Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Idol Lost, Game Over

Don’t blame me. Tuesday night I voted for the first time this season. I live in southern California and voted for Constantine Maroulis non-stop from 9:45pm until 10:15pm Pacific time. I was very concerned when it was so easy to get through to vote on probably 90% of my attempts in a region that should have been his natural constituency.

I have to say that I was thrilled by Constantine’s fierce, passionate, defiant performance of How You Remind Me by Nickelback. When I first read that this week’s American Idol theme would be 21st century pop music, the only contestant I even thought about, cared about, was Constantine Maroulis. I hoped that Constantine would choose to sing Time Is Running Out by Muse. First, the song is a special favorite of mine. Second, it is a bold, dramatic, classically inspired anthem in the style of Bohemian Rhapsody, possibly his most memorable AI effort. Third, the choice would be audacious, unpredictable and unconventional for Idol standards like Constantine the man himself.

Instead he selected How You Remind Me, audacious, unpredictable and unconventional in its own way. However, afterward I suspected it would leave some of his non-hard rock fans nonplussed. That is the primary reason I felt compelled to vote for Constantine as many times as I could in the 30-minute window available to me. I wanted to vote for Vonzell Solomon, too, until the realization that Constantine might be vulnerable clarified a lot of my mixed feelings about AI4.

Until two weeks ago, I used to think I would be content if Carrie Underwood or Bo Bice were crowned the 2005 American Idol. Both seem like unusually nice people, but their musical preferences (country and Southern boogie, respectively) leave me unmoved. On Tuesday night, Bo donned some Half Baked hippie threads to sing a safe song about being true to himself while Constantine lived it by giving another risky performance from another fresh genre. And it looks like it cost him the competition.

With Constantine Maroulis, AI finally featured a contestant who shared my musical frame of reference and appreciation for an eclectic variety of genres. He was easily the most versatile of all the AI4 performers. He could sing the cool jazz of Rodgers and Hart, the daring theatrics of Freddy Mercury, the emotional simplicity of Bonnie Raitt, and even reinvent Bee Gees' disco – all with his distinctive interpretation and sexy, toe-curling style.

Without Constantine Maroulis, this competition is the same old recycled crap that wasted my time last year – the manipulations, the favoritism, the reactionary herd mentality. If you don’t understand how Constantine’s charisma and magical talent revitalized viewers and resuscitated a show on its last wobbly legs, just try to imagine AI2 without Clay Aiken. Since the idiots-in-charge were so careless that year with Clay and his fans, I think they have been squandering borrowed time.

Clay’s grace as the first runner up in season two and his subsequent success saved the franchise. The Idol team has alienated a sizable chunk of their audience again by their carelessness with Constantine and his fans. Who will save the franchise now? Is the franchise worth saving? These are questions each of us can answer for ourselves.

I am angry, disappointed, shell-shocked. I heard about his elimination three hours before it was aired in my time zone. With Constantine’s declaration in Tuesday night’s video clip that he wanted to be the American Idol still reverberating in my befuddled brain, I was keen to watch how the crew handled his departure.

There was no personal concern for Constantine, aside from Paula Abdul's tears, no suggestion of voter wrong-headedness, no scolding the audience for their stupidity, no exhortation to America to vote for the best performer to prevent another miscarriage of justice. There was no Bo Bice treatment.

There was the same tired, broken game of choose-your-sides that was especially cold and cruel considering that Constantine had never even been in the bottom three before and then – bam – suddenly he’s gone.

There was the Simon Cowell celebratory smirk thrown Randy Jackson’s direction when Ryan Seacrest announced that favorites Bo and Carrie were safe. When Simon congratulated Scott Savol and announced that he had a right to be in the top three, he had to know that Constantine was eliminated. Do you think he cares one whit? Randy, always a Simon wannabe with a heart, had to know that his Cowell-like comment to Bo – “You’re the true rocker” – was another nail in the coffin. Hey, Randy, I got your true rocker right here.

