Saturday, May 15, 2004

Judging the Idol Judges

Clay Aiken revisited the American Idol stage this week, sporting the gravitas of a post-graduate mentor seasoned by real world experience who returns to his alma mater to deliver an uplifting commencement address. During Tuesday’s show, LaToya London opined that being one of the Final Four was achievement enough to launch her singing career. On Wednesday night Clay ratified her declaration of independence, not just by echoing her words but as the living embodiment of them. If Ruben Studdard was valedictorian of the class of 2003, Clay was its candidate most likely to succeed, a distinction discerned by LaToya and Fantasia Barrino, who likewise proclaimed herself a winner regardless of her third place showing.

The American Idol judges and the victor’s crown are losing luster; the contestants recognize it and the audience is discovering it. However, timing is everything and the difference between Clay giving voice to such mutiny and LaToya doing so was not one day but one year. At this same point in 2003, Clay did not publicly predict his own success and was too busy honing his craft to presume it. The coming year may vindicate LaToya, but she has not yet earned the right to celebrate, as this week’s voting probably reflects. Unlike Clay, LaToya is leaving without the devotion of a fervent fan base or the stature of a second place finalist who suffered the narrowest of defeats, both of which afforded Clay unusual control over his career decisions. I wish LaToya well and hope someday she teams up with George Huff to re-record “Where Is the Love,” the Roberta Flack-Donny Hathaway duet.

The judges, who rarely disagree any more, set the ho-hum tone of each show. Even cheerleader-in-chief Paula Abdul seems bored and battle-weary. Simon Cowell, whose last word used to serve as the voters’ command, appears less like an idol maker these days and more like a cranky talk show pundit. He still has that remarkable golden ear for pop music but a tenaciously tin ear for the spoken word. Randy Jackson seems to remember occasionally that gratuitous attacks, however amusing, can be counterproductive and hurtful. After John Stevens’ penultimate performance, Randy paid John a personal compliment before offering professional criticism, a constructive example that Simon followed… up to a point. Unfortunately, Simon could not resist adding that John resembles Stan Laurel, a dead comic actor who portrayed a clueless fool. The audience registered its disapproval by voting to advance John to the next round as Jennifer Hudson was eliminated.

So, stinging from the big backfire, Simon switched strategies for the Gloria Estefan show, cracking a gentle joke and then pronouncing John safe for another week because, according to Simon, America liked him so much. The next evening, John was eliminated. But Simon's self-control was a temporary aberration. Last Tuesday, when lightning struck Fantasia and all three judges panned her second performance, the reverse psychology, if that’s what it was, might have worked to shake Fantasia’s fans out of their complacency. Except, of course, that Simon also implied Jasmine Trias needed the entire population of Hawaii to vote five times apiece to keep her in the competition, thus taunting the islanders, infuriating her mainland fans, and making Jasmine cry. Simon, don’t mess with Hawaii!

The judges, especially Simon, mishandled their two favorites to the detriment of the competition. Establishing Fantasia and LaToya as early front-runners removed any incentive for them to take the risks necessary for artistic growth, insuring insipid, uninspiring performances and overconfidence. After telling Fantasia at the start of the season that she was already a star and anointing LaToya as the best singer in the competition, Simon should not have been shocked by their short-timer attitudes. I wonder how many viewers cast pity votes for Jasmine, taking for granted that LaToya and Fantasia would be secure this week without them.

Simon and his Deputy Dawg, Randy, are becoming more predictable, redundant and lazy, speaking in an impatient shorthand that assumes everyone, having heard all this before, understands what they are trying to convey. But the performers, for whom this may be their only chance to fulfill a dream, deserve a fuller explanation of what “pitchy” and “safe” mean. You can always tell when the judges don’t like a particular song or musical genre, like Simon and country or Randy and Latin music, and their biases diminish their ability to offer a valuable critique.

Powerhouse Jennifer Hudson was clearly neglected and harmed by the judges’ focus on Fantasia. Look at how she metamorphosed almost overnight when Elton John worked with her even briefly. Meanwhile, the judges continued to underestimate Diana DeGarmo, who I think has been as consistent and poised as LaToya all season, and seemed surprised by her dynamic vocal range and mastery.

I have other ideas for saving American Idol, but replacing judges would be the absolute first step. Simon is probably an immovable fixture, which is a shame because his bad habits are ruining the show. Randy has the potential to be more effective, if only he would take a refresher course in communications and stop idolizing Simon. I like Paula, but she is taking up space better filled by a more analytical judge with the industry experience and credibility to balance Simon.

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