Are Idol Hands The Devil's Workshop?

Is American Idol bad for music? Specifically, will AI take us to the point where an entire generation will largely listen to and identify with anesthetized, focus-grouped pop music written and composed by studio rats, sung exclusively by flawless, mass-approved performers? I know that kind of music has always been around, but it seems that AI's populist sensibilities have gone a long way toward giving it a new kind of validation.

Eric Queue

Idol obsessive Noel Murray fields this one:

As you point out, Eric, prefab pop is nothing new. The boy-band craze just recently faded away, and we've rarely lacked for pop stars who neither write their own songs nor play their own instruments. If AI went away, nothing would significantly change, either in the tastes of the teenage girls who make this kind of music fiscally viable, or in the music-industry mechanisms that crank it out. The real danger of American Idol—if there is a danger—is that the young kids who grow up wanting to be on the show will pick up only on the superficial qualities that allow its contestants to go far. As much as the judges cry out for "originality" and urge everyone not to "play it safe," it's obvious that curvy women in skimpy outfits who sing 20-year-old Top 40 hits with lots of flashy vocal runs can count on winning praise and votes, week after week.

But here's what Idol detractors miss: Those contestants don't win. Look at the winners and breakout stars that Idol has produced. The big-voiced Kelly Clarkson comes closest to what people perceive as the Idol ideal, yet as soon as she freed herself from the show's contractual obligations, she started making savvier, more rock-oriented records that have earned the respect of critics and other musicians. Carrie Underwood was sort of a generic pretty face on the show, but she's become a creditable star in country music—a genre where singers who don't write their own material aren't derided. Second-season winner Ruben Studdard is the kind of throwback chubby R&B singer that no A&R man would've signed six years ago; ditto his runner-up, the schmaltzy, nerdy Clay Aiken. Fantasia Barrino hasn't done much on the charts, but her "young Aretha" voice remains an amazing instrument, far from prefabricated. And then there's last season's eclectic crop: nü-rocker Chris Daughtry, snaggle-toothed half-Jewish retro-soulster Elliot Yamin, and the patently uncommercial winner, Taylor Hicks. I can take or leave Daughtry and Hicks, but neither exactly fits the mold of "anesthetized, focus-grouped pop music;" and as for Yamin, he's another charming, talented kid who no one would've heard, if not for AI.

I'm starting to believe that most of the people who get up in arms about American Idol don't watch the show enough to know what they're talking about, and are really railing against what they imagine it stands for. Yes, the audition phases are a hideous, shameful spectacle, and yes, 80 percent of the performances on any given week are boring and/or embarrassing. But ultimately, AI is just an amateur talent show writ large, and some of those amateurs are good, legitimate, from-left-field success stories. Is it fair that they get millions upon millions of instant fans while hardworking geniuses have to treat their art as a hobby while working a day job to pay the bills? Absolutely not. But if it makes you feel any better, the show itself is kind of a bubble, and most of these kids are doomed to failure once that bubble bursts. America loved Taylor Hicks' rotely goofy antics for 12 weeks in the spring of '06, but they evidently don't want to buy his records. So there's some cold comfort for you.

Wasting Away In Francoville

How come almost every A.V. Club review of a James Franco movie says it's wasting the intense young Method actor? What did he do that was good before this endless string of Annapolis, Flyboys, Sonny, etc.? Why do you guys like him so much?

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A.A.

Jason Heller replies:

While it could be argued that some of James Franco's other movie roles—including his most prominent one, as Harry Osborn in the Spider-Man franchise—aren't half as bad as crap like Annapolis, I'm sure I speak for most of The A.V. Club when I say we fell in love with Franco because of Freaks And Geeks. In that short-lived, sorely missed TV series, Franco played the leader of the freaks contingent. At first, the show seemed like another reinforcement of every shallow high-school-kid stereotype, but F&G deepened and matured at a rate as rapid as the raging metabolisms of its protagonists. And Franco was a high point: His character, Daniel DeSario, was ostensibly just another stoner burnout, but he became one of the series' most sympathetic characters.

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Of course, he was handed some brilliant material to work with. DeSario had a unique, telling relationship with each of the other characters, and his contentious rapport with his girlfriend remains one of the most subtly poignant romances in TV history. But Franco also handled these scenes with a casual authority—not to mention the best smirks and wounded-tough-guy looks this side of Judd Nelson's on The Breakfast Club. And even for a geek-turned-punk (and, uh, back to geek again) like myself, DeSario hits close to home. In the episode "Noshing And Moshing," he undergoes a humiliating yet moving escapade as a punk-rock poseur, and in the bittersweet series finale, "Discos And Dragons," he winds up playing Dungeons & Dragons with the geeks—and totally loving it. (Hmm, he was also forced to join the school's A.V. club in the same episode. This is getting cosmic.)

So is our continued love of James Franco, in spite of his preponderance of lousy career choices, just a case of confusing an actor with a character he once played? Maybe—but that's a true indication of an actor's strength, isn't it? In other words: We like James Franco for roughly the same reason we still cut John Cusack a lot of slack.

