Monday, May 24, 2004

Idol Finale: A Choice or an Echo?

Here we are again at the conclusion of another American Idol season
and I've been shedding tears for opportunities wasted and performers neglected. Seriously, I cry when I listen to certain tracks on the American Idol Greatest Soul Classics CD, especially the ensemble showcase "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," which is really well produced and performed. American Idol can be so good at times that it carries you through its rough patches. Unfortunately, there have been too few delightful surprises for me this year and most of the singers who supplied them will be in the audience this week instead of on the stage.

One year ago, I was in the throes of two personal crises, one quite grave and the other a ridiculous waste of time. In selective hindsight, I can only remember the wonderful people who supported me and a TV show that provided the perfect escape. Although I am still thankful for Season Two of American Idol, I often wonder how much better Season Three would have been if Ruben Studdard or Clay Aiken had waited one year. To enjoy them both in the same season with their unforgettable talent, chemistry and affection was a greedy pleasure and arguably the show's creative zenith.

In many ways this grand finale seems like a pale ghost of last season. Tuesday evening will invite an obvious comparison. After all the hoopla and hysteria, the hyperbole and hubris, for three years out of three the showdown always comes down to singers representative of two basic vocal styles: one warm and soulful, the other a powerhouse. Like last year, the warm and soulful vocalist is the judges' favorite who has been consistent without any audible growth. Once again the powerhouse was underestimated but exhibited so much progress that the judges finally, grudgingly, took notice.

Fantasia Barrino is undeniably talented, but she is not the singer that Ruben Studdard is. Ruben has command of every note and chord in his impressive range and wraps the melody around them. Fantasia lacks Ruben's flexibility, natural musician's ear, and gift for melody. From the standpoint of ratings and audience buzz, the current matchup is much closer to Season One after Tamyra Gray was eliminated than Season Two. With many fan favorites watching from the sidelines, there is a palpable "so what" factor.

Last week powerhouse Diana DeGarmo sang Randy Jackson's selection,
"Because You Loved Me." She did well despite an arrangement that tried to outpace "The Minute Waltz." I thought of Clay singing "Vincent" at the same point in the competition. That song was particularly complex lyrically and he struggled, forgetting some of the words for the first time in the competition. In both instances, the song choices were bordering on the sadistic.

I hope the powers-that-be will give Diana a magnum opus that she can hitch her star to, like "A House Is Not a Home." It's emotionally and melodically challenging and even Tamyra Gray could not do it justice. If they are determined to repackage Fantasia as an early Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner, let her perform "River Deep, Mountain High," Tina's most majestic song.

Assuming a level playing field, which is a leap of faith, I think Diana enters the finale with some advantages and clear momentum. Her vocal style is more versatile than Fantasia's and lends itself to chills-inducing dynamics. Think of the glory note at the end of "Don't Cry Out Loud." We know Fantasia better than most governing officials we elect. Vocally, Fantasia and John Stevens were the two most divisive contestants; either you liked them right away or they rubbed your nerves raw. But much of the audience is still discovering Diana and therefore she retains the power to dazzle.

American Idol has several problems and one of them might be solved if
the finalists are allowed to sing to their strengths and the audience
can be convinced that the contest ended fairly. Even more essential
than who wins is how she wins. That is what will determine the ultimate legitimacy of this year's competition.

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