I see idol as more of a symptom rather than a cause.

  • What’s “American Idol” ? Never heard of it.

    But it does make me think of Billy Idol. Now there is a cultural icon. Not only does he have an X for a generational chromosome, but an ability to appear sexiful and anaemic and butch and interesting with one curl of his lip. Yough- and he didn’t even need to clutch his crutch and look surprised!

    While the Berlin Wall was falling, his main preoccupation seemed to be on his love life “In the midnight hour, she cried more, More, MORE!” and in the importance of virtue and celibacy he was extremely adam ant: “There is nothin’ fair in this world…”

    A nice day to start again?

    — Whaaaa…?

    All those Billy lyrics. Sounds like Idol Gossip to me…

  • Not just Marilyn Manson – I think the august halls of metal godhood would be nearly empty if metal success were determined Idol-style. Metal fans consider Dio or Bruce Dickinson to be masters of their craft, but I don’t think they would sound good even covering each others’ songs, let alone Sinatra.

    I guess the lesson here is that singers who depend on the context of their band for their real “oomph” fail under the Idol model.

  • Never seen anything but a few minutes on youtube of AI. Left the states in 1994 and pretty much missed all the popular USA TV culture of the last 15 years. But I get the point of your post. I am always looking out for something new and good Unfortunately, lots of new and little good.

  • Not a Dylan fan? Do you think Woodie Guthrie would have been well received by AI? I’ve watched every season of AI. I have never agreed with the final winner choice. I seldom ever hear any of the contestants after the show has completed. I do enjoy watching though.

  • How come Debito’s list is all men?

    — I thought about that. Let me put the question back to you and say, how many women do you know that cannot sing yet were successful based upon performance/songwriting/staying power/pure eccentricity?

    I thought of Kate Bush (eccentric indeed) but she can sing like a nightingale. I thought of Pat Benatar (who succeeded despite her looks — she was told she would not be a success as an opera singer in part because of that) but she can sing, sing, sing!! I came up with Wendy O. Williams (of the Plasmatics) but she’s definitely not as influential as the others in the Top Ten. Patti Smith? (The one who sang Springsteen’s “Because the Night” among others.) Also eccentric, but she can sing covers magnificently and would make Idol. Same with Kate Pierson (of the B-52s), Chrissie Hynde, Ann and Nancy Wilson, Belinda Carlyle, Bonnie Tyler, etc. Okay, perhaps Laurie Anderson, but again, not as influential as the others, sorry. It’s not a bias. Perhaps the market is more open to men being silly than women as vocalists/performers? Dunno.

    Well, okay, Madonna then. My oversight, sorry (I’m only just starting to develop a fanbone for her). And maybe Lady Gaga (wait and see on her).

  • Long before there was American Idol, there were Japanese “idols”.

    J-Pop. Did it actually lead to the creation of American Idol? Is this in fact some kind of sublime “cultural” (Term used loosely) influence on the West, like manga and anime?

    It is ubiquitous. It is almost forced upon us as we live here. We feel obliged in conversations to pay lip service to the locals’ favourite bands or “idols”. I struggled to find something positive to say about Southern All Stars or Komuro Tetsuya (“Great…marketing” was about the most positive I got, in regards to the now thankfully discredited latter).

    Is it in fact the biggest and most unbridgeable cultural difference we have to face?

    I note that Debito (who is Japanese) doesnt include a single Japanese in his list(perhaps Japanese singers would all fit American Idol?) and I applaud that, though I can’t help thinking someone Japanese might be thinking that “liking J-Pop” is a kind of banal Nihonjiron prerequisite for “being Japanese”. (being only half-serious here, but still).

    — I’m not a big fan of J-Pop, and don’t know much about it. My bad. (I am a fan of Kuwata Keisuke, for what it’s worth. Southern All Stars should do a new years’ eve concert every year. Dec 31 is dull as dust otherwise.)

  • Debito, but don’t you feel, as I do, that saying you don’t like J pop as a kind of “cultural faux pas” in Japan?

    I suppose “I dont know much about it” is a safe answer but might result in being foistered with CDrs and recordings of dubious J-Pap in an effort to convert you.