There was a smiling Scott captured and frozen in memory by the camera, as if the idiots-in-charge were saying, “Fans of Constantine, here is your enemy.” Don’t believe it. Neither Scott nor Bo nor Carrie nor Anthony nor Vonzell eliminated Constantine. Barring some kind of bizarre irregularity, he was eliminated because he received the lowest vote total.

Without a doubt, a contributing factor was the farcical Dueling Rockers gimmick and the narrow-minded philosophy that cannot tolerate two gifted singers with nominal cosmetic similarities. The American Idol quota system rewards safe performers from familiar genres and sabotages risk takers. God knows that does not describe the Constantine we know, love and want to see lots more of.

Fellow disaffected fans of Constantine, we have reason to rejoice. If John Stevens can get a prized recording contract, surely Constantine will be inundated with offers that he can accept on his own terms, free of the Idol tentacles if he wishes. The AI team may already be negotiating with him, especially if they fear our backlash.

Things could be worse. Constantine could have won the American Idol crown of thorns as the show falls apart under the weight of its own baggage. You know he would have been blamed for killing the franchise. We might still hear the death rattle, but it won’t be Constantine’s.

Two years ago a nation of fans fell hard for the charms and talent of Clay Aiken. Our motto was, “Idol found, game over.”

For the bitter and the broken-hearted, our new motto is: “Idol lost, game over.”

Top 6 Signs of American Idol End Times

Here are the Top 6 signs during Top 6 week that these are the end times for American Idol:

6. Phone numbers for voting were changed to the 666 area code.

5. Flat humor by host Ryan Seacrest inspires a national campaign to bring back Brian Dunkelman.

4. Randy Jackson, briefly the touring bassist with Journey, is now the final authority on who is a true rocker.

3. Flubbing the official talking points, Simon Cowell tells the judges’ favorite contestant that his performance, only the second of the night, was the absolute best of the show … so far.

2. The judges’ favorite dresses like a Deadhead delegate to the Green Party convention.

And the number 1 sign that these are the end times for American Idol:

1. Paula Abdul is the fairest, most coherent judge.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Idolspeak Decoded

A few readers have questioned my ability to divine the innermost thoughts of the American Idol host, judges and production team. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, as somebody said, and I appreciate all feedback, adoring and otherwise. But no one can dispute the telepathic powers of the ring.

Lord, no, not that ring. I mean the magic decoder ring that comes free in marked boxes of American Idol Granola Flakes, which is available in two varieties: Simon Cowell’s sugar free or Paula Abdul’s honey nut. You can pick one up at your nearest dollar store, wear the ring on Tuesday nights, and spend an hour in my shoes.

Or, on second thought, you can read on. This is starting to smell like the final year of American Idol, so why keep secrets? Just use this handy translation guide and you too can become an insufferable know-it-all.

Ryan Seacrest: "People, vote for your favorites."
Translation: We see the voting results. Your favorites are our favorites.

Ryan Seacrest: "People, vote for the best performers."
Translation: We see the voting results. You people are out of your freakin’ minds.

Ryan Seacrest 2004: "Contestant A, go stand with the top three."
Translation: Our favorites are in this week's bottom three. Go stand with them to show America who clearly deserves to be in the top three.

Ryan Seacrest 2005: "Contestant X, go stand with the top three."
Translation: Our favorites are in this week's top three. Go stand with them to show America that our favorites are obviously the best performers.

Ryan Seacrest: "Contestant X, you don’t really want to guess the top three, do you?"
Translation: I am such a toady. I loathe myself.

Ryan Seacrest: "America, this is your bottom three [contestants X, Y and Z]. If you want contestant X to stick around, you have to vote."
Translation: What do we have to do to get you people to vote for X? Whatever it is, we’ll do it.

Ryan Seacrest to contestant Y: "[Silence]"
Translation: America, why is Y still in the competition? You people are out of your freakin’ minds. What do we have to do to get you people to vote for X instead? Whatever it is, we’ll do it.

Ryan Seacrest to contestant Z: "Goodbye, Z. Your American Idol journey is over. Here’s a microphone. Now sing."
Translation: What do we have to do to keep X from leaving? Whatever it is, we’ll do it.

