Dispatches | June 06, 2006

[By Michael P. Kardos]

First, the admission: this season I started watching “American Idol.” I’d never watched an episode until this spring, and at first I did my best to poke fun at the contestants, the judges, and the millions of silly viewers. But after a few weeks I had to stop telling myself that I was watching it “ironically.”

Now, the gloating: months ago, I predicted that Bo Bice and Carrie Underwood would make it to the finals. I really did. And so I watched the final two hours contentedly and stress-free, wondering only if maybe it would be better for both finalists’ careers not to win, given the absolutely dreadful song slated to be the winner’s first radio single. Still, the finale was quite entertaining (it didn’t have to be; its rabid fans would have watched it regardless), and toward the end of the second hour, as a special feature, the American idols’ American idols came onstage to jam. People like George Benson and Babyface and Rascal Flatts and a couple of the guys from Lynyrd Skynyrd.

And then it happened.

During a rendition of R. Kelly’s song “I Believe I Can Fly,” floating up from the stage and “flying,” I suppose, came the unmistakably innocuous riffs of Kenny G., soprano saxophonologist.

What was he doing there? Why was he on-stage? What did he contribute to the song besides many, many notes? If Kenny G’s riffs soared like a bird, it was a bird numbed by too many hours listening to Kenny G.

And hearing the fluttery, floaty riffs, I felt grateful once again for the relative purity of literary magazines. The thing about literature in general and literary magazines in particular is that there’s no room for the vapid and floaty. No interest in, or space for, the sonically pretty yet impotent phrase, for sound unmoored from meaning.

In the current issue of TMR, Steve Almond, in his story “My Mouth, Her Sex, the Night, My Heart” describes three attractive women walking through a club as “taking quiet pleasure in their ripple effect.” And Elizabeth Powell, in her poem “Traveling Salesman in Providence,” writes, “The spicy stir-fry / Of what-might-be gave him indigestion.” Striking? Yes. Floaty? No.

“American Idol” is nothing if not a venue for riffs. And from what I saw this season, the singers who riff best tend to advance—for a while. But soon enough, viewers learn which singers use vocal pyrotechnics to enhance their songs, and which use them to conceal the weaknesses in their voices. And come to think of it, the reason I enjoyed watching “Idol” this season is that, ultimately, the quality of one’s voice mattered. In my view, the two best voices made it to the finals. Despite how silly the show might be, fluff didn’t win the day. Which is why, during the finale, I was so disappointed to hear those silly sax riffs.

Literature needs fluff the way that “American Idol” needed Kenny G., the way that “Star Wars” needed a “Star Wars Holiday Special” (1978), the way that the “Star Wars Holiday Special” needed Art Carney, Bea Arthur, and the Jefferson Starship.

It didn’t. It doesn’t.

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