    I m surprised you like Kuwata, I think he is incredibly overrated and cheesy, like 90% of the stuff here clearly produced for “domestic only”.

    As you like Duran Duran, I suggest you check out the solo albums of Masami Tsuchiya, as he played with them on various side projects. He lived in London for 10 years and knows what “cool” is, though its interesting he used to alternately output “Japanese only” albums (“Tokyo Ballet”), with cooler, (and arguably a “western” sensibility) on internationally released ones mainly in English.

    — Look, being Japanese doesn’t mean you are required to like anything in particular or in specific. I’m not a big fan of the Identity Police, so I hope you’re at least being halfway facetious. And if anyone tried to police my tastes in music, you know where I’d tell them to go. Anyway, I like Kuwata because, as I said, he does good concerts with SAS. Thanks for the advice on Tsuchiya-san.

  • …how many women do you know that cannot sing yet were successful based upon performance/songwriting/staying power/pure eccentricity?

    All subjective, of course, but a few ideas: Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Grace Jones (well, maybe not staying power), Eartha Kitt, Deborah Harry…

  • I feel pretty confident saying that Fergie (of the Black Eyed Peas) would not have won American Idol. You could probably add Britney Spears to the list, too.

  • Regarding J music: despite what’s visible on the surface (J-pop), Japan has always had a thriving underground music scene and a thriving jazz scene, so there’s plenty to sink your teeth into if you look. Cheese has always been the most visible kind of music here anyway. The 70s and 80s did have a lot more interesting bands in the public eye however – YMO being the biggest, also: The Square, Sadistic Mika Band, Carmen Maki & Oz etc…

  • to Debito: I agree with you, I think being Japanese shouldnt mean you have to like a certain thing, but playing the Devil’s Advocate here a bit, perhaps other readers here can concur that certain people use a “litmus test” of what “Japanese” vis a vis “foreigners” like, be it Natto or J pop: “oh you dont like J pop, but then of course as an NJ you cant understand the “deep” emotions expressed in, e.g. Imai Miki’s “I miss you”.”

    Facetious as charged. Bitterly experienced also.

    I will add that exclusionism in the Japanese (pop) music industry is a topic not really touched on, but until very recently it has also been closed to foreigners and still is in some ways. Only last month a German record label was bemoaning to me how hard it was for them to find partners in Japan, how they find the “culture difficult” (their words). Where a producer for Polydor Records Japan can say to your face “I m not interested in foreigners”.
    Where after you win a radio contest, the Sony A&R guy’s face falls when Johnny Foreigner walks in to collect (or rather, be refused) the prize.

    It’s good to see people like Crystal Kay, however mainstream and cheesy their music may be, breaking the mold at last (or are they the exception that proves the rule?)

    — We’re getting way off topic, but thanks for trying to bring Japan into it..

  • Don’t forget Tom Waite!

    Interesting comments above about the fact that Debito’s list was all men and Debito’s response — that perhaps it is due to the music industry being more forgiving of men with “unusual” voices than women.

    I have to admit that I’ve never even seen a full American Idol show. I have only seen snippets on YouTube and such, and I really don’t like Simon Cowell or his style of berating performers on national television. It is one thing to give frank, unvarnished criticism, but the few snippets I’ve seen of him (and other similar series) is of one man (it seems to almost always be men) who seems to go out of his way to demean and humiliate the contestant. I suspect that they let a few of the less talented individuals “slip through” just so Simon can rip them apart.

    By the way, a good parody of American Idol is a movie called “American Dreamz” that came out about four years ago. It’s an amusing flick.

  • Norbert Nemes says:

    I’m surprised you left out the artist who would have been disqualified after the first sound:
    Janis Joplin. Her singing is hideous, but she still made it big. That is why I never liked to
    watch American Idol. It seems to me that they are rating juke-boxes and not looking for talent.
    I mean after 9 seasons, how many of the so called “Idols” are actually big singing sensations
    and how many do you think will be around in 10 years? My bet, no one. They are stars of mediocrity
    just to un-original, with their music best fitting the Conan stores.

