Thursday, May 06, 2004

"American Idol" Reconsidered

The cultural phenomenon that is the American Idol franchise is going through the "terrible threes." Maybe it's just a belated sophomore slump. Or worse.

You know about the "terrible twos": toddlers transitioning into preschoolers test their parents' patience, authority and boundaries. At that stage in my son's life, I got real tired really quick of both of us saying "no" all the time. So I developed a strategy that worked so well, I continued to use it through his teenage years. When he insisted on having his way and we seemed headed toward certain gridlock, I would give him two choices that were acceptable to me. It made him feel empowered because he had some of the control he was seeking and gave him his first appreciation for democracy. But I never forgot that parenthood is really a benevolent dictatorship, as it should be.

This year more than ever, American Idol seems like a dictatorship that pretends to be a democracy but with the benevolent facade slipping. When the audience did not automatically swallow the choices the show tried to cram down our throats, suddenly we were treated like we are two years old and not very bright.

American Idol always had an identity crisis lurking under the surface. Is it a reality show that enjoys record-breaking ratings for Fox because it allows the audience to play musical chairs on a larger-than-life scale? Or is it an incredibly lucrative talent search and marketing tool for Clive Davis, who gets ready-made stars served to him on a platinum platter with huge sales practically guaranteed before they record their first solo notes?

The show's three permanent judges are music industry veterans ever mindful of their roles grooming marketable talent. Throughout the first season and well into the second, Simon Cowell was the un-credited star of American Idol. The audience watched for his biting commentary as much as the talent search. As Homer Simpson said in another context, “He’s saying what we’re all thinking.” You could almost imagine, as I still often do, Simon deliberately predicting a contestant’s demise one night and smirking with satisfaction as his prophecy comes true the next in a creepy twist on Simon Says.

Clay Aiken and his weekly transformation stole the show away from Simon and created a new standard for American Idol. He seized the opportunity to shine and triumphed, inviting viewers to be a part of his dream. He created his own definition of a pop culture icon, a square peg in a linear industry who remained true to himself and refused to compromise his values. Perhaps that explains why such a sizable share of the audience can relate better to underdogs like Jon Peter Lewis and John Stevens and want to help them succeed.

Season Two was magical from its freshly amusing audition episodes through the suspenseful and controversial finale. The respectful rivalry between Clay and Ruben Studdard, set against the backdrop of their genuine friendship, was a classy gift to a troubled world, harkening back to the 1998 home run derby staged by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. The voting results were so evenly divided between Ruben and Clay that the loser could have appealed to the Supreme Court of public opinion and fractured the franchise irreparably.

Thus far American Idol has been fortunate with its winners but exceptionally so with its most celebrated loser. Clay turned a potential PR disaster into a double victory with his amazing poise, generosity and humility. When Simon was quoted months later as saying Clay was the best thing ever to happen to the Idol brand, I suspect he was alluding to more than just Clay’s powerful voice and enthusiastic fan base. Clay may have saved the franchise for a third season by preserving our illusions of fairness and fairy tales.

We were so dazzled by the Season Two talent that we missed or ignored the show's emerging pattern of double standards and hypocrisy. Ruben was singled out early and repeatedly for special marketing treatment despite the vocal strain that made many of his performances seem flat. Meanwhile, Kimberly Locke and, more famously, Clay Aiken displayed impressive growth week after week that was visible and audible to viewers but only grudgingly acknowledged by the judges. How many times did we see Ruben's brother Kevin on stage? I have no recollection of seeing anyone from Kimberly’s family ever. While even slightly husky female contestants aglow with good health were admonished by Simon Cowell to lose weight, the big man with the alarming flop sweats and shortness of breath received nary a public comment.

This season the audience decided that the judges don’t always know best, even if Randy and Paula remade themselves as bobblehead Simons. Viewers considered the judges' harsh appraisals of Jon and John and then voted as they pleased. In the highlights clip played after John Stevens was eliminated, there was Simon saying John was good enough and talented enough and, gosh darn it, Simon liked him enough in the early rounds. Now it seems that Simon was only exploiting John's vocal diversity and Eagle Scout charm to make the show more interesting until his popularity detracted from the focus on the Three Divas, which proved to be a short-lived contrivance. As Josh Gracin may have learned, just because there are episodes dedicated to country and big band doesn't mean the American Idol winner will ever actually sing that kind of music after the competition.

