Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been using American Idol as a convenient jumping-off point to talk about how music is essentially just a cultish little enclave in mass culture rather than a huge part of it. Music, except when it’s packaged into something else as with American Idol or maybe Walk the Line, doesn’t seem able to produce cultural-currency Big Moments the way TV and sports and politics can; Kanye West will always be more famous for “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” and now the Jesused-up Rolling Stone cover than any of the music he’s made. But a better example of music’s relative insignificance happened opposite American Idol last night when NBC put the singers with the two best-selling albums in the country onstage singing a duet and still looked like they were filling garbage-time minutes because they couldn’t think of anything better to do with that time-slot.
Jamie Foxx and Mary J. Blige are both on ridiculous career-peak rolls. They’ve been trading Billboard’s #1 spot back and forth for five weeks now. One is a bona fide movie star with a Best Actor Oscar and everything, and the other might become one if the Nina Simone biopic works out the way everyone hopes. They’re big deals by themselves and an even bigger deal together, but they still looked small-time and out of their depths last night. It’s impossible to blame Blige for this; she did exactly what she was supposed to do, coming in as a special guest and absolutely singing Foxx off the stage. This wasn’t her TV special; it’s still virtually impossible to imagine a major TV network giving a non-Oprah black woman an hour of prime-time. Part of the fault belongs to Foxx, whose journeyman crushed-velvet sex-you-up R&B makes for perfectly acceptable listening but horribly non-compelling TV. The music parts were generally OK; Foxx plays to his strengths as a singer, highlighting his capably understated coo and staying away from vocal-run histrionics, though he didn’t have the stage-filling charisma of some of his guests (Blige, Game, Angie Stone), and he apparently can’t resist camping up his performances with unnecessary touches like the dancer who had to act all pregnant and lovestruck, swooning all over the stage with an enormous fake belly while Foxx sang about how she still had it. But the real awkward parts came between the songs: Foxx against a black background, somehow keeping a straight face while he earnestly spouted ridiculous loverman cliches: “Ever since I can remember, I always loved older women, fast women, all types of women.” Even worse were the weirdly stilted stage vignettes where the actress playing Foxx’s mother sat on the front porch of a log cabin or something dispensing life advice to the kid playing Young Adorable Foxx. Foxx was on TV long enough to know that this stuff wasn’t going to cut it. He was a comedian once upon a time, right? Why didn’t he just tell some damn jokes?
But more of the fault belongs with NBC, who pretty much sent Foxx out there to die. One of the Big Three networks should realize that a decent producer will always be able to keep a prime-time TV special from looking like a middle-school play, but NBC apparently didn’t bother to provide one. Race could be a factor, of course; Allhiphop Rumors reported earlier that the network was salty at Foxx for refusing to bring in any white guests, and I certainly didn’t see any publicity spots for the special. But the general half-assedness of the entire project seems to come more from music than from race. I could be saying this just because I’m a music guy and because I make my living writing about it, but music on TV doesn’t have to look pathetic. History is full of examples of musicians giving transcendent TV moments (Beatles on Ed Sullivan, Elvis comeback special, etc. etc.), and American Idol has proved that vast numbers of people are willing to watch singers sing songs. It would be nice to see a network treat established artists with the same respect they use for total unknowns. Last night was embarrassing. It didn’t have to be.