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Simon Says, “You’re Terrible!”
By Jon Nicol - 01/20/2004 - 04:04 PM EST

I watched the premier of American Idol last night. Third season. Same self-deluded kooks thinking that they’re talented. The early rounds of AI have a narcissistic appeal: in comparison to most of the nuts that audition, we look pretty good, don’t we. But lest we be too hard on these Idol-idiots, let’s keep in mind our own self-delusions and neuroses. Maybe it doesn’t happen in public or on camera, but admit it: we’re artists; it comes with the package.

I’ve always been a “there’s a moral to this tale” kind of guy. I love stories. I think there’s a redeeming lesson in just about any story—even if it’s “this is what you shouldn’t do.” The story of American Idol is a tale full of “morals.” These morals or lessons may not sit well with our artistic (read, “neurotic”) tendencies, but they’re nonetheless important to note.

Lesson One: Have a Simon or Two in Your Life

I wonder about some of these Idol “hopefuls.” Did their moms tell them that they were wonderful singers? I hope they did when they were 7. But once they reach the age 15 or so, someone should’ve started to be honest. So now when people do get honest with them (for instance, Simon) they don’t believe it.

At the risk of sounding harsh, we need a Simon in our lives telling us when we suck. I’m not talking about the brutality of someone saying, “you’ll never amount to anything.” But if something is substandard, we need someone who will point that out without coddling us.

I try to frequent the Vertical Songwriting message board several times a week to see what’s happening. (By the way, I want to thank Rick James for taking time to keep that board going. If you’ve been there, you know that he takes time to respond to every post and gives thoughtful advice and encouragement. Thanks a ton, Rick!) I had to chuckle as I read one of the posts. Several people had replied giving encouragement and constructive criticism to a writer’s posted lyrics. One of these replies was simply a “great song/loved it” sort of response. Out of all those replies, this one offered the least in the way of true help. Yet the lyric writer replied with something like this: “Would you be willing to give me input on more of my songs?”

We all do it. We want people friendly to our “cause” to give input on our work. We want uncritical critics. We want our moms telling us we can do no wrong. But we need to hear, “That’s terrible!” every so often. And not only do we need to hear it, but we need to heed it—at least long enough to discern if there is truth to it.

Lesson Two: Have a Paula in Your Life

We need the brutally honest Simon from time to time. But we also need Paula’s kinder gentler approach. She still delivers the truth, but she usually does it in a way to help the person “get it.” Paula has a way of giving “the shot” with a smaller needle. Have you noticed that when the contestants go off, it’s usually focused on Simon or Randy? This is also a good lesson for us as we critique and evaluate other writers’ works. A little tact isn’t bad.

Lesson Three: Graciousness Goes a Long Way

From what we were shown on this episode of Idol (as well as other seasons), the first round contestants that were turned down fell in one of two categories: the gracious and the arrogant. The gracious ones thanked the judges and left. It doesn’t mean they agreed with the judges’ opinions or were happy with their decisions. But they accepted it with dignity and grace.

Then there were the arrogant: those who spouted off obscenities to the judges; those that told the camera afterwards that Simon didn’t know what he was talking about; those that couldn’t accept that they didn’t get the strokes they thought they deserved.

Unfortunately, out of the rejected contestants, the latter group got the most air-time. Let’s face it, stupidity sells almost as well as sex. But in the real world, that kind of behavior is death. This business isn’t as big you might think (whether it is Christian or secular music), especially when it comes to forgiving and forgetting. Burning a bridge for the sake of your own pride might “feel good” at the time, but you could be cutting off a future chance at success. When rejection comes our way—be it from other songwriters, publishers, etc—we need to find a way to deal with it graciously. In other words, leave the bridge intact for a potential future crossing.

Lesson Four: Sometimes You Have to Camp on the Sidewalk

To even get a chance to be seen, contestants had to be in line for literally days. How true is that in songwriting! Granted, some of the songwriters reading this are content to play their music for their small circle of friends and family. But for the rest of us who want to quit our day jobs, it’s going to take risk, sacrifice, work, work, and, well, work. I just recently read an article written by a songwriter who was nominated for a Grammy for his children’s music. He detailed the work and effort it took for him to achieve this. Frankly, most of us aren’t willing to do what it takes. But if you are, get your pillow and tent and hit the sidewalk.

So tune in next week as Simon antagonizes the better part of North America, Paula gives him dirty looks and Randy calls everyone “Dawg.” You might just learn something.

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