Pop Culture Individualism
I have never been a big fan of Willie Nelson, and I never liked American Idol?s Fantasia Barrino that much either. Yet somehow when they came together on country western night with Fantasia singing ?You Were Always on My Mind? by Willie Nelson, it was magic. It was more than magic. I believe I have watched that one performance at least ten times already on Tivo. Forget the judges? comments, the commercials, the fillers; I could just watch that one segment over and over for days. It gives me chills. Fantasia sang a slow country song, and unlike many of the other contestants? attempts, it sounded like a slow country song.
Yet what was so remarkable about her rendition was the unique personal style that she brought to it. It was in how she emoted, in how she spread out her arms at certain moments to express some tender moment in the song. It was the timbre of her voice, her inflections, and how she looked at the camera. It was all of this and probably much more, yet you can tell by her performance that she was not thinking of any of these things. She could not have been focusing on her arms, or her eyes, or even her voice. Her movements would not have looked natural. Her expressions would have looked forced.
Ayn Rand in her discussion of style in literature describes it like this:
To translate this to singing and performance. The words and notes of the song are ?what.? The style is ?how.? That is what I love most about American Idol. Sure there is the excitement of competition, there is the thrill of seeing the competitors improve each week, and of watching them grow and polish their presentations. There is the analysis of the performances, and of how badly the judges are judging them this week. (Though to be fair, there have been a few good critiques this year.) What I love the most is hearing and seeing a familiar song infused with the unique individual style of the contestant. It might be the unique sound and inflections of an individual voice that awes me. It might be the smooth dance moves thrown into the performance. It might be the way the contestant expresses the emotion and the ?feel? of a particular song. Most often it is the sum total of all of those things.
On American Idol the ?what? of the art form is provided. By that I mean that the competitors do not have to write their own songs, but rather pick from a selection of already well known tunes. Thus, the show creates a unique and powerful forum for us to clearly see, analyze, and admire the ?how? of musical performance. We get to see the individual style of the contestants shine through songs we have sung a thousand times, and many of us know by heart. The ultimate achievement on American Idol is not surviving until the last week. Rather I would argue that it is letting go of one?s inhibitions enough, and trusting one?s self enough, to let one?s own personality and style shine through the words and notes of the song. That is when the performer ?connects? with the audience. That is when we get chills.
American Idol brings us a phenomenon that has been taking place in the art and music scenes of cities for many years. What might be praised as a unique ?flavor,? or a unique ?sound? translates across the many mediums as the expression of individualism in art. American Idol takes this a step further. In it?s pursuit of the best talent in America, the one final American idol, it is a celebration of the expression of individualism as an artistic achievement.