Tuned In

American Alterna-Idol

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American Idol airs tonight, but it’s a little known fact that, contrary to popular belief, you are not required by Federal law to watch it.

Supposing you don’t actually find David Archuleta cuter than Hello Kitty in a field of unicorns. Supposing you’re tired of listening to the hypertrophied lungs of professional amateurs try to Whitney-ize every pop song you’ve heard in your life. Supposing you can’t get all that excited about the one contestant who plays an electric guitar or once wrote a song or performs million-selling rock music instead of million-selling pop music and is therefore “the authentic one.” Supposing you just don’t buy it?

Here’s what you can do. Create your own American Idol. Go to YouTube, type in the names of some of your favorite, somewhat obscure songs, plus the word “cover.” And see what comes up.

What did I find? The results after the break.

I’ve found, for starters, that people will surprise you. Type in “People’s Parties” (Joni Mitchell, from Court and Spark) and you’d expect to get lots of long-haired, folkie, Brooke White-type chicks, right? Wrong. (See here, however, for 16-year-old Brooke doing Carole King. You can also turn up some of her earlier performances of self-written songs.) Dudes like to cover Joni Mitchell! Young dudes! Bluegrass dudes! And some dude called Helium Harry, who sings it entirely in falsetto:

I also found that it’s not easy to Stump the Band with YouTube. There is a remarkable amount of covers of The Mountain Goats out there, including several versions of the lovely ballad “Woke Up New” (was it on a soundtrack or something?). Surely, though, you’d think that “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod” would be a stumper. You would be wrong:

First: a very pretty version of one of my favorite Mountain Goats songs, and a counterpoint to John Darnielle’s edgy vocal. That’s not why this video and others like it fascinate me, though. Thanks to YouTube, we now have a vast archive of what, just a few years ago, would have been private performances, or sung into a cassette and stashed away in a drawer somewhere. You’d sit somewhere with your guitar and rise above your station, but only in your mind. Now you can simultaneously withdraw and project; close the bedroom door and, theoretically anyway, throw it open to the world.

Videos like this one (obviously I’m not talking about semi-pro YouTube sensations like Tay Zonday or Esmee Denters) seem to fall into a new area somewhere between the private and the public. I mean, obviously the video was posted intentionally where anyone using the search function could find it (even if only a few hundred at this count actually have). It’s not like breaking into someone’s diary exactly. And yet either Annarulz227 is a good actor, or this is very much a private moment. You couldn’t art-direct the scene much better: the unmade bed, the posters, the desk and reading lamp sitting fuzzy in the background. But it’s a completely unperformative performance: she only glances at the camera, but she doesn’t seem shy, just focused, lost in the song, delivering it with no flourishes and matter of factly shutting off the camera.

The Juno-ness of it all, you know? (Speaking of which, yes, there are also covers of that song. Merry Christmas!)

Voyeurism isn’t quite the word for the feeling these cover videos evoke. You don’t get the feeling of spying on the performers exactly, but of being briefly invited into their worlds. And it’s the small background details of those worlds that are as haunting as the music. A rubber tree plant. A half-open closet door. A guitar capo apparently made out of chopsticks.

It’s just the little pieces of normal life–that thing you don’t see on American Idol.