Unbelievably, my subject is American Idol.
But really, my subject is what makes a song turn into a classic, and what makes a classic turn into classical.
Tonight’s American Idol theme was disco. It’s now a commonplace in the sociology of music that the pop music happening when one is a teenager assumes the profile of classical music, later and ever after in one’s life. Let’s congratulate those who were teenagers when pop music meant George Gershwin, or Elvis, or the Beatles, or ... Patti Page.
I can’t help but say that my teenage music was disco. And there it is. What a falling-off.
As a teenager, I was listening with fullest attention to Herbert von Karajan’s St. Matthew Passion, and Solti’s epic Mahler cycle, and I will never forget the debut of Donald Martino’s Pulitzer Prize winning Notturno. But if, and more importantly when, I went to clubs, I was hearing disco.
So when, by complete accident, I was watching tonight’s American Idol, I was pretty interested in the disco renditions.
Two were truly great. Matt Giraud singing “Staying Alive” revivified this wonderful moment for anyone who experienced it firsthand.
But Adam Lambert singing “If I can’t have you” made this song into the peer of any truly great art song.
Because it spoke directly to us in our time, without a hint of genre or self-reference.
Because it was true to its antecedent – in classical terms, to its text – and yet had its own intense freshness and immediate importance. What more could any great classical artist wish for?
Most of all, because his performance made me want to hear the song again and again, each time different from the last – and this is the great defining thing about classical art – that we wish to hear it interpreted for us, in our time, re-invented and yet connected to its origin.
I was watching TV, and I felt as if I were in the Sistine Chapel.