Wednesday, May 26, 2004

False Idols

The American Idol season is over and the votes have been counted. I could scarcely disagree more with the judges’ opinions, the show’s tactics or the election results. But I give full credit and genuine congratulations to Fantasia Barrino. Her victory is more impressive than the math would indicate. The votes Fantasia received were from people who really wanted her to win.

Some of the votes cast for Diana DeGarmo were anti-Fantasia, anti-judges, and anti-American Idol. I know that firsthand because my family and I spent four hours dialing to protest two years' worth of folly as much as to support the 16-year-old dynamo whose expert technique and professionalism won our admiration. After last season's finale, I dialed for Clay Aiken constantly throughout the entire voting period and was able to cast only two votes. Because of this year's expanded calling time and extra phone numbers, my family and I cast more than 75 votes. By my calculations, that makes this season's results much less impressive overall. So let's put those inflated, overrated, manipulated "record-setting" totals in perspective.

Truthfully, we would have voted just as faithfully for any one of the other Top 8 finalists against Fantasia, who is a convenient symbol of everything that went wrong this year. The idiots-in-charge wanted Fantasia to win in the worst way and that’s pretty much how it happened. Fantasia and, arguably, John Stevens have been the most polarizing contestants in Season Three. She’s a lot like peanuts. Some people love them, but many are so deathly allergic that the government requires warning labels.

Technically, Fantasia is one of the most limited singers in the Top 8. She is not versatile, which is why she fared so dismally on theme nights. She has a narrow range, which is why her song selections were melodically repetitive and simple. When she performed "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life," which begins with a run up a minor scale, she skipped over most of the notes because the melody was too complex and she lacks a musician's natural ear, which Diana, Clay, Ruben Studdard and Kelly Clarkson are blessed to have (best Idol ever, indeed!). She relies on gospel gimmicks to compensate for her vocal deficiencies.

The host and judges exhorted the audience to vote for talent, not personality. Ironically, it is Fantasia's non-singing attributes they cite when gushing over her: her attitude, her emotion, her sass. Like her singing, Fantasia’s personality can make people itchy. Apparently, there must be something in her live performance that is scrambled between the camera’s eye and my 53” TV screen. If I were in a Kansas basement with Clive Davis watching Fantasia perform, I wouldn't stay five minutes unless there was a tornado outside.

The good news for Fantasia and the Idol coffers is that enough viewers really like her and will buy her CDs. Of course, enough is a relative term, as is success. Thus far viewers have been spend-happy in their loyalty, remarkably so in the era of illegal downloads. But the American Idol audience is much more diverse in age and musical preferences than the show’s contestants and its new winner reflect. There is ample evidence all around us that a sizable chunk of the audience has become disenfranchised and believes the contest was manipulated, if not rigged outright, to achieve this very conclusion.

This time there is no Clay Aiken to save the idiots-in-charge from the consequences of their idiocy. Diana does not command his authority to soothe the fury of millions. Did you hear the interview with Clay’s mother during which she voiced her support for Diana, noting publicly the parallels between the judges’ unjust treatment of Diana and her son? Thank you, Miss Faye! Apparently, the Idol crew did not get the memo from Fox about being fair and balanced.

A rebellious brew of frustration and outrage has been simmering for two seasons and spilling over onto message boards, fan sites and web logs. I know about that firsthand, too. Hey, for the past month I’ve been the Queen of Pissed Off. But the contest is done and decided. We all need to accept that and do some clear, rational thinking.

If you are a diehard Diana devotee, take pleasure in her vocal gifts, radiance and character. Her sterling performance during the final results show, as well as all-too-brief appearances by George Huff and John Stevens, serve as hopeful reminders of talent that will endure far beyond this tawdry controversy.

If Fantasia gives you hives, just tune her out, change the channel, take some Benadryl or an Aveeno bath. Try to remember that she is only one symptom of the American Idol dysfunction. She is a very young woman who is living her dream and, ultimately for me, now merely another recording artist whom I will forget about.

If you care about American Idol and want to give it one last chance before dusting off those Tuesday night movie discounts, harness your anger. Sharpen your focus. Write letters. Organize petitions. Remain respectful and disciplined. Look to the example set by the Claymates, who were able to elevate Their Man Clay to the sweetest victory of all.

American Idol is just a television program and a fatally flawed one at that. If it was a relationship, I would have issued an ultimatum already. If it was a car, I would have donated it to the demolition derby.

Next season will be a referendum on the legitimacy of the Idol franchise and the audience will be voting with their remote controls. Before this week's finale, ratings had fallen and viewers were tuning out. Surely the idiots-in-charge understand that and hear the unified message we are sending. Soon enough we will know if they value our viewership and purchasing power. Maybe I'll see you at the movies.

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