David, Management, and the Ghosts of Idol Past
I’m a fan of David, not necessarily a fan of the man in the cap (and especially not after that massage parlor scandal – ‘member that one?). However, I do know that David, at 20 years old, is hardly the only youngster in the music biz who has a parent for a manager. Think Usher, think Justin Timberlake, think Britney, think Beyonce, think anyone who started in the business as a minor and, so, needed the guidance and support of someone who more or less had their child’s best interest at heart.
(And after what David revealed about himself in Chords of Strength, in which it took his parents – both MomChuleta and Dadchuleta – to really get the Voice out there, what with his painful shyness, do any of us really think we’d be a different kind of determined and aggressive “stage parent” with a kid like David who we believe is the next best thing?)
In other words, as vilified as #MIC has been via media, there’s nothing out of the ordinary with what he has done or is doing when it comes to managing his son’s career. What makes David’s case seem out of the ordinary has everything to do with the Idol machine and how it put out a negative campaign to discredit David’s talents and good graces through the image of an abused and scared little boy controlled by an out-of-control “Stage Dad from Hell” who was accused of doing everything from taking David’s water away from him until he got his recording sessions done correctly to the show having to ban him from backstage.
Remember that crap?
So, the subject here, IMO, is not whether or not any of those things were true, but why the show was so invested in circulating such stories about David and his dad. It’s because of this campaign why certain fans have learned to distrust the Dad-as-Manager (and then there’s the massage parlor scandal); somehow, even we – who have learned to not trust the media and the stories they generate – have a difficult time letting go of the bad PR around #MIC.
I still have a hard time believing that TPTB (“the powers that be” for those of you not in the know) wanted to do all this negative publicity around David just to secure a David Cook win (it’s just beyond stupid for them to invest that much more in another contestant who, if they were popular in their own right and can hold their own, don’t need their competition “kneecapped” Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding style). I personally thought Cook could hold his own, and he obviously did, so what was up with the backstage shenanigans?
I say, and this is only a hunch mind you, that this was all owing to what I call the “Ghosts of Idol Past.”
Here’s some historical context.
Season 1 of American Idol. The British producers want to expand their product, begun across the Atlantic, over here. Needless to say, it’s an overnight success. One of the contestants TPTB are truly gung-ho about happens to be Tamyra Gray (that contestant David was so excited about in his 11 years on this planet). It’s not surprising that the likes of Simon Cowell would be enthusiastic about a contestant like Tamyra. The Brits have a long history of loving the R&B/soul/blues music (in other words “black music) that has been produced here. Unlike their American counterparts who like this kind of music “mainstreamed” – hence the popularity of an Elvis Presley or even the British band, the Rolling Stones, who freely admit the influence of soul music on their rock style.
Why do I bring this up? Because in focusing so much on Tamyra, they overlooked the juggernaut that was Kelly Clarkson, who was most likely leading in votes. Kelly could hold her own against Tamyra when it comes to the R&B/soul, but it was really when she sang outside that genre with the big band song, “Stuff Like That There,” that she really emerged as the frontrunner and eventual winner. So, what happened?
Tamyra became the very first “shocking elimination” during Top 4 week, and Kelly easily beat the mixed-race boy-band type Justin Guarini at the finale.
This precedent would set the stage for Season 2, in which TPTB had to squelch very quickly the idea that American Idol is the kind of show that might have diverse contestants, but popular contestants of color will not be able to take it all. So, lucky for them, Ruben Studdard happened. Meanwhile, Kelly Clarkson, the first winner of Idol, is already quietly making plans to transform her image into a serious music star – lest folk only remember her as the “cheesy” winner of a reality show and that godawful movie From Justin to Kelly. In other words, both winner and show are moving towards trying to be taken seriously as a real “talent show” and not a “popularity contest.” So what better way to prove that than to be able to crown a heavyset black man, constantly called “the next Luther Vandross,” as the next American Idol? No Disney here, no teen votes there. Could it really happen? It almost didn’t with the rise of Clay Aiken, the geek-with-the-amazing-voice-turned-hearthrob. How did Ruben manage to edge out Clay in the end? Just have Simon Cowell subtly remind America how “cheesy” and “Broadway” Clay really is (while making Ruben out to be the “cooler” version). I’m sure the homophobic vote helped too.
Except, for the first time, the runner-up outsold the winner, and although Ruben did well and sold platinum, it was clear who became the more popular person from that season. Again, lest this look too much like racial discrepancy, TPTB decided to work overtime and “make a diva happen” the following season. This time with more street credibility.
