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.

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.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Oops! I Voted Again

As I write this, we do not yet know the results of this week’s American Idol vote. I have my suspicions about who may or may not be eliminated, though.

All season long American Idol has made me twitchy with frustration as if I were on a really dreadful, neverending date with Simon Cowell and I just wanted to get back home, but he kept driving. Did you ever have the feeling that you and the judges were watching different shows? The show I’ve been watching desperately needs a laugh track and some flashback sequences.

Tuesday night was like a masochist’s lottery. Everything I have come to dislike about American Idol was distilled into this one episode: the lack of consistency, humor and fair play times four. Clive Davis, who is not content to be the Donald Trump of the music industry but apparently wants to be Simon Cowell, was called in to give an already heavy-handed panel added weight, like a suitcase full of WMDs. I think they did their favorite, Fantasia Barrino, no favors. Her song selections were repetitive and delivered in her familiar gospel-influenced style, but it doesn’t matter to the suits. I think they decided early that Fantasia is their best candidate for the radio airplay and sales that will give the American Idol franchise the legitimacy it needs to survive.

I began Season Two as a Ruben Studdard fan, although the show’s machinations on his behalf and Clay Aiken’s charming transformation changed my allegiance. But one season later I find that I miss Ruben even more than Clay, perhaps because Clay is not "invisible" or easy to miss. Maybe a year from now when I stop twitching, I can enjoy Fantasia’s CD on its own merits without the radioactive Idol baggage. Or maybe not. But either way she will be signed to a contract, as Mr. Davis assured us, and I expect she will receive RCA’s best star making treatment even if she is not the contest winner, which she may not be due in part to the LaToya Effect. This was a pre-emptive coronation of Fantasia in case she doesn't last another week, but it may have been a self-fulfilling act by the judges. If Fantasia’s fans thought she already won a larger prize, maybe they lost their incentive to vote.

During most of Tuesday’s show, I strongly considered voting for Jasmine Trias, just to saddle the RCA and Idol teams with the remaining performer for whom they display the most blatant contempt. But I like Jasmine personally and think she deserves better than that Faustian bargain.

Then I thought about sending the powers-that-be a message by voting for Diana DeGarmo. More than anyone else in the Top Three, Diana would have the clearest mandate as winner due to her consistent standings and performances from week to week. I have always respected her professionalism through illness and the judges’ negligence even if she seemed too Star Search for my taste. Ultimately, though, I decided I would abstain and leave the voting to the fans who really feel strongly for Fantasia, Jasmine and Diana. Being a negative reactionary, pissing in everybody’s Tuesday night jello over a TV show just gets tiresome.

But something unexpected happened as I watched plucky Diana DeGarmo come out swinging for her final performance. Here was a 16-year-old girl whose talents were disregarded all season and who was told earlier by the man who could command her musical destiny that she was unoriginal and not good enough. For the first time since Jennifer Hudson sang Imagine months ago, I got caught up in the moment and forgot about all the petty annoyances.

The modern proverb tells us that character is defined by what you do when no one is looking. I think you can also define character by how you behave when someone powerful has tried to crush your hopes and everyone is looking. Whatever it is, character, conviction or just awe-inspiring poise beyond her years, Diana DeGarmo has it, plus a voice with as much power, control and flexibility as anyone in this year’s competition. And when she poured her soul into that Clay Aiken glory note and held it for all she was worth, I started cheering. Yes!

And so I voted again for the first time in nearly a year. And again. And again. I almost voted for George Huff and Jennifer Hudson many times and I regret that I did not. But I kept dialing for Diana and then handed the phone to my son so I could write into the wee hours.

I know that Diana might be eliminated and my votes will count for little. I have a feeling that Jasmine may live to sing another week. She is sweet and pretty and this season’s Justin Guarini, I reckon.

If Fantasia is eliminated, watch for the viewers and voters to be branded as racist and the victory to be as tainted as American Idol’s prospects for longevity. And then we will have another fine mess to thank the idiots-in-charge for. But tonight I celebrate Diana DeGarmo.

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.

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.