Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Peaking Too Early?

I read it between the cranky lines on message boards. I hear it in hypercritical morning-after dissections by the water cooler. I sense it deep within my internal nerve center. Perhaps you do, too.

The fourth season of American Idol is lacking something basic. And I think I know what it is. I feel it – or, rather, the absence of it.

At this point in the competition, normally we are braced for off key, shaky performances by several contestants. One or two clear frontrunners would have been established. One or two controversial potential spoilers would emerge due to enthusiastic fan bases, not artistic merit.

The spicy ingredient missing thus far this year is suspense. The performers are more broadly talented, more assured, more artistically diverse, more professional overall. We are finally hearing new songs. All that should be a good thing, right?

Right. Except that AI is always a long race to the finish line. Like NASCAR spectators, we are hooked on the guilty thrill of crashing failure as much as the mystery of ultimate victory. Hence, the popularity of audition clips and spectacular losers such as William Hung and “Like a Virgin” Keith.

The only contestant still flirting with disaster is Mikalah Gordon. If Mikalah cannot do justice to a Taylor Dayne song, which should showcase her strengths, she does not deserve another chance. Bye bye, baby Babs.

If Mikalah exits as predicted, we may have nine more weeks of high stakes and heartbreak instead of the usual three, which leads me to wonder about my fellow viewers. Is the competitor of our favorite our enemy or another favorite? How the audience answers that question will determine the temper of the national debate. If the early nitpicking is an omen, this could be the longest, ugliest finale yet with plenty of suspense to come.

Of course, winning is still the raison d’etre and I foresee more winners this season than any before, including music producers, agents and lawyers. I expect AI4 to generate a record number of recording contracts for the top 12 plus its most famous exile, Mario Vazquez. Obviously, a career is a different matter, but I think there are more than a few contenders among the remaining eleven.

This week’s most welcome surprise was that Jessica Sierra, Nikko Smith and Anthony Federov showed demonstrable growth. As Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken continue to prove, fans become invested and remain loyal to performers who blossom before our watching eyes.

Jessica made a schmaltzy, over-the-top song, Total Eclipse of the Heart, warm and personal, achieving a near total eclipse of her peers. I had written her off prematurely for spotlighting her physical assets the past few weeks over her strong voice, for putting the ho in ho hum. I am pleased to report that Jessica’s opportunities will not be lost forever in the high Sierras, so to speak.

Nikko found his niche. His longevity is tied to his song selections. I still see him among the next to leave, but he earned my interest for another week.

Anthony is the all-American boy from the Ukraine with a sympathetic back story. Finally he showed us some vocal muscle and flexibility and he's got some moves, but I just don't think he is that special. Can we finally put to rest those Clay comparisons? My Aiken butt!

Nadia Turner defies the easy categorization that makes the marketers happy. The judges probably prefer her to spend more time with her coach instead of her stylist. I may be among the minority, but I liked her reggae-cum-rock treatment of Cyndi Lauper’s Time after Time and her ever-changing couture. She seems to be having the best time of all the performers. Each week she is fresh and unpredictable.

Constantine Maroulis also seems to be enjoying himself immensely. It takes confidence for such a macho male to select a bubble gum relic like I Think I Love You and he rocked it like a refugee from the mosh pit, where I suspect he developed his stage-pacing style. In an odd twist, increasingly I find his voice really appealing and his “come hither” looks a calculated distraction.

I like the softer side Bo Bice showed us during Time in a Bottle. Sometimes his swagger seems stiff and phony to me. His quieter voice sounded much more supple and genuine.

Scott Savol infused some emotion into Against All Odds and I was moved when he threw off his glasses and sang, "Take a look at me now." I hope he comes back next week for a heartfelt encore.

Anwar Robinson is a precise vocalist but a limited performer. Why then did he pick a Chaka Khan song that requires more energy than technique? Anwar, I still love you. But, please, for my sake, don't be so careless again.

Carrie Underwood made me like a Heart song I never could stand, Alone, which she nailed. She needs to work on her facial expressions or even a fan like me will start calling her Grimace.

I almost forgot Vonzell Solomon. That pretty much sums it up for me.

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