What's an interesting artist from San Francisco doing....
In Marisa’s American Idol Audition Training Blog (a website named this way to garner high search engine rankings), San Francisco-based artist Marisa Olson documented the three months of rigorous training that preceded her audition for the hit TV show “American Idol.” Including interactive polls and detailed descriptions of every step of her training—from practicing “soulful singing” to learning how to walk in stilettos—her website developed a cult following. Olson’s project was recently featured in the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibition Rhizome Artbase 101 and she was written about in the New York Times. Predictably, most people ask Olson, “Were you for real or was the project tongue in cheek?” Her response: “yes.”
Music, above all other cultural forms, has played the most crucial role in forming my identity and organizing my memories. Growing up an American citizen in Europe, I obsessively followed US Top 40 countdowns. When I later moved to the US, my mother took me to a Baptist church at least three times per week. My membership in the youth choir, my ultimate succession to the teen choir, and my mother’s participation in the church choir had a profound impact on my social skills, my understanding of gendered power relations (my mom was the only female tenor!), my interest in modes of storytelling, and my strange faith in the potential for everyday people to become stars.
Now, whether I’m blogging my efforts to audition for “American Idol,” restaging pivotal scenes in Hollywood musicals, or remaking The Jackson 5 Christmas Album, I want to ask in my work how the systems inherent in the music world (its modes of production, distribution, and reception; the issue of authorship; historiographic notions of appropriation and genre; celebrity) reflect those in the “real world” and in the art world.
Some of the people closest to me really thought I was crazy when they heard I was training to audition for “American Idol” last fall. After reading the “documentation” on my website of my efforts to make myself over in preparation to stand out at local auditions, the administrator of my academic department emailed to say that I had “a lot of PR to do” among the professors. A few months later, my cousin came to an opening of mine and reported, “Grandma’s really worried about you after reading that New York Times article.” In this piece, the reporter recounts my pursuance of a “California Girl look,” which culminated with me emerging from a tanning salon with a full-body rash.
A person such as me would have a difficult time succeeding on the show. I’m overweight, older than most contestants, prefer to sing non-pop music, and don’t neatly fit the gender-normative look for women on TV. These factors sculpted my critique of the show; they also formed the basis for my parodic audition training.
The goals of the project were manifold. I hoped to critique certain elements of ”American Idol,” namely the stereotypes it perpetuates, the concealment of artist’s labor by the producers, and questions about democracy in relation to the show.
It concerned me that the artists who sing on “American Idol” are routinely dismissed by the judges for failing to meet a range of superficial standards. Candidates are often called out as overweight, unattractive, or having unfashionable hairstyles or wardrobes. The judges also frequently make homophobic and gender-normativizing remarks and they tend to pen contestants into racialized musical genres; for instance, encouraging African American contestants to stay within the domain of Motown or “soul,” in their song selections. In Marisa’s American Idol Audition Training Blog I also aimed to unveil the amount of labor engaged in by artists through the blogging of my “training exercises.” The producers of American Idol make all would-be contestants sign contracts that limit their rights, and those who ultimately score recording contracts are given far fewer rights than most artists. They are, in a certain sense, indentured.
I attempted to achieve all of this through an act of parody; yet the concept of parody became problematized in this work because my “training” involved a commitment to participate in the process I sought to critique. In the end, I enjoyed and even cultivated this blurriness, as it made for a more self-reflexive comment on the surrealism inherent in the art and entertainment spheres, with which the “blogosphere” was beginning to intersect.
I also hoped to get my readers thinking about their own voices, in a political sense. The 2004 presidential elections were looming as I prepared for my audition, and I couldn’t help but think about how the key demographic of “American Idol” is the same one that traditionally ignores the polls during political elections. American youths vote to elect the show’s winners, but not the leader of their country. As my training progressed, I began to receive thousands of website hits and hundreds of emails from teenagers and young adults who had no interest in my postmodern paradox of simultaneous parody and participation. They simply wanted to discuss our mutual dreams of stardom. It was exciting to me that I could have such a large audience outside the art world and I began addressing them directly. To get them in a voting mood, I had them vote on what I should sing at the auditions and on every item of clothing I should wear. In the end, I received over 20,000 votes and I still receive several dozen emails per month about the project, a year later.
This, to me, has been the most rewarding aspect of the project—the opportunity to say and do something that resonated with people: art world people, next-door neighbors, even young girls who wrote to ask whether I thought they were too fat to audition or if their parents would pay more attention to them if they got on the show. These unexpected pleasures softened the blow of my ultimate rejection from the show, wherein Executive Producer Nigel Lythgoe (a.k.a. “Nasty Nigel”) told me that I had “as much chance of becoming the next American Idol as [he did] of becoming the next Picasso.”
It’s always hard to know what to say when someone asks me “what kind” of artist I am. It’s tempting to say, “I do crazy stuff involving pop music.” How would you categorize someone who makes operettas out of Simon & Garfunkel songs or remakes The Jackson 5 Christmas Album because it was their first beloved cassette? In truth, I mostly consider myself an autobiographer. Most of the work I’m creating is about me. It may not be my life story, but it still belies my insecurities, my talents or lack thereof, and the influence that music and technologies have had upon my life. My materials, and the way in which I use them, are as imperfect as I am, and I work this way not to be cute or hip in a self-effacing way, but because it’s honestly the only way I have to express myself.
Marisa Olson's work has been commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art and she has recently performed or exhibited at the New Museum for Contemporary Art, the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, Side Cinema-Newcastle, New Langton Arts, Southern Exposure, Debs & Co., Galapagos, 667 Shotwell, Pond Gallery, the international Futuresonic festival of electronic music and media arts, Electrofringe, Cinemascope-London, Machinista, Scope, VIPER Festivals, and elsewhere. She has held residencies and fellowships at Goldsmiths, Northwestern University, the Technical University-Dresden, and the Banff Centre for the Arts. She participated in an exhibition that Artforum highlighted in their “Best of 2004” issue, and while Wired has called her both funny and humorous, the New York Times has called her work "anything but stupid."
For more information on Marisa Olson, visit:
Marisa Olson's Blog