Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Super Mario World - Not!

On Monday American Idol fans were abuzz over the sudden, mysterious withdrawal of Mario Vazquez from the top 12 competition. Tuesday evening the dutiful dozen he left behind showed up and showed him up, probably relegating his absence to a one-day curiosity. As Simon Cowell likes to say, “So what.”

I might miss Mario but not for long. The AI starmaker machinery rewards singing talent and charisma, not always in that order, and Mario displayed both, but he was not the only one. Nadia Turner and Constantine Maroulis are likewise doubly blessed, which brings me to the whole rocker hoopla.

There is only one contender in the AI4 competition with a true modern rock sensibility and his name is Constantine. Nadia Turner does old time rock 'n' roll as well as Bo Bice and I mean that as a compliment. First and foremost, Bo is a long-haired singer, a darn good one, but his song choices prove that he is a soft rocker with a hard edge to his voice. Either the judges are promoting the rocker storyline as they did the short-lived three divas last season or else they hope to split the perceived rocker vote to the advantage of Bo, whom they clearly prefer to Constantine. There’s room for both in the top five and the overemphasis on their only real similarity (long hair) is part of the defining flaw in American Idol 4: the stupid quota system that imposes selective and unfair limitations on the most talented field in the franchise’s history.

I say selective because Anwar Robinson has longer hair than Constantine but he is exempted from the lazy visual stereotyping. Does anyone believe that the show would have set up a phony competition between Anwar and David Brown, had he survived long enough, simply because they both sport dreadlocks and share some musical influences?

I say unfair because the final composition of six males and six females promoted unworthy contestants strictly to achieve a gender balance, certainly not for the sake of art or even entertainment. David Brown and Nikko Smith were more deserving than Lindsey Cardinale and Jessica Sierra, in my estimation. However, once again the blundering AI powers-that-be are rescued by the talent.

Here are my favorites in alpha order:

Bo Bice – I think Bo is in danger of being overhyped too early. His slightly gruff soulfulness is a welcome addition to the AI repertoire, but his performances don’t linger long in my memory. When I try to visualize him, I always see Matt Dillon in the grunge-parody movie Singles, probably not the effect Bo wants to achieve.

Mikalah Gordon – In seasons one and three, Nikki McKibbin and Fantasia Barrino respectively grated on my nerves. Mikalah doesn’t annoy as much as she disappoints me. She is a potential powerhouse in need of serious coaching, especially with her lower register, and her novelty act would be more appealing if her performances were consistently strong. Clay Aiken has probably sold a million records for every time the judges advised that he was better suited to the stage, their favorite critique in season two second only to the ubiquitous "pitchy." Finally, here’s a Broadway baby who conjures up memories of Barbra Streisand or Ethel Merman and there has been nary a mention of it. What up, dawg?

Constantine Maroulis – He has more charisma in that butt in his chin than Kelly Clarkson has in her big ol’ Texas butt (don’t bother sending me hate mail – I won’t read it). If I were a teenager or twentysomething, I would probably already have a photo of those bedroom eyes on my bedroom wall. His voice doesn’t have to be perfect because he’s a real rocker and it’s plenty good enough. His ability to work the camera is a little too slick for my taste but a harbinger of guaranteed celebrity to come, whether in music or other media.

Anwar Robinson – Equal and possibly superior to Kelly Clarkson, Anwar may be AI’s most technically gifted singer ever. There are some voices so pure and clean that you would gladly hear them sing the phone book. For me, all of Anwar’s performances qualify as such. In any other season, that might be enough to win, but I’m not sure about this year.

Scott Savol – Scott has a reliable R&B voice like Ruben Studdard but without the cuddliness. Ruben had an early breakout performance with Superstar, which I don’t think he ever equaled, and Scott urgently needs to distinguish himself in similar fashion or he’ll be gone. If he had sung an Aaron Neville song, the judges would have called him brilliant.

Nadia Turner – Some may compare her to a Q-tip, but I think she is simply the most beautiful, luminous performer in AI history. The camera loves her. My ears and eyes love her. She has grace, chops, and star power. And, yes, she can really rock.

Carrie Underwood – Obviously scared by the early criticism of the judges, Carrie is playing it safe. Like Anwar, she is probably just being faithful to her own style. She is easily the finest AI singer from the country genre, which is neither the judges’ favorite nor mine, and one of the best technical singers, period. I really like her strong, dynamic voice and her understated demeanor makes me root for her. She may convert me to country-rock before she’s through, which I hope is not any time soon. Again, like Anwar, in any other year she would have been the standout.

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