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Monday, May 17, 2004
I hadn't really figured out how I felt about William Hung until I did karaoke in Chinatown Saturday afternoon.

Now, please don't take this to be an endorsement of the now-tired dismissal of American Idol as karaoke. Besides that not being as cutting an insult as some people seem to think it is, you have to realize something: say what you want about the later seasons, but the first season was operating under a very different set of circumstances, and to judge AI without taking the first season into account is to miss the point entirely. The perhaps unfortunate outcomes of season one aside, the actual content was a thing of beauty. Important differences include the following:

  • It attracted a whole different group of people. All that you were guaranteed of getting a shot at when trying out for AI the first season was a spot in a pilot episode for a show that may or may not actually end up on Fox, and, let's be honest, a more reliable way of getting on Fox would involve something like dressing up dogs like wrestlers and dropping them out of an airplane with blowtorches to see who would be the victor.[1] Once Kelly got that movie and major-label album and tour, well, the rewards were a lot more certain and palpable. So the people who showed up in the later seasons were less people who wanted to become famous singers and more just people who wanted to be famous, for whatever, and while those people might be the grease for the wheels of some of our most enjoyable reality shows, they are way less interesting than the weird and wonderful culture of fame-seeking singers. It's somehow a whole different ballgame, and while I'm not sure if I can accurately describe it here, suffice to say that one of the great things about season 1 was seeing this particular subculture[2] showcased. It wasn't like most reality shows where the idea of eating worms or vying for a man's heart as a path to stardom seemed like just a pathetic justification on the part of the participants: this really was a big shot for most of them, an alternate path toward something they'd been working for for a while, and it really mattered. That tension was much more interesting.

  • It adhered to an outside set of standards. In later seasons, AI has become, like many other reality shows (Survivor foremost among them) run and judged, both internally and externally, in relation to a set of standards created by previous seasons. What matters now is, in addition to talent and appeal, are considerations like in which positive and negative ways performers matter to past successes, whether or not they're entertaining to have on, and how they continue the storyline created by previous seasons. Of course, some of this mattered before, too--they weren't just looking for great singers, of course, there was an element of "casting" as well--but it was fascinating in season 1 to see these obscure but very explicit music industry standards being bandied around as if they were just as valid as semi-objective artistic considerations. I suppose in part this is only interesting if you're part of the industry, but if you were, it was wild to see what are essentially insular concerns being expressed so broadly and openly: the balance between appearance and talent, the need for a certain indefinable charisma, balancing attention-getting controversy with middle-America pleasingness[3], etc. It was like watching a network show about a packaging competition in which they talk about usability vs. presentation, edginess vs. comfort, etc.[4] You wouldn't judge someone by these standards if you saw them play in a club, and you don't get judged like this on Star Search, either--a common comparison point for AI--but the way the judges were talking was almost exactly how people talk about possible acquisitions in the industry, and, eventually, how non-executives in the industry start to talk about their peers and competitors. While there were numerous parts of the process that were still being obscured (debates over marketing strategies, manufacturing calculations, indie promo, etc.), this was a part of the underlying skeleton of the industry that was being broadly exposed. And not just exposed--celebrated! A shocking number of people have actually accepted that this is an OK way to judge talent. It's absolutely fascinating, because it wasn't just a set of rules they were making up: it was this accepted (if not actually useful or true) outside standard that was being glitzed up but was still, essentially, the same kind of "shop talk" you'd hear in any A&R office, and like with America's Next Top Model, you could appeal to those standards, still lose because there were these additional TV rules, but then succeed anyway, because you were doing something that had an appeal beyond the show.

    But of course William Hung is not a product of the first season; he is, rather, a reject from the current season whose hilariously bad performance earned him a certain fame that then resulted in a shockingly successful debut album on, of course, a Koch imprint. The problem with Hung for people who actually appreciate him (while also laughing--don't get me wrong, the humor is a large part of the enjoyment) is that even once you're able to listen past the badness to the goodness, it still feels kind of icky. Hung himself knows very well how he's regarded: "I'm infamous, a joke. It doesn't make me feel good, because I'm a genuine person, but I don't let it get to me, because I am who I am."

    In many ways, it reminds me of the dilemma of American Movie, where you weren't quite sure what side of the line of exploitation vs. appreciation it was on at any moment. Hung actually shares a lot with Mark Borchardt: both are stereotypes, i.e. the Asian Nerd and the Trailer-Park Loser, and both are trying to succeed in a field that their stereotype would not normally seem suited for. Part of the humor comes from this disconnect, of course, but we also seem to be laughing at them for, basically, conforming to their stereotypes: Borchardt does hillbilly drugs and acts stupid and goofy and fails to accomplish a lot and seems not to realize that what he's doing is cheesy, and Hung is quiet and dorky and doesn't seem to get American pop culture and, similarly, apparently doesn't to realize that what he's doing is dorky. Is it right for us to be getting pleasure from this? Are they choosing to present themselves like this, or are they being presented like this with the assistance of others? And if it's the latter, should the others be profiting from this? In other words, are they in on the joke or out of the joke? Are we laughing with them or at them?

    I think it's clear, though, that it's the former, that they are very much a part of this, and that the issue of exploitation is, in many ways, separate: they are both inviting us to appreciate them. So why shouldn't we?