    — That’s a tad harsh… Besides, Idol judges have mentioned Janis and compared certain singers positively to her, so Idol has been appreciative of her talents.

  • @ Steve S.

    There are dozens of female recording artists (the same as men) who are absolutely terrible singers, but somehow managed to make it big because of their song-writing talent, good looks, or sheer luck. This is not a male v. female issue. There are equally bad singers across the gender divide.

    @ Debito

    I’m surprised that you didn’t think of Cyndi Lauper. She’s part of your generation’s Top 40. Like Madonna, Poor Cyndi couldn’t sing to save her life. She had no range; she was pitchy; and she almost always had trouble hitting high notes. Do you think she would have even made it to the regionals, let alone the Top 25 on “American Idol”? I doubt it.

    Try listening to her MTV music video “Time After Time” without actually watching the video.

    If you close your eyes and listen to her carefully, she’s terrible. My daughter can sing better than her. Simon Cowell would have torn her apart on national television and rightfully so. Also, it says a lot that she NEVER won a Grammy Award for her vocal ability.

    @ Justin.

    Disagree. Brittney Spears can sing (she’s the whole package — looks, vocal range, lyric creativity, creative videos, etc), but I’ve always had my doubts about Miley Cyrus. I think Miley’s another one that wouldn’t have lasted 5 minutes on “American Idol.”

    — Cyndi Lauper has appeared on American Idol. And I thought sang well. As always.

  • Arudo, you just listed all the women I was going to.
    I still fantasise about singing a rock opera with Patti Smith & Diane Lane, but I was 19YO when that first occurred to me…

  • Fred Barber says:

    I would add…

    … Willie Nelson. An American treasure, and a master of the poetry of music, but not a vocal genius.

    … The Clash. Amazing song stylings, but require way too much guitar to make it a cappela.

    … Bob Marley. AI can’t deal with accents.

  • I agree with Debito and disagree with Gary: Cyndi Lauper kicks ass. Her solo in the original We Are the World was the best part of that whole song. Sure she owed her success to MTV, but she also had a great, original voice.

  • even now there are plenty of singers who cant sing but can write grooves
    kanye west being the prime example..
    also interesting is that once singers are famous people put up with them even though many of them completely lose their ability to sing ..
    (bob dylans voice though never good ,used to be much better)

    other prime examples are liam gallacher,elton john,james hetfield,whitney houston,roger daltrey,axl rose,brian wilson,lauryn hill,eric clappedout etc.

  • “I’m surprised that you didn’t think of Cyndi Lauper. She’s part of your generation’s Top 40. Like Madonna, Poor Cyndi couldn’t sing to save her life. She had no range; she was pitchy; and she almost always had trouble hitting high notes. Do you think she would have even made it to the regionals, let alone the Top 25 on “American Idol”? I doubt it.”

    I disagree. I saw a recent concert of hers on TV a while back and she was great – an amazing vocalist.

  • I have to wholeheartedly agree with a previous poster about Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. Both are amazing songwriters, but they definitely should stay away from the business end of a microphone. I’d also like to add Joe Cocker because there is a certain note of strain in his voice that gives me a headache. Also, add Chad Kruger from Nickelback to the list. His voice is monotonous and nasally and the harmonies in Nickelback’s slower songs fills my head with a throbbing pressure behind my eyeballs. Although I think people will agree or disagree based on what is pleasing to their individual ear, sometimes there is a general consensus (as with Tom Waits)that certain performers are better left to writing the great songs instead of singing them. Also, where female singers are concerned, I second the poster who said that Debby Harry is really not a very good singer. Oh! The Canadian group The Rankin Family, has some real pitchy, squeaky female singers and I cannot listen to their music. I also don’t think Sheryl Crowe’s singing is that great either.

  • Are any of those people on the list really considered “idols”? Wouldn’t those artists be happy not to be considered idols? I think they’re all of a level deeper than “idol”.

  • Info about Dylan’s Lay Lady Lay is mistaken.