Simon, Randy and host Ryan Seacrest have become careless and even cruel with the contestants they don’t favor and with an audience that doesn’t vote the party line. Their heartless manipulation of sweetie pie George Huff two weeks in a row is the perfect metaphor for what is wrong with Season Three. All the drama seems forced, manufactured and mean, like a humorless march to a preordained conclusion. At the end of each results show, the camera would follow John Stevens like the spotlight in a prison yard, branding him a villain and underscoring the desperation in Ryan’s voice. “America, vote for talent. I think you know who we mean. Don’t make me come to your home and dial for you.” I half expected Simon to don a horrible hairpiece and tell John Stevens, “You’re fired.” Memo to the American Idol judges: If you invite 16- and 17-year-olds to audition and then promote them to the final 12, repeatedly criticizing them for being teenagers is a form of child abuse.

Here’s the ultimate irony: Simon likes to chastise singers for playing it safe, but his career up to and including the Idol shows he helped launch is based on copycat commercialism of the safest kind. His talent is for finding performers who fit the narrow niche of Top 40 radio and discarding those who do not with unsentimental efficiency. If I were LaToya London, you better believe I would play it safe. Clay doesn’t match the Clive Davis prototype but his broad appeal created its own unique market. Clay’s music has changed lives but not minds. What the judges do know best is that one tall redhead who can't get any radio airplay is all the American Idol franchise can afford. But safety doesn’t make for compelling TV or Hall of Fame artistry.

I don’t have a “dawg” in this fight now that George and John are eliminated. I think this is a solid ensemble, as demonstrated on track 13 of the American Idol Soul Classics CD, but there's no standout to dazzle me this year, no talent grand enough to transcend the show's inherent flaws. We want to fall in love with the next idol and the powers-that-be want us to fall in love, but love shouldn’t be this much work.

Does anyone doubt that Fantasia Barrino is supposed to be the new Ruben and LaToya the new Clay? Compare their solo performances on the new CD with their duets with George on track 13 (and check out the order in which their solos appear). Doesn't George's voice make theirs sound better? And isn't John Stevens' buried track dreamy, even if you were not a fan?

I am trying to be fair to Fantasia, even though the show is crassly overexposing her and her family (paging Kevin Studdard and his mother). No, Ryan, I don't think you were saving the best for last on Big Band Night. Fantasia sang two songs that had nothing to do with the evening's musical genre and then botched the intro to the second. However, I do have a stubborn appreciation for honesty, consistency and fairness. Every gushy compliment paid to Fantasia, LaToya or Jennifer Hudson could have been said of Kimberly Locke… but wasn’t (news flash for those who thought only Clay was robbed).

I wonder why it is that Simon of the tart and insensitive tongue likes to point out unflattering resemblances so selectively. Never, not even once, has Simon remarked to Fantasia what my husband observed at first glance and is glaringly obvious every Tuesday night: “Fantasia, you look like Chris Tucker and sound like Macy Gray.” Maybe Simon doesn't know who Chris Tucker is, but he knows Macy Gray. Or maybe it's just that my husband, who predicted great things for Clay from his first televised audition, is brilliant.

As Season Two reached its remarkable climax, I was not ready for the ride to end, but I was energized for this year's talent search. Honestly, though, Season Three could end now for all I care. I miss the magic of Season Two. I miss the fun, the sense of discovery, the thrill of competition, the illusion of a fair contest. I miss the Wizard of Oz.

The wizards behind American Idol need to rethink their approach before regrouping for what may become their final season, and I don't mean finding a smoother way to manipulate the audience. I fear the close call with John Stevens may lead to a less diverse, more diva-heavy Top 12 next year. Someone suggested having voters select the contestant they want to eliminate each week, which would make the audience just as cynical as the show's creators seem to be. Our loyal viewership and record buying power must be earned, appreciated and respected.