About Australian Idol…


Il4 idol payback


I like to watch the Australian version of Idol now and then, because they’re just warming up to the finals and I’ve been watching some of the first round sessions. It’s not really my cup of tea, but I can appreciate as a muso the way the entertainment industry works -and it’s where the ‘entertainment’ industry differs from, say, the ‘culture’ industries.

I admire the contestents, because I could never do it. I’m too old now, and I was never a singer, (though I’m trying to sing now inorder to express my songs as a songwriter). It takes a lot of guts to sing infront of three judges and a camera crew, and I can understand that if one wants to entertain the country’s masses one has to be highly skilled in their craft.

But I grew up during the 80’s and 90’s being into ‘alternative’ music. First I was into 60’s blues-rock (Hendrix, Santana, Doors, early Led Zep etc…) which was about freedom and honest expression… You jammed, you played played the blues from the heart, you were rough around the edges but you were honest.

And then I was into punk-rock (The Clash, The Damned, Radiobirdman etc…) That also had a sense of honesty, but it threw off the 60’s and 70’s pomp and pretense… You were loud, you were angry, you didn’t care about hitting the right notes… You just wanted to play, you weren’t interested in pretending to be a pop-star, you were about the ‘here and now’, not some rock fantasy.

And then of course, came along something relevant to my own generation -Nirvana and the whole grunge thing. I guess it was a similar take on the punk attitude – angry young kids getting in a band and just playing with aggression. (I suppose it could also be a bit of a reaction to the ‘metal militia’ that had swept the western world with the likes of Megadeth and Metallica, and then all the subgenres with expert guitar shredders etc…)

In those days, from my eyes as a teenager, there were two distinct sides. On the one was the ‘commercial’ music world, on the other was the ‘alternative’. The boundaries were clear and no one crossed them. You were either into one, or the other. You couldn’t be a Nick Cave fan, for instance, and then admit to liking Bon Jovi -that’s like being a staunch republican and admitting to liking Bill Clinton.

The boundaries are a bit more blurred these days, but  at least it falls clearly on the ‘commercial’ music side, but that doesn’t stop them allowing exploration of all genres -grungy alt-rock and all shades of punk etc… Some people like to criticise Idol in the name of ‘serious’ music -probably because it’s been so successful, but everyone wants to

But the values are different. Back then, it was cool to be UNsuccessful. That’s right, if you were barely scratching a living, it meant you were doing something right in artistic terms. Indie bands that signed with majors were seen as sellouts, and if you became a fan after they joined the major label, you weren’t really a fan in the first place. 

But that attitude was more from the fans perspective (rather than the bands who’d been starving for years), and it was just the way we got into music back then. If you wanted street cred as a muso at school, you were the one who dug all sorts of obscure bands -you bought the bootlegs (which were often awful), you had the T-shirts and your room was decorated with the posters.

And the bands became known via word of mouth, rather than fancy marketing. My favourite bands of the time -Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Cure, The Damned -I was turned on to these by my friend’s older sister. She was way cool. And I bought all the grunge albums because I saw friends at school with the T-shirt or we went to the local pubs and private band-parties.

But it seems these days nothing succeeds like success. The ‘coolness’ factor doesn’t apply to the ‘obscure’ bands -because we live in different times. 

Gangster rap culture has promoted, to some degree, the culture of monetary success. A gangster can’t be poor and no amount of ‘artistic’ clout can save his street cred. And generally hiphop and the ‘nu-metal’ thing is similar. It’s not enough to be musical, you’ve got to be an entrepreneur.  

And the ‘Web 2.0’ culture further pushes the idea -to be alternative to ‘commercial’ means you’re just one of the millions of artists on the web who haven’t ‘made it’. There is saving grace, however, in that the web allows many artists to use DIY tools in promotion and communication, but a lot of the web is about ‘buzz’ and going ‘viral’, successful marketing, publicity stunts and good web stats.

And for those seeking obscure, ‘alternative’ bands that have something artistic to say, it’s too daunting to sift through the mass of Myspace pages and music promotion sites.

And Idol capitalizes on the new web culture. In fact, it uses the best of both worlds -it has industry professionals as judges giving feedback, but allows audience voting and participation to play a role as well. And it’s great promotion for the contestants who make it into the top rounds.

Alas, it’s a brave new world for the serious struggling muso…


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