    Here’s the line-up courtesy of Wikipedia:

    Bob Dylan – guitar, harmonica, keyboards, vocals
    Pete Drake – pedal steel guitar
    Charlie Daniels (Yes, that one.) – bass, guitar
    Kenneth A. Buttrey – drums
    Bob Wilson – organ, piano
    Charlie Bragg – engineer
    Neil Wilburn – engineer

    Bob did sing with Johnny Cash on “Girl From the North Country” on the same Nashville Skyline album, but not on Lay Lady Lay. The voice heard on Lay Lady Lay is supposedly closer to Bob Dylan’s natural singing voice, which is prominently featured on the album after this one, Self Portrait. People who had heard Bob Dylan sing in high school said that’s more like what he really sounded like, before he hoarsened up his voice. So, in that respect, yes, Lay Lady Lay may be Dylan’s “idol” voice!

    — Thanks for the correction.

  • I haven’t listened to a lot of singers from the Cowell Collection of talent shows, but those that I have heard seem to be pretty much all the same. They tend to be technically very, very good, but not especially original. The thing about Dylan, Cohen, Waits, Bowie, Cobain, and others mentioned here is that they are nothing like anybody else. I think Prince is also pretty distinctive (and he really is an extraordinarily gifted technical musician too). There seem to be two routes to musical tree: either be better than everybody else at being bland (the X Factor, Idol, BGT etc etc way) or the be an unusually interesting musical personality (the Dylan way).

    Now, laughing Leonard Cohen may not the best-acquainted with on-pitch singing singer in the world, but I would sooner hear him sing “Hallelujah” a thousand times than some of the pitch-perfect but emotionally sterile alternative versions that have appeared in recent years. The difference between him and a certain 2008 version, for instance, is like that between an old country house and a unit bathroom. The house may be a bit rickety and run down, but it’s real and enthralling. A unit bathroom is just a very clean bit of plastic.

  • I thought you’d like to know that I have just filmed my part in a Japanese TV Talent Contest, Hiroshima Home TV Debut Saizensen (広島ホームテレビデビュー最前戦). For those living in Hiroshima Prefecture, it will be on in the small hours of July 13-14.

    I sang my racial harmony song “I cry too” (which is in Japanese apart from the chorus). Sadly, the judges stopped my song halfway through. Musically I was fine, but they didn’t like my pronunciation and the lyrical structure. I thought this was a bit harsh because I was on key and I made no mistakes accompanying myself on guitar, and after all Japanese is not my first language. I am a bit baffled because I co-wrote the lyrics with a Japanese friend, and took lessons with a signed J-pop artist on the pronunciation. Still, I won’t stop trying!

    The winner, and Grand Champion, though was exactly the kind of performer who wins all the Cowellian shows: young, pretty and good at singing karaoke cover versions. I wish her well.

    If you are interested, you can hear and download my song on my website (

  • @Tammy. I m interested. Though why you would submit yourself to a humiliating turkey shoot for Japanese judges is beyond me; I would say you are the real thing and dont need to bother, unless you were trying to get the racial harmony message across, in which case I applaud your efforts.

    They (judges, gyokai) can be really harsh on foreigners trying to sing in Japanese, even if youre good; there is a guy called Greg who sings traditional Japanese songs really well, but I heard the record co. execs were really, really hard on him. Never mind that J pop singers’ use of English is laughingly poor or inappropriate, the industry isnt a two way street. I would argue this is a weakness of Japanese, it is a language being “guarded” as culturally unique, even subconsciously,and isnt very accepting or impressed with new takes on it by newcomers, however amusing, whereas English is the “international” language. I could go on to argue that English is the authentic language of rock n roll, but thats another academic paper all in itself.

    Why dont you try the label that puts out “Monkey Majik” and a couple of other foreigners who mix English and Japanese?I ve got the details somewhere, will post when I find them.

    — But, I hear some people say, what about the success of Jero? Could you please address that before we get a groundswell of exceptionalists?

