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Published: 2007/03/22
by Jesse Jarnow

Featured Column:Department of Ombudsmanship (aka The Taylor Hicks Dialectic) with Update

BRAIN TUBA: Department of Ombudsmanship

Recently, we started featuring setlists by former American Idol champion Taylor Hicks in our Box Scores section. Mostly, this happened because Hicks’s fans are extraordinarily well organized — capable of submitting setlists by the next morning, along with proper annotations for every R&B song Hicks referenced during his performance. I can’t say I’ve ever heard Hicks’ music, and I can’t say it seems up my alley, or even seen a full episode of American Idol, but he seems like a hard-working chap, touring hard on the same ballroom circuit as most jambands.

We subsequently received the following missive from a concerned reader:

Why in the world is Taylor faggot hicks on jambands? Is he a jamband? Does anyone like him? No. you hafto be outta your mind. Are you telling me I hafto look at his setlists everytime he plays? I will stop going to this site. P.s. this site and the music that goes with it goes against everything American idol is, please stop yourself.

Dearest reader, in response to your questions: see above, maybe, yes, yes.

But, really, what fascinates me is the last part, the assertion that "this site and the music that goes with it goes against everything American Idol is." In a way, of course, he’s absolutely right, at least since the establishment of a music industry driven by mechanical reproduction (and maybe before, with Tin Pan Alley), there have been two notions of music, traditionally set in opposition to one another. In one, music becomes popular in organic/"organic" ways, via live performances, earnest word-of-mouth fan networking, and other bottom-up strategies. In the latter, music becomes popular in an artificial/"artificial" manner, at the hands of a top-down corporate mechanism, like American Idol. Also traditionally, adherents to former school are incensed by the existence of the latter. The latter mostly don’t pay them any attention, which is what makes it pretty hilarious.

There is absolutely no question about where American Idol exists in this system. But just because something exists in opposition doesn’t mean it’s a natural enemy. A better word might be "foil." One couldn’t exist without the other. After all, an inestimably huge part of the attraction of any counterculture is its moral authenticity, and jambands certainly play that card hard and often, ranging from the earnest ways bands present themselves onstage to miniature rules governing specific behaviors, like the once-vaunted "no sales" policy on bootlegs (since negated by the free for all free-for-all of the internet). The goal, in the end, is the same for any jamband as it is for any other musician: to get fans, be popular, and make a living, possibly even a great living. Any band "only in it for the music, maaaan" is selling itself short, at least if they genuinely, really want to spend their whole lives making music.

Taylor Hicks fits into the equation somewhere around there.

If his Wikipedia bio is correct (and, given the vigilance of his Soul Patrol in submitting setlists, one would imagine it would be), Hicks was basically a failed grassroots musician with limited success when he ended up on Idol, two underselling self-released albums to his credit, as well as a lot of gigs and a taper-friendly recording policy under his belt. Pulled into Idol’s hit-making machinery, he came out the other side with a platinum album and a gold single (yes, dear reader, people do like him), but he didn’t exactly come out a changed man, apparently. Still playing by the grassroots rules, albeit with the heft of popularity behind him, Hicks is trying to maintain a career by building a devoted fanbase that will continue to provide him with an income for a long time after the bloom of his Idol fame withers. Sure, maybe that’s a contrived business strategy, but — really — that’s all it is for jambands, too. And, shit, when you think about it, it’s actually a way more creative method for a mainstream musician to build/maintain an audience than it is for a random band of college kids touring their asses off in a van. They should be the ones doing something different, not Hicks.

As for whether he’s a jamband, no, he’s probably not. For starts, his fans are way better organized. But, praise Garcia, wasn’t that argument stale in, like, 1998? The big battle isn’t wooks versus custies anymore. It isn’t live music versus recorded music, either, but live music as an experience versus any other kind of entertainment one could have on a given Friday night. Live music, as a breathing entity, isn’t going away, anymore than music is. In fact, given the state of the record industry, maybe it’ll even get stronger, Walter Benjamin’s infamous non-mechanical "aura" suddenly re-elevated to a position of value as people like Taylor Hicks roam the countryside. At any rate, that’s what Hicks is selling. Personally, I’m probably never going to buy it, and you don’t have to either. Thankfully, looking at his setlists doesn’t cost either of us anything.

Addendum 3/24…

Your whole post to my e-mail on jambands is complete crap, your trying to defend yourself for posting TAYLOR Hicks setlists and looking like an ass while doing it on "JAM" that’s right "JAMBANDS".com not MAINSTREAM, or AMERICAN Idol .com or MUSICFORPOPCORNKIDS.com, and in all fairness you really don’t prove a point. All you do is ramble for few paragraphs and it really goes nowhere. I can care less how "hard" the band works to get selists or whatever, are they the only ones? U mean Taylor hicks is the only one who works hard??? Haha oh please, you might as well post Kelly Clarkston, Ruben Studerd setlists on here too, and change the name of the site while you’re at it. Now tell me, is this just a personal thing? I mean you got alittle crush on your boy taylor? Haha if that’s the case fine! If not I challenge you and lets take a poll and see how many people want Taylor hicks setlists on here!!! Go ahead and do it!

p.s. let the people see my response since you let them see everything else! — Demetrios Marras, New York, NY

Nah, brah, my only heady mancrush is Garcia circa '67.

Seriously, though, you're almost definitely correct. I'd bet that more JamBands.com readers would probably vote against Taylor Hicks setlists. But isn't your point that this music isn’t about a popularity contest?

Every now and then, we include new bands in Box Scores, bands that don't have followings but are out touring like mofos and doing creative things. This might be a better way to think about Taylor Hicks: as a new act looking to build a following. The fact that he actually does have a following based on his American Idol success is incidental noise.

Besides, if Taylor Hicks is as bad as you claim he is, and his audience as shallow as you seem to suspect they are, then his career won't be a long one. What are you really worried about here? Like the Dave Matthews Band or Matisyahu, this just seems like another sign of the jamband mentality seeping into the mainstream. If that's the apocalypse, or something, I suppose I should stock up on my canned goods.

Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com

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