The Monkees, it must be said, were a mess from the start. Thrown together in 1965 for the purpose of mass entertainment rather than by musical logic, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith, and the late Davy Jones (1945-2012) became overnight superstars for their zany television antics and musical pretensions. Rock critics had a field day with them, dubbing them the "Prefab Four" among many less flattering terms, and controversy seemed to dog them at every turn.
The band had to deal with some serious internal tensions as well, both on and off the set. For example, Tork, the most accomplished and gifted musician of the foursome by far, freely admits today that he was angered at being relegated to bass guitar and backup vocals while the more mediagenic Nesmith was given lead guitar duty. And, all aspired professionally and artistically to be more than just hired guns on a television soundstage.
(Yes, this all has something to do with American Idol, circa 2012. Bear with us.)
Through it all, the four Monkees remained close-knit. They shared a common enemy: their legions of detractors in the rock music industry. They poured everything they had into their TV show and were rewarded a year later with a stunning Emmy for Best Comedy Series – the only interruption in the legendary Get Smart's dominance of that category in the late 60's. Even more shocking, the ersatz band soon, Pinocchio-like, became fully real. They wrested control of their music from their TV production company and began writing and playing their own material, while continuing to unearth outstanding works by up-and-coming young songwriters like Neil Diamond, Carole King and John Stewart.
When their extended, whirlwind trainwreck ended just four years later, the much-maligned quartet had left behind a small collection of vapid, throwaway bubblegum songs that would be immediately forgotten by serious music lovers. Or not. In fact, and completely outside all bounds of rhyme and reason, the Monkees' catalog is today almost universally well regarded. Their finest singles are in their third generation of widespread popularity, and a great many of their tunes have been covered faithfully by some of rock's most influential acts. They were far from the most innovative band of their era, nor were they among the most talented or most important. They did, however, succeed at the one mission that mattered most to them: producing good, catchy, durable pop music. In the very public boxing brawl between Mike, Davy, Mickey and Peter and their contemporary critics, the test of time has awarded a unanimous TKO to the Prefab Four.
Which brings us to the real subjects of this weekend's editorial: the decidedly Unfab Three. That'd be Randy, J-Lo and Steven, of course.
We are not sure what to do about the judges this year. They too have been a nationally televised mess from the start. Even after two years together, their chemistry on camera remains so-so at best. Their jokes and banter consistently fall flat. Worst of all, their obsequiously fawning critiques of the contestants have become a national laughingstock, and we do not use that term lightly. Were it not for Ryan Seacrest, who has been doing Herculean duty the past couple of seasons, American Idol would, in between performances, be virtually unwatchable...and what are the odds that anyone would have written that sentence with a straight face five years ago?
The judges are clearly unfazed by the criticism. Randy Jackson breezily acknowledged on camera this week that they were "too easy on the guys" Tuesday night. Jennifer Lopez has on several occasions noted that "they", presumably meaning the producers, want the judges to be tougher and more critical; usually she does this just before launching into her latest gush-fest over a performance. For his part, Steven Tyler just keeps on keepin' on, changing nothing about his profane but ultra-positive style and basically daring anyone to do something about it.
This modern-day, much-maligned TV band has made it clear that they have one and only one mission that matters: to assemble a musically strong, likeable, high-quality collection of unsigned talent by the end of February, and then to let them sing to America until only one is left standing in May. Unlike some of the previous occupants of their seats, they don't consider themselves to be the stars of the show. In fact, once the Top 24 is assembled, they'd seemingly just as soon sit in the audience with everyone else, and we get the distinct feeling that if the producers offered to relieve them of their Wild Card and Judges' Save duties, they'd accept in a heartbeat.
Meanwhile, the show has revived and thrived under their stewardship. Yeah, "thrived," the Nielsen numbers be damned: if Idol isn't watched by as many people these days, we suspect it's partly because of natural fatigue and partly because the folks who loved to hate the show have moved on to something different. March used to brought out the haters out in force to mock the Idol machine for passing over quality singing talent in favor of pretty faces and/or outlandish personalities. In 2012, the overwhelming consensus of the Idolsphere is, for the second straight year, that this is a most acceptable Final 13. Sure, we'd all make a couple of changes if it were left up to us. (Here at WNTS HQ, for instance, we'd have awarded Aaron Marcellus a chair outright and given Hallie Day, Creighton Fraker, and perhaps even Chase Likens a crack at singing for a Wild Card, but what do we know?) Still, like most AI fans, we look at the contestants who survived the latest round of too-short semifinals and think to ourselves, "Hmm, this crew ought to be pretty good." Then we think of the hapless, seemingly hopeless trio most responsible for this state of affairs, and we shake our heads in disbelief.
They are exasperating. They're downright embarrassing at times. And from out of this trainwreck, they've produced a stunningly strong catalog of work two years running.
Thus it appears that AI11 will be much like AI10, where we all get to enjoy (as we wisecracked last year) the thrill of watching the contestants perform followed by the agony of listening to the judges critique them. It's not ideal. But, the thought of going back to the gross injustices of Season Eight or the end-to-end horror show of Season Nine allows us to keep this in perspective. The Fourth Epoch of American Idol has taken clear form now: good, diverse singers, unburdened by the need to outwit the judges' egos or the producers' manipulations, trying to carve out the largest niche of fans while left mainly to their own devices.
Despite this, we think the producers ought to be thinking ahead to, say, 2014. As The Idol Guy has noted, all AI epochs to date have lasted precisely three seasons. By this time next year, we'd opine that the judges' general uselessness on performance nights will finally overwhelm the good work they do in the preseason. Perhaps an American Idol judgeship should come with a three-year term of office, Randy Jackson excepted. Once that's expired, bid them hale and farewell with a hearty thanks and a gold watch (fun fact: that's exactly what the other three Monkees did for Tork when he became the first to leave the band; the watch was engraved, "Thanks Peter, from the guys down at work.") Then, bring in a new pair of celebrity musicians to join Randy on the panel and put their own stamp on the show.
We should note in closing that we're being a bit unfair. The Monkees were far more engaging and entertaining than Randy, Steven and Jennifer as they went about their week-to-week business in Tinseltown. Both, however, wound up producing a consistenly quality product even if it often seemed like for all the wrong reasons. Still, given what came before them, we'll take it. Gladly.
RIP Davy. And good luck to the Season Eleven Final 13.
- The WNTS.com Team