Ryan Seacrest: "Contestant B, this week you are safe. How do you feel about that when the judges didn’t think it was your best performance?"
Translation: Contestant B is not one of our favorites. You people are out of your freakin’ minds. Pay attention to what the judges say.

Simon Cowell: "It’s your contest to lose."
Translation: You are the one I want signed to my label.

Simon Cowell: "You are the contestant to beat."
Translation: Forget what I said before. I have.

Simon Cowell: "You reminded me of a midget acrobat in a Bangkok hotel."
Translation: I wish I were in Thailand right now.

Simon Cowell: "You look like you’re wearing my grandmother’s housedress."
Translation: Sex appeal sells, but you’re not going to make it easy for us.

Simon Cowell: "I wish I could be your microphone."
Translation: I’ve just made an inappropriate come-on to a contestant in front of my girlfriend, the ABC news division and millions of viewers, and I don’t care.

Simon Cowell: "I hardly know what to say."
Translation: I know what to say, but the producers won’t let me.

Simon Cowell to a performer he doesn’t like: "That was strictly karaoke."
Translation: You gave a note-by-note performance of a stupid song. Go away.

Simon Cowell to a favorite who gave a note-by-note performance: "That was brilliant."
Translation: You are the one I want signed to my label.

Randy Jackson: "It was only a’ ‘ight."
Translation: I don’t understand why you’re still here, but I’ll leave the insults to Cowell.

Randy Jackson: "It wasn’t your best performance."
Translation: I like you, but you sucked. I hope Cowell doesn’t say you should go.

Randy Jackson 2002-2004: "I wasn’t feeling you."
Translation: I like you, but you sucked. I hope Cowell doesn’t say you should go.

Randy Jackson 2005: "I wasn’t feeling you."
Translation: I never did anything inappropriate and that’s what you’re going to tell Primetime Live, right?

Randy Jackson: "Dude, you in my dawg pound."
Translation: So was Ruben Studdard and he became top dawg.

Randy Jackson: "Dude, you know you’re in my dawg pound, but …"
Translation: You are one week away from euthanasia.

Paula Abdul: "[…]"
Translation for anything she says this season: Somebody help me.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Bo Is Back: A Cautionary Tale

Once upon a Tuesday evening in 2004, a group of aspiring superstars gathered for Big Band Night, a slice of Americana. Although the genre was challenging and mostly unfamiliar to the teenagers and twentysomethings, they sang their hearts out. Near the end of the show, the host introduced the final performer by posing the question, "Have we saved the best for last?" Then the judges’ early favorite appeared and sang . . . a big band song from the 1930s? A big band song from the 1940s? A big band song from the 1950s?

Nope. The song was Queen’s 1979 Britpop classic, Crazy Little Thing Called Love, as performed by Fantasia Barrino with a be-bop arrangement. We may never know if Fantasia can sing big band style, but clearly her protectors in the control booth didn’t dare take a chance and the grand finale treatment she received guaranteed that voters could not forget her that evening.

Fast forward one year to ‘70s Dance Music Night, usually called Disco Night but not this time for reasons that are now obvious. Although the genre was challenging and mostly unfamiliar to the youngsters, they sang their hearts out. Near the end of the show, the host introduced the final performer. Then the judges’ early favorite appeared and sang . . . Vehicle by the Ides of March.

Vehicle was a one-hit wonder when I was in middle school. Yes, I was a kid then, but I attended every school dance, every church dance and every dance in my friend Jeanne’s garage. I was a dancing fool from the age of 3 and I will swear on a stack of old vinyl records that I never danced to Vehicle. If that is dance music, then so is everything by Chicago and Steely Dan and so is that campy ‘70s song, Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl), which I bet Bo Bice could sing really well but, dear God, don’t let him try.

The good news is that Bo Bice avoided vehicular manslaughter. The Bo we missed – self-assured and soulful – returned in excellent form. I am thrilled for Bo, for his fans, and for the AI4 competition, which would be poorer without the talented Mr. Bice. Happiest of all are the Idol puppeteers, who will be richer with the marketable Mr. Bice under contract.

