Aerosmith's Steven Tyler: Surprisingly Likable "Idol" Judge
Full disclosure: I'm not really much of an Aerosmith fan -- even if they are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, their brand of hard-driving blues-rock always struck me as an earnest and competent but artistically uninspired version of the Rolling Stones, sort of what the Dave Clark Five were to the Beatles.
So frankly, I was all set to trash the band's lead singer, Steven Tyler, in his new role as one of the judges in season 10 of American Idol. Fortunately, my editor insisted that I actually watch the show before I wrote this blog post, and I'm glad I did. The 63-year-old "Demon of Screamin'" turns out to be a surprisingly congenial, likable judge -- one who works hard to find something good in every would-be contestant's tryout and seems genuinely happy when he succeeds.
Trashing Tyler would have been a safe way to go. After all, he's already been excoriated publicly by numerous others, including his own bandmates, for participating in something so mainstream, so uncool, as Fox's fantastically popular talent show (which Tyler admittedly never actually watched before he took the gig). Perhaps his most vociferous detractor is onetime Tyler acolyte Kid Rock, who told Entertainment Weekly that Idol is the "stupidest thing" that Tyler had ever done in his life -- which is saying a lot, considering that the Aerosmith singer was a longtime drug abuser and has what appears to be a Jones for cosmetic surgeries. To KR, Tyler is "a sacred institution of rock 'n' roll, and he threw it all out the window. He just stomped on it and set it on fire."
There's a certain irony in Kid Rock accusing Tyler of setting his sacred rock superstardom on fire, given that Jimi Hendrix used to squirt lighter fluid over his guitar and put a match to it as his coda. Rock 'n' roll was never supposed to be a sacred institution, but rather the people's music, which is why Aerosmith performs "Sweet Emotion" and "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)" in hockey arenas instead of cathedrals. And American Idol, with its 20 million viewers and legions of would-be contestants, is clearly the people's show. It's easy to sneer at the phoniness of reality television -- by this point, this fake cinema verite conceit has been around so long that everyone knows precisely how and when to emote for the camera -- and at the repetitive blandness of the musical performances. (The American Idol aesthetic, sadly, seems to define good singing by range and how many extra notes someone can squeeze into a phrase, rather than by the ability to express some thought or emotion to listeners.) But viewers don't care about any of that, and I'm not sure they should. The show resonates because it really isn't about music, but about the dreams of greatness that just about everyone clings to, if only for a fleeting moment in our youth before those aspirations are brushed aside by the demands of living an ordinary life.
And Tyler, for all his annoying rock-star affectations -- the preternaturally lush hair, the over-tweezed eyebrows, the multiplicity of scarves and bangles with which he decorates his still-skeletal, Mick Jagger-like physique, the raspy, too-cool speaking voice -- still seems to harbor that sort of Everyman within. He has a wonderful habit of scrunching up his face, closing his eyes and mouthing the words that each contestant is singing. It's as if he's imagining that he is in the contestant's place, not a sacred rock legend with 150 quadrillion albums sold, but just another excited, scared teenager from New Jersey.
For a celebrity who has landed on many talk show couches, Tyler's way of talking is inelegant and colloquial, but it feels genuine when he struggles to explain to a 15-year-old female contestant what's missing from her performance: "You were singin' beautiful, but I wasn't feelin' that... pizazz." And even when someone is abysmally bad, Tyler seems to have difficulty administering the coup de grace with the requisite Cowell-esque cruelty that has become one of the show's trademarks. "You just scared everybody in the room," Tyler tells one horrendous vocalist, with the closest that his altered face can come to a sympathetic wince. "Sorry about that...alright, man."
And you could see something go off inside Tyler when Yoji "Pop" Asano, the Japanese-born singer whom I felt was the evening's most entertaining aspirant, did an edgily campy, explosively flamboyant version of Miley Cyrus' "Party in the USA" as if he were channeling both Pee Wee Herman and the Cramps' Lux Interior. The camera occasionally shifted to Tyler subtly wriggling and writhing in his seat and smiling, which I initially interpreted as him as liking what he saw. I was surprised to learn from this morning's media coverage that Tyler apparently didn't, because Asano got the hook.
But I have to admire Tyler's surprising restraint, which is why I'm looking forward to seeing him again.
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