Center stage, Idol and Norah Jones


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As the presidential campaign revs up for its fall stretch, our would-be leaders lean ever harder on partisan politics to divide voters into those familiar columns: the right and the left. Neither side, apparently, has turned on a radio or perused the music press recently. If they had, they'd know that the American populace — or at least the record-buying, concert-going populace — has made a deliberate lunge for the musical center — what critics call the middle of the road.
It's certainly no coincidence that "American Idol," one of the biggest and most enduring of current musical phenomena, has thrived on these shores after the events of 9/11. On the surface, "Idol" adheres to the standard format of the misnamed "reality TV" genre in that viewers vote to narrow down a field of contestants. But at its core, the show fundamentally subverts the ultra-competitive (and distinctly American) model of "Survivor," "The Apprentice" and other Darwinian spectacles.

In contrast to those shows, every aspect of "Idol" is informed by a not-so-subtle yearning for an idyllic, white-picket-fence America, from its public-domain songbook and syrupy theme nights (Neil Sedaka, anyone?) to its nonthreatening personalities (Ryan Seacrest, Paula Abdul, even mean old Simon Cowell) and especially its perky, fresh-faced contestants. "Idol" gives the cutthroat music industry an extreme makeover, creating a homogenized, complexity- and terror-free playground where wholesome youngsters like Disney-esque runners-up Clay Aiken and Diana DeGarmo warble comforting chestnuts a la Lawrence Welk. And its easy-to-understand "democratic" process (basically, high-tech ballot-stuffing) certainly appeals to voters wary of Diebold touch-screens and questionable election outcomes.

Of course, "Idol" plays mainly to older voters, children and families, but they're not the only demographics registering their preference for simpler, safer music in insecure times. Witness Norah Jones, whose unassuming Blue Note debut, Come Away With Me, swept Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers, young professionals and other precincts in a landslide, selling more than 18 million copies since its 2002 release.

Jones' delicate, country-tinged jazz-pop — bolstered, like "Idol," by the occasional comforting standard (a little Hoagy Carmichael here, a little Hank Williams there) — creates an insular and innately familiar reality, her breathy delivery engendering a warm, motherly calm. Even on her confident, 2004 follow-up, Feels Like Home (note the title), Jones spins a soothing, feel-good web that offers a temporary escape from the world of Enron, Iraq and herky-jerky terror alert levels.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this, of course; among its other attributes, music is supposed to help us forget our troubles, if that's what we want — and it seems that's exactly what the electorate wants. Which is bad news for aggro-rock caravans like Projekt Revolution, headlined by Korn and Linkin Park, two acts looking to whip up support among their pierced-and-tattooed base.

That modern-rock demographic remains fiercely loyal, although the partisan Us vs. Them rhetoric is a harder sell in the heartland beyond the skate park contingent. Which perhaps explains Snoop Dogg's addition to Revolution's largely pasty-white ticket. The hope is that he can swing new constituents, although given that rap and nu-metal both poll highest among the same base (suburban white kids), that hope is futile at best.

As conformist and artistically tired as its nu-metal core is, give Projekt Revolution credit for this much: It at least pays lip service to notions of musical diversity (with acts like ska-punkers Less Than Jake and rapper Ghostface) and a reluctance to accept spoon-fed social dogma — concepts sorely lacking in the theme-park homogeneity of "American Idol" and even the comfort-food soul of Norah Jones. After all, these times require vigilance and a willingness to question authority much more than they do a retreat into nostalgia.