Steven Tyler escapes from rock idolatry
Fame isn’t all gold, honey and massage oils; it’s also the successful navigation of a steady stream of unlikely and uncomfortable situations.
At this, the first few weeks of the 10th season of “American Idol” have proved, Steven Tyler is an unalloyed genius.
The moment when Tyler, one of this season’s new judges, claimed the show as his own came during the third night of auditions. Chris Medina tried out with a muscular version of The Script’s “Breakeven” after telling the story of how his fiancee, Juliana Ramos, suffered a brain injury that left her in a wheelchair, able to move her left arm and little more.
After he sang, he brought Ramos in to the audition room at the judges’ behest. By any measure it was difficult to watch, testing the viewer’s urge to turn away, to wish for a speedy change of scene.
Randy Jackson and Jennifer Lopez introduced themselves to Ramos, but Tyler took charge.
“Hi, girl,” he said, shaking her hand. “I just heard your fiance sing, and he’s so good.” At this point, as she teetered back and forth, he was gripping her shoulder and staring at her comfortingly: a rock, a confidant, a seducer. “You know, because he sings to you all the time,” he said, leaning in to her, stroking her hair, kissing her warmly — all with tenderness — then whispering in her ear, “That’s why he sings so good, because he sings to you.”
It was a stellar embrace, the sort of practiced sincerity that is one of the wages of extreme celebrity. Except that, over time, it can shake free of its dishonesty, as was the case here. In that moment Tyler was both deeply practiced and deeply humane. It made for a stunning display of kindness unusual not just for “Idol,” but for all of popular culture in matters of dealing with the severely disabled.
Whether Medina was being fair to his fiancee by bringing her on the show may be an open question, and whether “Idol” producers were being fair to both of them may be one as well.
But the moment Tyler embraced Ramos was galvanic. Until that point Tyler — who has long had a bad-boy reputation as the frontman of the commercial juggernaut Aerosmith, which has sold approximately 60 million albums over 40 years — threatened to be an amusing attention hog on the show and, in the minds of some, a buffoonish liability.
But in this moment, and many others, his sheer ease of presence was overwhelming. Simon Cowell’s departure after last season left a vacuum at the judges’ table, but the original “Idol” panel, even with Paula Abdul, who left after the eighth season, never had the genuine star wattage it does now with Tyler and Lopez. Cowell’s cocksureness gave him gravitational pull, but never magic. Tyler happens to know what he’s talking about, but that’s secondary to his charisma.
Tyler, who will turn 63 next month, has done much of the heavy lifting for “Idol” this season, helping keep the show within striking distance of last season’s ratings and ensuring that even though certain things have been lost in transition, the show still has a steady center. That role should fall to Jackson, who has been retained as an obelisk of institutional memory. It’s clear that in between bumbling appraisals he feels the urge to play bad cop a la Cowell. But watching Tyler yelp and Lopez cheerily prevaricate trumps any need for a chaser of harshness. Jackson could go.
A star like Tyler or Lopez has nothing to lose when offering a contestant entree into their rarefied space. They’re not just pushing someone’s career forward a little from behind, they’re welcoming them from the top.
Lopez has been unexpectedly charming as well, though at a lower volume than Tyler. On TV that matters.
Tyler’s face alone is worthy of a weekly show, loose skin slippery over a distant skeleton. He’s a Claymation figure come to life, all elasticity and wrinkle. He dresses like a shaman, a time-traveling dandy or a runaway hippie teen. His grin is wide and white, like the Joker’s, and when he’s laughing, really he’s braying.
But mostly he’s been great because of his words, which veer from insightful to empathetic to cutting. It’s only a month into the season, and already the show has generated signature Tylerisms — bon mots that stick. To a gravel-voiced young country singer, he exclaimed, “Hellfire, save matches,” do something untoward to a duck and “see what hatches.” To a contestant whose last name was Muck, “You know what rhymes with Muck, don’t you?” To others: “That was delicious. That was the dessert to the lunch.” “I found you to be disturbingly great. Weird, compelling great.” “I think you got the what-it-is.”
So far he’s been given toward the more eccentric singers. After one scruffy young man gave a Taylor Hicks-ish audition, Tyler insisted he play some melodica. After Ashley Sullivan’s manic show tune performance, followed by a crying fit, Tyler barked, “I’m going to personally work that into something good! Personally!”
It’s all part of Tyler’s air of indestructibility, of untethered masculinity, dulled just enough by age to seem harmless. But it threatens to be reprehensible: Nowhere else on television is a 62-year-old man able to make eyes, and loose comments, at young women roughly one-quarter his age. It’s sanctioned catcalling, with moist remarks aplenty: “You had me sold from the second you laid eyes on me.” “Where is your pitchfork, you little devil?”
He hasn’t yet earned a slap from Lopez for stray lasciviousness, though the season is still young. “You will have your turn in the barrel,” he told her at one point, a flirty threat. When she was hugging one contestant, he turned to Jackson and said, “You looking down, boy?” — at Lopez’s endless legs, that is. He doesn’t even fear Lopez’s husband, the smoldering salsero Marc Anthony, teasing him, “You don’t kiss me like that,” after he had planted one on his wife’s lips.
Though he treats his alphaness as a punch line, he’s serious about it. “Steve, you want to go first?” Lopez asked him after one audition. “Steven,” Tyler replied, not joking.
He’s allergic only to precocity. Lauren Alaina, one of the best contestants of the season, nudged Tyler into a duet of “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” but he seemed a bit put off by her temerity.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that this frenetic energy extends off camera as well. “I’ve got to get up every 20 minutes,” to go to the bathroom, he recently told TV Guide. “It’s gotten me in trouble, the fact that I can’t sit still. Remember, I just came off tour with Aerosmith, so it’s like I live on the tail of a comet. It’s hard, being addicted to adrenaline. There’s no rehab to go to for that.”
It’s worth remembering that the last year of Tyler’s life hasn’t been without tumult. After leaving rehab for his dependence on pain medication, he chose to join “Idol,” a decision that was met with sneering consternation by his Aerosmith bandmate Joe Perry. “It’s one step above Ninja Turtles,” Perry said. “It’s his business, but I don’t want Aerosmith’s name involved with it.”
Tyler may be interested in shaking loose of Aerosmith a little, too. In 2011 “Idol”-level fame trumps even that of Aerosmith, which was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, the year before the debut of “Idol.” Tyler, who is scheduled to release a memoir — “Does the Noise In My Head Bother You?” — this year, may well be interested in reframing his legacy. It’s possible he decided that the key to staying on the straight and narrow was to place himself on America’s biggest stage, accountable to millions.
But generally the move from creator to teacher is one of reflection. By sitting in the judge’s chair, marketing his eccentricities and shouldering the burden of keeping television’s most precious franchise afloat, he’s ensuring people understand that it takes a true star to make a new one.