Two things came together this morning.
First of all, I thought about last night's "American Idol" (a show that, yes, has hooked me) where the one true artist, Chris, was voted off the show. The remaining singers are telegenic in various ways, certainly entertaining, and somewhere above serviceable. And so I watch and am entertained. But the remaining three are not artists. So goes the wisdom of America's voting...
#2: I've been listening to the greatest (yes, arguably the greatest) pop songwriters of the past three decades, Steely Dan. This morning I was brought back to their masterpiece, Aja, which features exquisite lyrics, astonishing arrangement, and superb musicianship. I wondered why I'm hearing less of this as the 21st century marches on.
Then It struck me: American increasing idolizes mediocrity done well. That's essentially the logic of the franchise. We are the land of McDonalds and Gap--nothing exceptional, but "good enough," done consistently, and with enough hook to bring us back. We're a country that has produced (and now exported) Starbucks, a juggernaut that has managed to turn coffee (one of the finest beverages on the planet) into impossibly sweet, frothy drinks with simply the whiff of espresso. And, all too frequently, I find myself buying a cappuccino with the greeny mermaid on the cup.
So I realized that America idolizes mediocrity done well. We love a really good Everyman/Everywoman, but not someone exceptionally artistic or really exceptional in any way.
Something hit me last night on "American Idol": the "idols" (now that title's got to put fear into our hearts) went to Graceland. I began to think about that fact. If the "Idol' ballots had made the decision, Elvis never would have been a star. (I'm saying this without any particular love for Elvis.) Moreover, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (of Steely Dan) never would have made their peerless recordings. We never would have heard the jazz greats, Steve Gadd (drums) and Wayne Shortter (sax), both soloing on "Aja" if it came down to who many textmessaged their votes on their Cingular phones. The same is probably true for the Beatles or U2. I could go on.
And finally, #3 (out of two): "The Da Vinci Code" strikes me as one more idol of mediocrity. Does it really deserve the title of the best selling book of all time? I'd be interested to know what you think.