Backstory: Pop! goes the curriculum
'American Idol,' for better or worse, is filling music classes with eager singers.
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Teachers incorporate aspects of the show by having students offer friendlier critiques than those seen on TV and by blending pop with more traditional fare. Even so, there's plenty of downside to this type of educational idolatry: The show's focus is vocals and pop and rock styles. Other genres - from blues to classical - simply aren't touched.Skip to next paragraph
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"I suppose it's OK that this show teaches people there was once a popular singer named Barry Manilow," says Robert Thompson, director of The Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "They could do a lot more with it."
Possibly more troubling than the dearth of varieties and styles used in the show are the early rounds of auditions where delusional applicants display a bent for self-immolation by disastrous torch singing even as the judges moan in horror and wave off performers long before the chorus can be reached.
"When I asked my students about the show, they were very adamant," offers Sandra Pixley who teaches at a New Mexico native American reservation. "They don't like seeing [contestants] being made fun of.... If it is truly a legitimate competition, they wouldn't have some of those people on there. It's just a comedy factor and that's not how you learn."
But other teachers see no harm in featuring both sublime and awful vocals alike.
"I actually think it has affected music in a positive way. It shows kids that ordinary people can do amazing things," suggests Nancy Stover, a band and chorus teacher at Madison Middle School in Marshall, N.C.
"Idol" producers and judges offered no comment to Monitor queries about the show as teaching tool. To be fair, "Idol" never billed itself as educational, nor did it promise to spur the nation's musical I.Q.
"As it is now, I don't think 'American Idol' has been an inspiration for music education beyond singing in the shower," observes Morris Reid, a Washington D.C.-based branding and youth/pop culture expert. "If they [Fox and Idol producers] were smart, they would figure out a way to associate themselves with a great music-based charity."
Money, of course, is as important in the music education debate as inspiration is. As many parents, teachers, and students already know, arts and music programs are among the first cuts made by cash-strapped school districts. These cuts continue despite public entreaties and cascades of studies noting the benefits of students who participate in music programs: better discipline, better performances in math and science, and so on.
So even if "American Idol" spurs a bit of interest as well as a spark in junior-high talent shows, it won't soon be putting any money into education - or ushering in new curriculums.
"What Simon says is, 'We're looking for someone we can sell,'" says Larry Gross, director of The Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. "No responsible music teacher would encourage their students to do that, to just major in melisma."
Not so fast, my feckless Fantasia-fantasizing friends. If melisma means motivation, even Justin Guarini - an early Idol flash-in-the-pan finalist - becomes fair game for a study session or two.
Perhaps public education has found an elixir. Who among us can resist the inevitable future classroom debates over who was the better orator, Martin Luther King Jr. or Ryan Seacrest?