I was giving a fiddle lesson last night while the big final American Idol show was on, and after my student left I went into the back room and turned on the other TV, which was on the local public network, and there was this old “American Masters” program about the life of Aretha Franklin. Talk about an antidote to the sugar high. Talk about reality based life.
Aretha is so completely the real thing. She wasn’t dreaming of being a “star,” she was a star and simply was searching for the outlet to her audience. There was never a shred of doubt, from when she was just a kid singing in her dad’s church. Everyone knew it too. No one had any doubt. Martin Luther King knew it. When she began to receive awards, in 1967, he came by to give her a kiss on the podium. Ray Charles knew it. He showed up at a gig she was doing at Fillmore West, sitting in the back not to be noticed. She heard he was there and got him up on stage. When she sits down at the piano on her first Atlantic recording session in Muscle Shoals, all the studio professionals knew instantly “there would be no musical troubles at all.” Keith Richards says the same thing twenty years later: “We got her to play piano because she’s so good on the keyboard we knew she’d hold everything together.” Eric Clapton says, “she uses her voice like an instrument, never settling on a note, but climbing up to it, and past, and back below.”
The American Masters show is extremely well done. My only complaint would be that it is just too short. All the musical excerpts, which have to be excerpts just so the show will not go on into the wee hours, could really have been full performances in my book. But then I’m a musician. Aretha, long may you live!
It put the whole Idol thing in such perspective. Poor Taylor, the winner: a charming lad who can get loose enough to sing, but who doesn’t really know what to sing beyond a small range of stylings he’s picked up from people like Elton John, who got them in the first place from Ray Charles and Aretha. Poor Katherine, the runner up: a beautiful voice, a beautiful face, and she can sing “Over the Rainbow,” but she seems to be totally detached from most other lyrics, and also seems to drift away as she sings, thinking some airy thoughts, forgetting that there are words coming out of her mouth. One presumes that she picked “her first single,” “Destiny.” The song killed her last chance of besting Taylor. For that matter, poor Carrie Underwood, who seems to have just one song up her sleeve, and it’s a weird one at that, where the idea seems to be that in a crisis you “give Jesus the wheel.” Gawd, please, no mas, no mas. Take the fuckin’ wheel, take it now, turn into the skid, turn into the skid.
American Idol, this time around, came back to earth I think. It had never left of course. I’m hoping though, that this time the public gets it. It’s a talent show, it’s a random fiddle contest. There’s going to be some people who are better than some others, because it’s grading on the curve. There’s going to be the sick entertainment of the people at the beginning of the adventure who have no earthly clue at all. There’s going to be the sick entertainment of people dreaming big, hoping desperately, and being dashed to earth, Icarus in weekly installments.
But please, can we all keep in mind that there is such a thing as real talent. Talent that doesn’t need a show like this, doesn’t need Simon and Randy and Paula and Fox Network and neon and… where the hell do those audiences come from that they get, with all these people in ecstasy over almost nothing? How do we all forget Aretha. How can we even watch if we didn’t forget, if we really remembered. I’m speaking for myself as well. I watched a lot of this season’s Idol.
Aretha. Forgive me.