Smashing Idols


"As a talent show, YouTube is the polar opposite of American Idol." –Sam Anderson, writing in Slate.

He means that narrowly—the article's about lip-syncing—but there's a greater truth there. American Idol is a democracy, or at least maintains the trappings of a democracy, which is all we really ask of our democracies these days. The public is presented with a set of suitably middle-of-the-road nominees—the William Hungs have been weeded out long before the balloting begins—and then the audience votes on who's the best. YouTube and Google Video work on a more decentralized, market-like principle: If you think something's entertaining, you send it to someone. Rather than winnowing a cast to a single singer inoffensive enough to be all America's idol, we let the stars emerge from below, collecting fans one e-mail or blog link at a time. Which do you suppose offers more surprises, more variety, and more honest-to-God talent?

YouTube, by the way, is supposed to be a part of "Web 2.0." I ought to be a cheerleader for Web 2.0, since its boosters keep saying things I was writing six years ago, but I have trouble getting behind anything with a name that practically screams "Hate me—I'm a buzzword-spouting charlatan." Suggestion to entrepreneurs: Just call it "the Internet." If a potential financier tells you he lost millions the last time he invested in the Web, you can say, "Yes, but this time we understand it."

NEXT: American Scold

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  1. “Hate me — I’m a buzzword-spouting charlatan.”


    Considering that “Web 2.0” doesn’t really *mean* anything, I fervently hope this is the term’s last appearance around here.

  2. Web 2.0 is for losers. Web 3.0, however, is the new thing, baby.

  3. I don’t know anything about YouTube, and I hate American Idol, but I’ll concede your point about YouTube offering more “talent” when someone discovered on YouTube sells as many records as Kelly Clarkson, or even that skinny gay kid from North Carolina.

    I’m afraid that in this instance, by “talent” you mean “the ability to be unliked by the vast majority of human beings”.

  4. I’ll concede your point about YouTube offering more “talent” when someone discovered on YouTube sells as many records as Kelly Clarkson, or even that skinny gay kid from North Carolina.

    I don’t see what sales have to do with it. Has there ever been an American Idol performer as talented as this guy?

  5. Everyone knows that you should wait until the 2.1 release so they have a chance to work out the initial bugs.

  6. As a die-hard MAC user (is there any other kind) I’m holding out for WEB X 10.2

  7. Jesse – as a capitalist, I believe that sales=talent. And I really don’t see why playing someone else’s song on a tiny guitar qualifies as “talent”.

    If you really think that guy has more talent than Kelly Clarkson you are a monstrously pretentious boob.

  8. You know, the alarmists who said TV was shortening our attention spans are probably in overdrive mode.

    30 minutes if a world of time compared to watching 90 seconds of emotion found in “KId gets a nintendo 64 for christmas”

    Now I just gotta sell my idea about some sort of web video award show to the Major Networks, those being, Comedy Central, G4 and Spike.

  9. Yeah, but like all buzzwords there are a surprising number of people who will dismiss you if you don’t name-check them. I just released an application that has a couple of gradients and some AJAX forms in it and we’re having to stamp Web 2.0 all over the place to get it any attention.

    It’s the same app we wrote four years ago, but updated with a little nicer interface and some tricksier tech under the hood to make it happen.


  10. as a capitalist, I believe that sales=talent

    I know this has been argued to death, but this statement pisses me off with it’s lazy condescension. All that means is that you’ve given up judging art on its own sake. You’re assuming that “talent” means “ability to move units”, while I’m convinced that the ability to move units has more to do with the sales strategy than the product itself. Especially in the entertainment industry.

    The kid can play ukelele. Kelly Clarkson can sing. Neither got famous (well, the ukelele kid isn’t really famous) with their own material. As far as their artistic talent goes, it appears to this laymen that they’re pretty evenly matched, in their respective fields. As for moving units, American Idol is a much more profitable sales strategy than YouTube.

  11. Lemur: You might be right about me being a boob, but I think you’re a little confused about pretentiousness. If I didn’t think that but wrote it anyway, I’d be pretentious. (In fact, I’m not sufficiently familiar with Clarkson’s music to have an opinion one way or another. I’ll concede right here and now that there might be some American Idol winners who are better than the ukelele guy. But I haven’t heard them.)

    At any rate, one value of markets — and of YouTube — is they allow niches to flourish. If you look at nothing but total sales, you miss that.

  12. When are we getting Web 69?

    Or do we already have that?

    (Please — DON’T anyone post any links.)

    PS: Jesse, that ukelele guy is awesome. I can say, in all truth and without irony, that that is the best damn ukelele video I have ever seen.

    I would like to see that guy perform “Eruption” by Van Halen.

  13. Lemur: Does that mean that WalMart’s “Deer Hunter” is better than Robert DeNiro’s “The Deer Hunter”?

  14. What is this American Idol you speak of? I don’t even OWN a TV.

  15. The ukelele guy has nothing on Average Homeboy!

  16. Is it just me or are the most e-mailed YouTube stuff seem to mostly involve laughing at goofy acting Asian people? The two best examples being Ukelele Guy and the two Chinese college students lip sincing the Backseat Boys or whoever? Not that American Idol doesn’t have some of that with the whole William Hung phenomenon.

  17. The ukelele guy is just straight-out talented; I didn’t laugh at anything but the title of the clip. (“While my ukelele gently weeps.”)

    The “Tow [sic] Chinese Boys” video is funny, but also amazing. They have real talent, of a sort. By the way, these guys have been “discovered” and became spokesmen for a Chinese Internet portal.