    Well, the answer would go, because they suck--or, at least, Hung certainly sucks. He just can't sing, can he? But as I've pointed out a few times now in reaction to the whole Superstar USA idea, a lot of my favorite singers can't sing, either, and presumably if they attempted a Ricky Martin song with as much gusto as Hung, they would sound almost as bad. The particular critical standards we have, particularly for indie rock, just don't value the kind of technical skill we demand of Hung if we're using his lack of skill as an excuse to demonize those who might enjoy him. We simply can't get mad at someone for being a bad singer without looking like hypocrites. One of your friends doing a karaoke song he thinks is hilariously bad an absolutely butchering it is funny when you're drunk, even if the purists among us would be loathe to consciously endorse it, but Hung's performances are never supposed to be funny.

    But let's leave funny aside, because I could go on for pages about that. Let's talk, instead, about the reasons why we find many talentless performances by our favorite musicians compelling: the delivery. It wasn't until I started thinking about karaoke that I realized how people normally approach singing songs they like if they're not the best singers. People are almost always embarrassed about their singing ability, even if they're good singers, so when they take a shot at a song they have real affection for--no matter how stupid we with Good Taste might consider it--what they generally tend to do is undersing. They respect the song, and so they duck behind it, getting close to the melody but never quite hitting it, but far quieter than they might want to, quieter than they hear themselves singing it in their heads. Even if you're covering your ears because they're singing it badly and maybe too close to the mic, you can still tell they're holding back.

    Not Hung. He holds back nothing, he loves the song rather than respects the song, and he oversings the hell out of it. And here the laughable dorkiness is actually a positive plus, something that makes his performance actually better, not just funnier. It takes a geek to get this into something that they lose their self-consciousness about it, and it takes a true dorkwad to know that you're getting laughed at for it but to continue doing it anyway because you love doing it so damn much. Hung's performance is the performance of the perfect fan, someone who really loves a song for himself.

    The best evidence of this comes about 4:18 into his performance of R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly." The rest of the track seems like more or less exactly how a bad singer would cover a song, but to me at least, there was something very compelling about it. My first impulse was to think that I was drawn to it because of its contrast with the icky slickness of the original--not that I'm wholly against slickness, mind you, but I particularly loathed the sound of R.'s version. It took kind of a nice song and make it totally unpalatable, at least to me, and Hung's version redeemed it to a certain degree.

    But ultimately, I think his performance does overwhelm the song in almost all cases. What he's making bears some resemblance to the composition, but it is in many ways much more a new thing than many cover versions. It sounds different, and not just because there are different notes.

    What's the same, however, is the spirit, and this is where the bit at 4:18 comes in. Because where, before, it was following a pretty straight-ahead melody, it was hardly notable that he was doing a pretty similar phrasing as in the original. But when it hits that point in the track, it becomes crucial, because Hung does freakin' melismas. He dips, he rises, he almost soars, but what he really does is enthusiastically fumble around and do a really interesting imitation of a melisma, sounding sort of like he'd only heard it described in a different language. But what it actually sounds like is that he loved the song so much that he had to put those in; what's remarkable about them isn't that they're there so much as that they're also in the original. In other words, Hung loves that original song so much that he had to put those swoops, even if he can't actually sing them, because to not leave them out would violate his love for the original track. It would be a sin against the song, and that's not right. In other words, they're there and sung in that particular way because Hung is incredibly enthusiastic about the music, and the love he feels for it is a deeper and more obsessive love than we're used to seeing, I think.

    And the degree to which he succeeds, despite all logical assumptions that he wouldn't, is as good an argument as I can come up with against the particular phenomenon described in footnote #3 here: the capitulation of American Idol to inoffensiveness. Now, don't get me wrong, a whole AI of nothing but shock-seekers would be even more boring than the current model. But the fact is that any executive worth his salt these days knows that, ultimately, no one actually wants to buy a new Perry Como, someone inoffensive and bland and tasteless. For all that some people see pop as being mainly Perry Comos these days, the fact is that even the most banal of music has some sort of frisson of offensiveness, no matter how fake, if it is to succeed. And the fact is, no matter how much we might genuinely like Kelly Clarkson or Ruben Stoddard (or Mr. "Vanilla Revolution" himself, Clay Aiken), that doesn't make them likely pop superstars. One of the nice things about this whole art-as-culture thing is that personality and context comes to matter, to, comes to be a booster of pleasure and interest and discourse. William Hung has done that: none of the current contestants on AI have done that in any way other than by being voted off for possibly racist reasons. But that wasn't them: that was the narrative of the show, the same thing I was talking about above as being a problem with the current evaluative criteria. Hung isn't a great singer, but is genuinely interesting, and not just because he's a bad singer: there's something about him apart from his talent (or lack thereof) that is compelling, that makes you want to know more. That's charisma, and that's something a lot of people on AI--as well as a lot of people in certain other genres I could name--are sorely lacking.

    [1] Note to any network executives who might be reading this: I'll develop this idea for a 15% cut.
    [2] Which is exactly what it is.
    [3] This one being particularly interesting because it really seemed up for debate in season one, whereas now they seem to have institutionally come down on the side of the innocuous pleasingness, although of course the audience shift affected this, too, since advances are made based less on the edited presentation and more on outside interpretations of that, i.e. viewer votes.
    [4] Incidentally, this is a show I would pay money to watch. Packaging is awesome.