Thursday, February 09, 2006

Payola, Kelly Clarkson and the Grammy Awards

Payola, Kelly Clarkson and the Grammy Awards

Is anyone else, besides me, surprised that manufactured American Idol Kelly Clarkson beat out Legends Paul McCartney, Sheryl Crow and Bonnie Raitt among others, to win Best Pop Female Performance and Best Pop Vocal Album? Yes, she is cute and has a good voice but if that’s all it takes to win a Grammy, then there are millions out there who deserve one. I have to wonder where Kelly would be if she had to get in a Ford Econoline and slog it out on the road, in seedy nightclubs and bars like the rest of us. What if Kelly hadn’t won the American Idol competition? Would anyone know who she was at this point? Had she ever written a memorable song or made a memorable recording before she was coached on primetime television by the best trainers Fox Television could offer?

It is so sad to me that the innate and mysterious inborn talents that create music have been reduced to corporate packaging like so much sickeningly sweet children’s cereal. I looked forward to the Idol show at first because I remembered my days as an amateur singer auditioning for the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, The Palomino and Forge Nightclubs’ Talent Nights and the Gong Show. I hoped to see a televised version of the talent shows I entered as a kid. But what I got was a perfectly manicured, controlled popularity contest where the middle aged, dentally challenged and overweight would be humiliated on TV and the truly quirky, unique and talented need not apply. Clarkson does have a natural, born voice, but how much of her stage persona, look and vocal chops have been carefully controlled by expensive television coaches? When musicians can be churned out like cheeseburgers for the consuming masses, what’s next? Teaching amateur painters to paint like Van Gogh and O’Keefe to get the big money prize? Maybe they will have an author’s competition next where they take amateur writers and teach them to write like Maya Angelou or Anne Rice, all under the watchful eyes of prime time viewers. When creativity and raw talent can be manufactured by a panel of experts, all natural born, creative endeavors are at risk.

How can awards programs be fair when radio airtime is purchased by deep-pocketed record companies? With the New York Attorney Generals Office, headed by Eliott Spitzer, currently investigating Sony and Epic Records, alleging Payola, the Grammy’s and most music awards programs should be exposed as the joke that they really are. Sony and Epic Records have admitted in their own internal memos to paying thousands upon thousands to keep J-lo and Good Charlotte on the air week after week. How much does Kelly Clarksons’ record company pay to keep her spinning? Even on my XM radio, I can tune in daily and see her name on numerous stations throughout the day. It's not like payola is new. The government investigated record companies and radio stations in the late 1950s and again in the mid 1970s. But there is no one to enforce the law. The people who really care, small time recording artists and independent labels, don’t have the time or resources to bribe DJ’s to play us. We are too busy touring and trying to survive in this ruthless business.

I guess it is the Darwin-ism of the Music Business. “Survival of the fittest” has been replaced with “survival of the richest.” Corporations like the House of Blues are taking over the nightclub business and replacing hungry unknown talent with big names that are neither hungry, nor blues. Just as Wal-Mart and Blockbuster puts the smaller Mom and Pop stores out of business, one of these days, American Idol and other homogenized cloning programs may put the small time musician out to pasture. The Mcdonald-ization of our world is widespread and insidious. Now it has taken over the music business, the radio charts and the television screens.

I know. I know…it’s a business silly. The bottom line is revenue. I just thought that there was some integrity left in the arts business at the very least. I was still under the impression that hard work and creativity counted. I held on to the notion that if you gave your life to your art, toured tirelessly and created consistent, innovative recordings, that you had a fair chance to be played on the radio and maybe even to get a hit record. But now I know that what it really takes is a million dollars, a thin, young figure and a panel of experts to shape and mold you to their specifications. Does anyone know when the American Idol show is holding auditions in San Diego? Though I am over the hill and fat, I still want to be first in line. It might be my only chance.


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