Who Put The Y'all In 'Idol'?
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
What is it with this Southern thing on "American Idol," anyway?
Here we go, a national singing competition. It's lousy with Juilliard proteges, Hollywood High sensations, right? Top-notch overachievers, best-that-money-can-buy training?
For five years, the most wildly popular talent contest on American television has been dominated -- thoroughly, totally and completely -- by kids from Southern Hicksville, USA. Seven of the eight top-two finishers in the first four years were from states that once formed the Confederacy, and five of the seven remaining finalists this season are, too.
Home towns of winners and runners-up: Burleson, Tex. Columbus and Snellville, Ga. Birmingham and Huntsville, Ala. Chapel Hill and High Point, N.C. The lone outsider in the top tier, last year's winner, Carrie Underwood, only emphasizes the point -- she hails from Checotah, Okla. (pop. 3,400). This is Merle Haggard, "Okie From Muskogee" territory. We say that in the good sense.
But how is this even possible? Can't anybody in Detroit sing anymore? Can no one in Gotham knock out a show tune better than Clay Aiken? Dialing L.A . . . Hello? Hello?
To emphasize Southern Idol, consider: Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina have less than 10 percent of the national population but have produced 75 percent of the top pairs. This season, those states have four of the seven finalists.
It is tempting to draw the cultural connection here. Southern kids grow up singing in churches and small-town festivals in a region that emphasizes the voice, whether in storytelling or song, and thus are possessors of raw cultural gifts.
It is true that so many American forms of music -- jazz, blues, country, gospel -- are Southern creations, born by or because of the long-time interactions between blacks and whites in rural isolation. Drive from Memphis to New Orleans on fabled Highway 61, toss in a side trip to the Grand Ole Opry, and you've essentially got the core of American musical history.
But let's not get carried away. "Idol" is just a quirky television show, and while we'll consider cultural influence in just a moment, there's no reason to get into some sort of moonlight-and-magnolias, barefoot Suthun kids picking the git-tar down by the riverbank mythology.