Enter Season 3 and Fantasia, whose main competition was not the other “divas” Jennifer Hudson and Latoya London but rather the teenage Diana Degarmo, who was rumored to have a “Stage Mom from Hell.” Between the overbearing mom behind the scenes and the longevity experienced by the other teen John Stevens, who had the indignity of outlasting J-Hud just by being a cute redheaded teenage hearthrob who couldn’t carry a halfway decent tune if his life depended on it, TPTB actually realized the show was openly being critized for catering to an “American racist vote.” The alternative to a Fantasia win was the crowning of a tuneless teenager with his cute looks to carry him (and the ability to turn the entire Idol franchise into a laughing stock) or a talented teenager like Diana Degarmo who came with extra baggage, a la the stage mom. Fantasis benefitted from the racial backlash against Jennifer Hudson’s ousting, as did J-Hud herself later on in her career (for what was that Oscar about if nothing more than it reminded folks that she, like the character she was portraying in Dreamgirls, deserved a major and successful comeback after being unfairly overlooked for stardom?).
So, once Idol received their two black winners back to back, the racial drama can be put behind them, and they can go on to searching, without any guilt, for the next contestant who would best make them the most money (even if that meant looking for mostly white winners), now that they see that folks like Kelly Clarkson were selling platinum and that their black Idols were only selling moderately well (but only in the R&B niche market). How best to really sell tons and tons of albums? Why, let’s look for the most mainstream contestant out there.
Enter Carrie Underwood, Season 4, who Simon Cowell predicted from her auditions round, that she would be the biggest selling Idol winner of all time. And the rest of course is history!
Then, Season 5, often considered the most talented and strongest Idol season, presented them with another big seller in the guise of Chris Daughtry. But something unexpected happened. Soul Patrol happened! And it did not matter that there were real soul singers like Paris Bennett and Elliott Yamin competing, along with another Southern country gal like Kellie Pickler, Taylor Hicks provided the most entertainment on stage, and his gray hair made him stick out among the youngsters. He, and not Daughtry, took the crown, and TPTB have become more controlling and more manipulative of the results of the show ever since.
Up until that time, who they wanted to win usually did (and even if they didn’t the alternative was always acceptable). This time, they weren’t going to let that happen again.
Enter Season 6, and Melinda Doolittle, who at the time was so humble and nice and could sing like nobody’s business, who Simon Cowell could turn to as a way to shame the more successful Idol alumni like Kelly Clarkson (who the show took issue with when she forgot to thank their franchise when she won her Grammy) and Jennifer Hudson (who essentially did the same thing when she didn’t acknowledge Idol when she won her Oscar).
As an aside, let me just say: if their experience on the show and the “opportunities” provided to them really were tied to the people on this show, I have no doubt in my mind that neither star would have “forgotten” to thank Idol. And what should they thank them for, really? If David should ever be so lucky to win such big awards, should he really thank Idol by the time that happens?
Moving along. Despite the ability to use Melinda to shame previous Idol alumni (particularly Jennifer Hudson) to remind viewers that they can still attract better singers who can out-diva previous contestants, around this time Paris Bennett revealed in an Internet interview that no way, no how were TPTB going to allow another “older” contestant, like Melinda, to win, since they blamed Taylor Hicks’ underperformance of his album on his age.
Now, we’re getting into the present era that is Idol and their issues and manipulations around their teen contestants. It took forever for Jordin Sparks to sign with Jive after winning, and that had everything to do with her dad, a former NFL player, who believe it or not, was rumored to be a major serious “Stage Dad from Hell.” Up until that point, all Idol winners were signed to RCA, but Jordin’s father was having issues with the contract, so they eventually turned her over to Jive, a label that has more experience working with minors and their stage parents (think Justin, Britney, Usher, Chris Brown).
That experience, however, probably made them extremely sensitive to the potential of teen Idol winners bringing all their baggage with them. It almost happened with Diana Degarmo in Season 2, which is why they could ignore her after the season, but with a winner like Jordin Sparks, their air-tight contracts would create conflicts and tensions. (See, I’ve always felt that folks who resent stage parents only do so because they want to be dictators, and they can’t do this when another authority figure holds the reins.)
So, by the time Season 7 rolls around, and they think they’ve found the perfect teen Idol in David Archuleta (He’s cute! He’s sweet! And he can sing! Not just carry a tune! He can saaaaaaaaaang!! No more John Stevens! No more Sanjaya Malakar! Woohoo!! Ka-ching! Ka-ching!! And yes, that was the early buzz around David when he started off), suddenly they’ve got the Ghosts of Idol Past showing up in Jeff Archuleta (oh no! Another Diana Degarmo! Another Jordin Sparks! But this teen could actually be bigger than that!).
Once David Cook provided an alternative winner, they just found a way to slow down the momentum or even neutralize whatever terms David’s stage dad could throw at them. Never mind that, had they managed David’s career more astutely they could have had a teen star who created Bieber Fever before there was such a thing.
So, what’s the point of this long narrative? It’s a reminder that a lot of our misgivings about who is presently managing David just might be media-driven and relying quite heavily on the Ghosts of Idol Past. After all, shouldn’t we wonder why David’s dad was painted in such a horrible way when he clearly wasn’t the first “difficult” stage parent the show had to deal with?
I myself get concerned because I’m not sure if #MIC is a hindrance or a help. I can only keep the faith that the Voice will triumph, no matter what shenanigans are thrown at him or whatever ghosts from seasons past keep popping up to frame him in unfair ways.