The long-running television show American Idol was often accused of single-handedly destroying American popular music. In its fifteen seasons AI (no, not “artificial intelligence”, although that might seem apropos) yielded 345 records which were chart- toppers on Billboard…a magazine which once meant something, back in the era of physical media.
Cynical souls like me would argue that American Idol wasn’t solely responsible for the destruction of American pop music. Pop had started an inexorable slide downhill years before the show’s appearance, hastened by machine production, songwriting by committee, and the widespread acceptance and distribution of lo-fi MP3s. Idol just served as a highly-visible target for haters, exemplifying all that was facile and plastic and disposable in the music industry.
Many well-established musicians have spoken dismissively of Idol and similar shows as “winning a popularity contest”, which may be sour-grapes-speak for “I spent 20 years on the road to make it and those perky little creeps just had to look pretty and flirt with Paula Abdul or Ryan Seacrest”. It is true that many Idol “champions” were barely remembered a week later (Nick Fradiani, anyone? I didn’t think so), much less years later, but a few winners like Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson have built lasting careers.
Granted, most who appeared were insubstantial talents, and the country’s taste for such competitions has faded from when Idol was the top-rated TV show for years and years— but aren’t amateur talent shows an old American tradition? Certainly, my high school had one every year (although ours was unusual in that it generally featured a future multiple Grammy-winner…), and I assume most others did, as well.
If you go back to the days of vaudeville, talent contests were often part of the show (the new-millennial equivalent being, sadly, karaoke or open-mike nights). Movies of the early talkie era portray losing contestants as being yanked off-stage by The Hook, a large shepherd’s crook of sorts looped around the neck or waist of the unfortunate losers; even then, cruelty was a major element of talent competitions.
While many amateur talent shows appeared at the beginning of the radio era, the best-known and longest-lived was the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, which started on air in 1934, and ran on network radio from 1935 to 1952. Even Bowes’ death in 1946 couldn’t kill the popular show.
Being on radio, an audible replacement for The Hook was needed; contestants who found disfavor with Bowes were halted by the dramatic crash of a gong. Frank Sinatra was spared the gong as an early winner on Bowes’ show, as part of “The Hoboken Four” in 1935. Sinatra’s group was part of a touring Amateur Hour roadshow company (shades of Idol, 75 years earlier), but soon departed to seek his fortune. Apparently, he found it. Years later, Sinatra—a notorious teller of tales—told audiences that Bowes loved “The Hoboken Four” so much that the group returned to the radio show week after week, re-named every time. Maybe so, maybe not.
Remember The Gong Show, decades later?
Following the death of Major Bowes the show was taken over by his protégée, Ted Mack, and made the transition to television beginning in 1948. Unbelievably, the show ran until 1970,and helped launch the careers of opera singers Robert Merrill and Beverly Sills, as well as Pat Boone, Gladys Knight, and Ann-Margret.
What’s the point of all this? Just as every aging generation seems to gripe about ungrateful teenagers, every recent American generation seems to think that the latest thing that’s destroying music is…well, the latest thing. In reality, it’s simply plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Bill Leebens is Editor of Copper and Director of Marketing at PS Audio. He has been in and out of the audio business for over 40 years. Each time he returns to it, he becomes more cynical. He does not intend to go quietly.