  • Jero, well. There are always exceptions to the rule,though I m glad to see more and more exceptions recently and I havent heard much of his stuff. What I ve heard is that it is old wine in new bottles, ie. a traditional form but, heres the twist, sung by a NJ! But hang on, isnt Jero, a quarter Japanese? Ah so desu ka, well that makes it alright, sort of.(devil’s advocate view).

    There are good and bad things happening in the illogical world of J pop. Take Crystal Kay. Everyone of her listeners that I have spoken to think she is ethnically part Japanese or has some kind of Japanese connection, when in fact she is of Korean and American descent. I think its great shes doing well singing in Japanese, but the cynic in me wonders whether the marketing people play down her foreign origins. On the other hand, its good that this is ignored; it shouldnt matter.

    One final point, and this is partly my personal left field taste and bias in music, all of the above and more clearly Boa (Korean), Melody (Japanese American) リア・ディゾン(born Leah Donna Dizon)etc have been accepted because of the music they play; quite safe, middle of the road family oriented J pop that parents couldn’t object to.

    I d argue this is the same as naturalizing. I.e. you can be a part or a product-an idol-of this, so long as the musical ideas remain the same as before and controlled by more conservative J-producers; thus a preponderance of slightly cheesy manufactured J pop with brass sections in the chorus, etc.

    There is nothing like what reggae or DnB was to the UK, ie. a melting pot of cultures and new ideas-even in a language people couldnt really understand- from the outside. But give it time, maybe it ll start at the grassroots level.

    — Leah Dizon is “accepted” more because she takes her clothes off, less because of much singing talent, such as it is. We’ll see how far that gets her if and when she decides to become a working tarento mother.

    And yes, agreed, a big deal was made of Jero having a Japanese grandmother (broadcasting extreme closeups of [his mother’s] dewy face in the audience) two Kouhakus ago. That took the edge off of the mystery of a person of his color having this much tribal talent.

    But anyhoo, thanks for further development of point.

  • Debito-That took the edge off of the mystery of a person of his color having this much tribal talent?

    Could you expand on what you mean by tribal talent?

    I think its fantastic that an NJ can sing a Japanese form of music and be accepted, but indeed, the “Japanese descent” card by way of explanation tends to lump him into the Haafu honourary Japanese category by blood association.

    Crystal Kay is a better example as she has no Japanese “blood” at all! She just speaks Japanese and grew up here.

    Can anyone find info as to whether or not she has naturalized?

    — What I mean is: In the back of anyone’s mind watching Kouhaku that evening who hadn’t seen Jero sing yet, there was the niggling wonder of how Jero can sing so wonderfully Japanese and yet not look Japanese. So we had the time-consuming explanation of Jero’s roots, and presto the wonder is gone. Aha! He’s part of the tribe, no wonder. That’s why I believe NHK kept the closeup of his [mother] on for so long, essentially so people can look for her in his face as he’s singing.

  • Thanks for your comment, Jon. I did wonder if my lyrics hit a nerve with the oldest judge, a typical late 50-something traditional sensei-type, and caused the others to follow suit. I smiled and joked through the inane interview that followed immediately afterward (what is your favourite J-food, etc., etc.), and was the first contestant to congratulate the champion – but it was all very galling because I know that technically I was fine (on key, no musical mistakes and no wrong words), and that it was jolly harsh to ask me to sing a song in Japanese and then tear me to shreds on my pronunciation and lyrical structure and phrasing! Does anybody think that I would have any e-mailing the producer with a complaint about the way I was treated? Or should I just accept it and move on?

  • @Tammy

    What were the lyrics you feel hit a nerve with the judge?

    It depends what you expect from the music industry in Japan; some used to say its a notoriously small town and if you do something bad “you ll never work again” but that was before the internet, and all the power rivalries splintered the industry. Hell, even the two Avex founders are no longer speaking to each other.

    Would complaining to them achieve anything for you, other than a bow and a phonecard? Would you be prepared to sue them?

    Take all you ca n from the experience and edit your TV show appearance to eliminate the negative comments, and post the rest on youtube etc to promote yourself in a positive light. It ll be cool-your performance of your song on Japanese TV! No need to include the judges’ part or irrelevant comments.

    — I would agree. Good luck, Tammy.

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