The articles are hot & heavy today. Must mean the show begins TONIGHT!!!
The 'idol' Effect
Thanks to TV, young singers want coaching in showy pop techniques. And they expect to be judged.
By Mark Caro
Tribune entertainment reporter
Published January 16, 2007
Here would be one way to measure the "American Idol" effect on our collective singing culture: Watch the first-ever episode, then check out Tuesday's Season 6 premiere (WFLD-Ch. 32, 7 p.m.) and compare the would-be singing stars from then and now.
OK, we may never get around to doing that, but we can get expert testimony elsewhere. As more and more shower singers harbor dreams of becoming the next Kelly Clarkson or Taylor Hicks, voice teachers have reported increased demand and notice some changes in what their students want and how they behave.
When I started out, everyone was rock," said Tamara Anderson, who began teaching voice in the Chicago area in 1990. "There were very few pop singers."
Now, she said, "I have more pop singers, and that really seems to be what's taken over, and that's really what 'American Idol' embraces."
In past decades amateur singers sought to emulate the muscular clarity of Elvis Presley, the gritty power of John Lennon, the soul wail of Aretha Franklin, the confessional delivery of Carole King, the messianic call of Bono, the pained-wolf emoting of Kurt Cobain. In the early 1960s, the Beatles, Beach Boys and Bob Dylan (the last of whom is scorned by "Idol" judge/producer Simon Cowell in the current issue of Playboy) ushered in an era that viewed singing your own songs as the apex of personal expression.
Rock singing is far from dead -- and Jennifer Hudson of "American Idol" and "Dreamgirls" fame certainly is boosting the soul tradition -- but pop has become dominant on the charts and elsewhere, with showy vocalists such as Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion paving the way and "American Idol" institutionalizing the trend.
It's all about the voice.
Anderson, who has sung her share of rock over the years, doesn't necessarily see this development as a bad thing. "People are tending to their craft a little more," she said. "They realize you can't just be pretty and sing. You do have to have a better voice now.
"Really, on `American Idol' none of the singers are godawful. They're all pretty talented. A Hilary Duff wouldn't have made it or a Paris Hilton wouldn't have made it through all of `American Idol' because they just don't have the chops. Your Carrie Underwoods and your Kelly Clarksons, they have the chops."
Likewise, Richard Drews, a Northwestern University music professor who teaches operatic singing, said that although his students are far removed from the "American Idol" set, the two disciplines are connected. "The common denominator is a beautiful voice," Drews said. "I happen to be a fan of `American Idol,' and I think the reality is people respond to beautiful voices."
One key difference is that "American Idol" eschews classical training for "raw natural talent that is oftentimes self-taught and oftentimes learned from mimicking," said Drews, who has taught for 10 years after singing opera for 10 years. Yet those who succeed on the show must share some skills with classically trained vocalists.
"They're put on a very difficult schedule of learning new music, of rehearsing -- I'm not even mentioning the outside pressures involved and the pressures they put on themselves -- and that all affects the throat," Drews said. "That's where it's the same as an operatic singer. It all comes down to how their throat can respond to the rigors of the competition."
At the Old Town School of Folk Music, education coordinator and voice teacher Robert Tenges said enrollment is up for private and group voice lessons. Over his 15 years of teaching, he has noticed less of a change in his students' musical tastes than in the way they perform and respond to criticism.
For instance, there's the phenomenon of singers -- no doubt inspired by Hicks and other showboaty performers -- who sing with ants in their pants. "Sometimes you have to tone down the gyrating and the jumping around, but that's pretty easy to do," Tenges said.
More striking is seeing students take a crack at a song and then expect the teacher to lower a Cowell-like boom on them.
"What I've certainly noticed is people expect to be criticized in a much different way now," Tenges said. "Young singers are paraded across television and belittled for the sake of entertainment, and this goes completely against what I set out to do in the studio.
"As somebody who's trained in pedagogy, it's a very hard show to sit through. Some of [the `Idol' singers] aren't that bad. All they need is a little instruction and time, and they're basically raked through the coals. Usually people are very pleasantly surprised when they emerge from a first voice lesson that they are not being criticized so harshly."
Drews agreed that "there's a distinct difference between constructive criticism and sensationalism," but added: "Probably nine times out of 10, I will agree with Simon Cowell -- not necessarily in his manner, in which he's so blunt and bottom-line, but the gist of what he says is usually point on."
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RANKING THEIR VOICES
Richard Drews, who teaches voice at Northwestern University, may specialize in operatic singing, but he's also a devoted "American Idol" watcher. Here's how he breaks down the five winners and most successful also-ran:
Kelly Clarkson(Season 1 winner)
"Staying power and tremendous performer. Very popular. I think she does have a beautiful voice."
(Season 2 winner)
"Great personality. Charismatic. OK voice."
(Season 3 winner)
"Still cooking. I think she's a tremendous talent but still unproven."
(Season 3 seventh-place finisher, "Dreamgirls" star)
"She's hit her stride. She's just tremendous. Great charisma, beautiful voice."
(Season 4 winner)
"Beautiful voice, great song stylist and an amazing addition to country music."
(Season 5 winner)
"He's a showstopper. He knows his musicianship, and he's a very charismatic performer. I don't think he has a classically beautiful voice. He just uses it so effectively in the right style and the right songs."