  18. Hey, speaking of YouTube, Asians and boobs…

    WARNING: Please skip the rest of this post if:

    1 – You are an extremely sensitive person who is offended by gratuitous displays of non-nude female beauty that fails to ignore sexuality.

    2 – You cannot stand obvious or kitschy pandering to the most base impulses of heterosexual males.

    3 – You are offended by male heterosexuality in general, especially its gratuitous insertion in a completely unrelated discussion.

    If you are a woman, I strongly suggest that you take this time to go off for a few minutes and look through the collection of Bruce Campbell videos:
    The rest of you who are still with me: If you are a straight male, you are about to become extremely grateful to me, and pledge unswerving fealty to me forever.

    I recently stumbled across the following videos of Harumi Nemeto, a Japanese model of improbable proportions.

    – Stretching sensuously and giving mooning looks at the camera while in some kind of rice paddy or wetland, to the accompaniment of tenderly beautiful piano music that makes me want to cry:

    – Posing in a variety of black shiny fetishistic clothing (no sound):

    (No nudity; not pornographic; might still be embarrassing if someone looks over your shoulder.)

  19. I don’t see what sales have to do with it. Has there ever been an American Idol performer as talented as this guy?

    All jokes aside, thanks for that link! Having been born in the late 60s and thinking only of Tiny Tim and Don Ho when hearing the word ukelele, I now have a new found respect for the instrument.

    YouTube, is becoming like the new (and more expansive) Ed Sullivan show. You’re liable to see anything from great “professional” fare, like South Park episodes that a certain network was scared to repeat (“Come out of the closet, Tom”), to a college student picking his nose and juggling at the same time. Something for everyone!

  20. What about this guy?

    An Eddie Van Halen solo. Played on a violin. Flawlessly.

  21. Jesse – as a capitalist, I believe that sales=talent.

    Sales =/= equal talent, unless you think that the Spice Girls or Los Del Rio (remember the Macarena?) are somehow more musically talented than, say, John Coltrane or Yitzhak Perlman.

  22. Sales = a talent for selling?

    Or is this just one of those revenge things where all these performers pretend to know shit about economics so now we’re going to pretend that economists know about performance?

  23. This is probably going to sound weird coming from a guy who follows a philosophy that says it knows what perfect art is but:

    I am sympathetic to the sales=talent argument.

    I think that anyone who stands up and argues that 99% of music is trash and people don’t know what they’re doing when they choose something as mundane as a CD is going to have a hard time arguing that people should govern themselves AND that said self-governance will be for the greater good/individualistic good.

    I see an awful lot of paralells in “you don’t know what good music is (hail *shudder* Coltrane and that jazz garbage)” and “you really shouldn’t be trusted to make a lot of choices”.

    I can see the point where someone might say “just because I think it’s trash doesn’t mean it should be illegal”. However, trusting people to make the right decisions and not automatically dismissing them as trailer-trash drones because they can’t appreciate YOUR equally crappy music? Seems a rather dangerous line of thought to me.

  24. Correction: “NOT trusting people AND automatically…”

    Galt, that doesn’t even make sense when you read it the first time.

  25. I see an awful lot of paralells in “you don’t know what good music is (hail *shudder* Coltrane and that jazz garbage)” and “you really shouldn’t be trusted to make a lot of choices”.

    I think you’re missing the point. You’re conflating an aesthetic judgement (some people like danceable pop fluff (I, for instance, like the Pet Shop Boys), and some people like jazz.) with an acknowledgement of talent. Without casting aspersions on anybody’s tastes or purchases, it is perfectly reasonable to acknowledge that one musician is actually more musically talented than another. You can even acknowledge that one is more talented than another, but still prefer the less talented one!

    For example: Yngwie Malmsteen is a much more talented guitarist, technically and musically, than Joan Jett. However, I like listening to Joan Jett and own three of her albums, while I can only listen to Yngwie Malmsteen in small doses and own none of his work.

  26. Ayn_Randian,

    In the political marketplace, Social Security, Internet censorship, and the War on Drugs are bestsellers, while limited government is one of the biggest losers.

    If validity = sales, we ought to drop this silly philosophy of ‘free minds and free markets’ and hop on the bandwagon, right?

  27. Two further points:

    The aesthetic value of a work of music is not the sole consideration in the buying decision. People do not always buy music for the purpose of listening to it while meditating on its sonorous beauty; some buy music to play at a party, to accompany dancing, etc, and some beautiful music is not as well-suited to those purposes as some goshawful noise is.

    Also, the “image” of the performer has a lot to do with their sales; I’ve no doubt that a 60-year-old opera singer could easily duplicate Christina Aguilera’s latest single, but the sales certainly wouldn’t be as good.

    The point being, that the market works to satisfy the wants of its members as efficiently as possible. Whether those wants have anything to do with aesthetic value is another question.

  28. Stevo Darkly said:

    I would like to see that [ukelele] guy perform “Eruption” by Van Halen.

    Steven Crane said:

    What about this guy?

    An Eddie Van Halen solo. Played on a violin. Flawlessly.

    Mr. Crane: That almost exactly granted my wish! “Eruption,” plus the beginning of “You Really Got Me.” Outstanding, sir!

    The only way it could possibly be better is if it was on a ukelele.

    PS: Another Asian guy. Hmm.

  29. The most talented bluegrass mandolinist in the world isn’t going to outsell Justin Timberlake, because bluegrass just isn’t a popular form. That has nothing to do with his technical talent as a musician. It could be that if he preferred to play dance-pop he’d sell even more than Timberlake does. His decision to play bluegrass instead says nothing about his musical prowess.

  30. Web site of the guy who plays Van Halen on his violin (that Steven Crane found a video of):

    You can also hear him play Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.”

    And buy a CD.

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