I realize that if you're going to be part of the zeitgeist in America today, you have to watch all of these competition shows. The problem is, I'm over here still listening to the Allman Bros. Band and even Green day; and I also like Railroad Earth and Leftover Salmon and the Flecktones (four of the best damn musicians you will ever hear) and Hot Tuna (who are playing at the Beacon Theatre this weekend, and if you didn't get to see any of last winter's shows with Charlie Musselwhite and G.E. Smith, and you're in the New York area, GO!). I like swing. I like bluegrass until they start singing "I'm going to heaven and you're not because I love Jesus and you don't" through their noses. I love black gospel music because it feels like praise and joy and not like smugness and elitism the way white gospel does. I love Motown. I love 1920's jazz as rendered by Bix and Tram and Satchmo and Sidney Bechet. I love acoustic blues and electric blues and the blues shouting of Wynonie Harris. I love the music from Tin Pan Alley that collectors are thankfully digitizing from old 78s and Edison cylinders. My musical taste is far and wide and eclectic. And if it doesn't include hip-hop, well, I'm 56 years old and I guess that's just going to have to be my excuse.
What I don't care for is what I think of as current pop music -- the stuff purveyed on talent shows like American Idol and Simon Cowell's Fall 2011 entry which I keep thinking of as the Rollerball of talent shows, The X Factor. I would have had ZERO interest in this show were it not for a promo that ran during The Simpsons one night in which a girl who was just a kid was belting out "Mercy", sounding like the love child of Janis Joplin and Axl Rose. And I was utterly blown away. This must be what it must have been like for the people at Island Records hearing Amy Winehouse for the first time, long before she became a hot mess.
Of course I have my pride, so it's not like I was going to sit there for two hours a week watching a parade of cookie-cutter shrei-ing pop divas trying to be the next Mariah or Whitney or Britney or Beyonce or Rihanna -- those overproduced divas who to my aged ears are completely and utterly interchangeable. But as little Rachel Crow, the chubby Betty Boop-faced kid with the infectious grin, the heartwarming backstory, and the ferocious confidence, charmed her way through this weekly mess of American decadence, growing as a singer even while we watched, it was hard not to get sucked in.
And I'm so glad I didn't (well, not too much). Because for all that Rachel Crow has the heart and soul and voice of a long-downtrodden blues singer, I'm not sure I could have watched her be eliminated this week.
The entertainment industry is littered with kids who starred early and flamed out quickly. For every Leonardo DiCaprio there are twenty River Phoenixes and Corey Haims. For every Justin Timberlake there are twenty Britney Spearses. And the trainwreck that was Michael Jackson is in a league by himself. So it's probably a blessing in disguise to not score a $5 million record constract at thirteen, I don't care how centered and sane her family seems to be. But while Rachel Crow may be able to sing like Etta James, this image:
...drives home that this is still a very little girl. The talent is there. The opportunities will come. There's too much money to be made off this kid for them not to.