THREE VARIATIONS ON ANN POWERS: The LA Times pop music critic penned a provocative piece on Chikezie's ouster, American Idol and race, in which she bemoans the fact that "Aside from Ruben Studdard, the Velvet Exception who proves the rule, black male singers have a tough time on 'Idol,' hanging out on its bottom tiers," and is troubled by what she describes as "white America's seeming reluctance to universally embrace a strong black male voice, unless it belongs to a rapper selling blaxploitation fantasies to teens."
To which three of us have responses, as part of our ongoing ALOTT5MA Symposium About The Sensitive Subject of Race:
Me: Look, this wasn't Nikki over Tamyra bad, or certainly John Stevens and Jasmine Trias over Jennifer Hudson (and with Fantasia and LaToya joining her in the bottom three) level of bad, but there's no question that Chikezie is more talented than, and performed better on the show than some of the people who are continuing in the competition. And I think it's also undeniable, as Powers writes, that there's a certain profile of singer -- Brandon Rogers, Anwar Robinson, Gedeon McKinney and Rickey Smith (and I'd add Nikko Smith) -- that does not progress in the competition as far as his talent would suggest he should.
The question is why, and I do think race is a factor. If nothing else, I think African-American performers have been more vulnerable to the random "one bad week" ouster than others, and this especially seems to happen earlier in the competition. Do I think voters are racist? I'm not as prepared to say that this season as I have in the past, but I do wonder if stereotypical assumptions about race mean that singers like Chikezie are seen as more "naturally" talented and not as compelling to root for as folks like Jason Castro and Brooke White, who make the effort show more clearly. Or a Taylor Hicks, who carefully and deliberately calibrated his stagecraft and shtick every week to convince people of how hard he was working.
Chikezie wasn't going to win this competition, but he still went earlier than he should have. Part of the impetus behind my whole "tiers" theory is to ameliorate the pain from an ouster like this, but it was still premature. Thank goodness it's only Idol, and not something that matters.
Kim: My dad always likes to say that when you hear hoofbeats, look for horses, not zebras. And yet here’s Ann Powers, spotting one zebra after another. The last black male singer on AI gets booted the week he sings a godawfully boring Luther Vandross song, right after a year in which there was not a single “traditional soul man” represented in the top 20 best-selling albums of the year (never you mind that the #2 album of 2007 came from Akon, a real live black man, because he’s not a traditional soul singer). That can’t be coincidence, right? Right?
Of course it’s not a coincidence. Powers doesn’t think so either, except that instead of concluding that hey, maybe traditional R&B isn’t popular these days, kind of like heavy metal power ballads are going through a bit of a low period at the moment, she makes a Bob Beamonesque leap and concludes that Americans don’t like strong black male voices right now because so many black men are in jail and/or unemployed. (Or maybe I missed the point: is it that all the strong black men who would otherwise be recording great R&B songs are currently incarcerated or standing in unemployment lines?)
Horses, Ann. Look for the horses.
Matt: My total viewing of American Idol is pretty minimal, though I do often wind up listening to the 30 second snippets of performances on iTunes. Having watched the snippets of the performances on iTunes from this week, Chikezie was certainly among the weakest along with Ramiele (and didn't do himself any favors with his song choice). Brooke probably would have been the third member of the bottom three for me because she just completely failed to emotionally connect with the song. It's hard for me to credit "racism" for this particular elimination based on that. Also undermining the argument is that an R&B singer actually has won this competition before over a white guy who played the "non-threatening boy" card as hard as possible.
It strikes me that we need to be careful not to adopt either end of the argument here unquestionably. Are there people who are voting with race as a factor--either consciously or unconsciously? Absolutely. Is "racism" the primary reason why a large number of African-American contestants have been kicked out early? I don't think so. Someone else involved in a major national voting competition that a number of us are following seemed to me to get it pretty well right a couple of weeks ago -- the debate here "reflect[s] the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through -- a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together." Let's not reflexively blame racism, and let's not deny that it may play some role here -- let's talk about it with an open mind.