He Who Credits Last Credits Best

So I have a general question. The opening credits for TV sitcoms and dramas often include an introductory shot of each of the principal characters with the name of the actor superimposed on the screen. In almost all opening credits that follow this method, the last one or two characters (usually tertiary, such as the "wacky neighbor") have the actor's name along with the name of the character they play. I'm pretty sure even some movie opening credits do this as well. So what I'm wondering is why they feel the need to put in, say "Dennis Haskins as Mr. Belding." Do they need to remind the viewers who that character is because they don't show up as often? Basically, I'm confused.

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Ben Sear

Christopher Bahn responds:

Nobody likes to be picked last, whether you're talking about kickball or TV shows. So sometimes producers will give a little boost to the actors who would otherwise end up forgotten at the end of the list by calling extra attention to their names via the "and Mr. X as Character Y" credit. As an example, here's a YouTube video of the credits for The Fall Guy, with tertiary cast member Markie Post credited "as Terri." Here's Bob Uecker, "as George," in Mr. Belvedere. Here's another, from Six Feet Under, with Rachel Griffiths "as Brenda."

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Of course, Brenda was far from an unimportant character in SFU, which brings up the flip side of this, namely that the final credit is generally used for prestige purposes—to credit an important guest star, or to highlight a cast member of particular note. For example, there's Oscar nominee Ned Beatty, credited "as Bolander" in Homicide: Life On The Street. That final credit slot is considered a high-status position, since it's generally the last thing you see before the show or film starts. And in film credits as well as TV-show credits, higher-prestige actors who can't get the first credit shot because they aren't the star of the show often contract for the final slot instead.

STUMPED!: The literary edition

Sure, people write in all the time hoping that we can identify some obscure snippet of Canadian television they saw when they were 5 years old. But what about books? Why don't they get more love in Ask The A.V. Club? Actually, we've been getting more book questions lately. Some of them will get answered next week. But the ones below can only be answered by you. If they sound familiar, drop us an e-mail at the Ask The A.V. Club address below.

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I'm trying to remember the title/author to a short story that I read years ago when I was in high school. It takes place in the future, where babies who are determined to be geniuses are whisked away to live secluded lives in remote places. Everything is provided for them, and when they grow to a certain age, they are given a musical instrument that no one has ever played before. Due to the fact that they haven't been exposed to any other form of music, they are able to produce completely original and breathtaking music. They perform for select wealthy and famous people. The protagonist is one such child who is tricked into listening to Mozart by an activist who is against the practice, and his music becomes "tainted." He is ultimately ejected from his role and never allowed to make music again. Thanks,

Michael Dorfman

There was a book I read as a child, a picture book, and I have no idea who wrote it. It had illustrations of all kinds of common objects as animals. It's kind of hard to explain, but the nearest thing reminiscent of it is the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine, where you have shoes and boots that are alive, opening their sharp-teeth-lined mouths and eating things. I remember a pair of scissors walking around, for example, and various things as birds. It was sort of child's-nightmare-esque, suggesting all the things around us were really living creatures. Help?

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Donald DiPaula

When I was in 5th grade, c. 1994, I read a trilogy of young adult science-fiction/fantasy novels that I really enjoyed, but I can't remember the title or author. What I do recall is that the books take place in the standard fantasy-genre world—trolls and dragons and all that. The plot is that the main character somehow learns that his planet is about to be attacked by aliens. He also somehow learns that the aliens have a penchant for not destroying planets with sentient life, so he hatches a scheme to build giant geometric shapes out of logs and then burn them, thus proving to the ETs up in their UFO that his planet has intelligent life. The twist is that the planet is Earth, and the attack ended the magical era—the dragons were all vaporized by the alien attack, etc. Any thoughts? I remember thinking that these were really smart books, and have always wanted to reread them. Much appreciated,

Aryeh Cohen-Wade

Hey guys, I'm really hoping you can help me out here. I read a book in junior high (checked it out of the school library), in which Armageddon comes and God is nowhere to be found. This would be circa 1982. I have no idea when it was actually published. I remember a scene in which a guy actually goes down on a female demon (did I mention the JUNIOR HIGH library I checked this out of?), and when the final battle is over, Satan having come to realize God is either dead or was never there to begin with, gives up. The end. If I recall correctly. This book really wigged my 12-year-old self, and I'd love to know if it's still in print or anything. I'd love to see if It's still as freaky today. Thanks for any help you can give, and keep up the good work.

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Dan Riddle

There was this book I read about 13 years ago. It was about two guys sent back in time in a giant time machine that is a sort of house, and it had cars in it. They go back to the time of the dinosaurs and discover that Martians artificially altered Earth's gravity so that the heavy dinosaurs could survive. The two time travelers then destroy the intricate satellite system in place around the Earth and ultimately cause the extinction of the dinosaurs. Do you know the title?

Joshua

Next week: A movie based on a book, a movie based on a short story, and that haunting little pizzicato theme. Send your questions to asktheavclub@theonion.com.

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