Puppeteers? Oops! If your illusions that American Idol is a fair, equitable contest are intact, by all means stop reading. Pay no attention to the men behind the curtain. Just because I feel like someone pissed in my Grape Nuts doesn’t mean that I want to spoil everyone else’s delight in Bo’s triumph, of which he deserves to be proud. I hope this is the first of many more weeks of Bo-mentum.

Here’s my complaint. Until this week, I thought AI4 was relatively free of the backstage machinations that ruined AI3 and tainted AI2. Every season the idiots-in-charge, most visibly Simon Cowell, identify their American idol early and shepherd him or her through the competition. This year judges blatantly singled out Bo and Carrie Underwood as their favorites, but I thought they criticized the darling duo judiciously, so to speak, when their performances fell short. A good sign, I thought.

I know Simon is not on the Constantine Maroulis bandwagon, but last week I noticed that Constantine performed in the desirable grand finale slot, which I assumed was an acknowledgement of his enormous fan base. I interpreted that as a refreshing change from AI2 when the AI team actively thwarted the Clay Aiken phenomenom. Another good sign.

A twice-burned skeptic, I swore after last year’s debacle that I would never get invested in this Idol game again. I have not missed an episode of AI4, but part of me has remained detached. Nevertheless, I have been dazzled by the talent and riveted by what seemed like the fairest contest thus far in the franchise.

This week’s voting is over and I assume that Bo will live to sing another Tuesday. Stupidly, the results have been manipulated again. With their heavy-handed favoritism, the puppeteers have unwittingly harmed their favorite again. The contestant who leaves this week and viewers who care about the integrity of the competition may rightly feel slighted and cheated.

Ironically, the root problem is not Bo Bice’s professionalism as a performer, which is already established. The problem as always is the artificial push for diversity of style to make Idol television more entertaining. The reality is that contestants become insider favorites because they can fit a specific, marketable niche, not for their mastery on Big Band or Disco/‘70s Dance Nights. Each performer’s style becomes his or her trademark. Clay Aiken is a great example of a niche singer and his career has not suffered for it.

Bo knows his niche and I wish him infinite success. I doubt Bo knew that Vehicle would be a dance genre anomaly and in no way do I blame him for selecting a song from the list he was given that best showcased his strengths. I hope the foolish behind-the-scenes machinations are a one-show anomaly.

Before Tuesday's show I asked, "Does Bo care enough?" Now the larger question is, "Does the American Idol team care enough about the audience and their franchise to forego additional unwanted intervention?" We shall see.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Bo Knows – But Does He Care Enough?

Have you ever cared about someone with a problem who was deep in denial? No matter how much you try to help him change, you cannot force him to address or even acknowledge the problem. He has to want to change at least as much as you want him to or it will never happen.

That is the stalemate in which I find myself as a Bo Bice fan. When Wednesday night’s voting results placed Bo shockingly in the bottom three, he acted like it was no big deal. He actually shrugged off his American Idol experience as a bet he made with his mother.

Does he not remember LaToya London? You know, the AI3 contestant who sustained a self-inflicted wound when she shot off her mouth. Like Bo, she was an early front-runner lauded as a polished performer. Such a memory lapse is understandable since LaToya was voted off shockingly earlier than many of us expected – exactly one week after voting results placed her in the bottom three to which she flippantly responded by suggesting it was no big deal. Her attitude might or might not have suppressed votes from her loyal fans, but clearly it convinced the crucial remainder of the voting public that she was no big deal. Get it?

Since Wednesday I’ve been listening to some of Bo’s AI performances. On Drift Away and especially Spinning Wheel, two of his best, he was confident, charismatic and compelling. Both songs feature catchy pop melodies in his mid-range where he is strongest vocally. He seems not to fare as well with repetitive lyrics or bluesy lines that he tends to shout. Performing Spinning Wheel, the best showcase for his strengths thus far, he prowled the stage as if he owned it and growled like the king of the jungle.

Whatever he had then, it seems like he lost or forgot it. Randy Jackson thinks it is confidence. I suspect it is confidence, but his passion and desire also disappeared around the same time.

Maybe he bought into the Dueling Rockers gimmick. Last season the idiots-in-charge tried to sell us the Three Divas, but that ruse flopped almost immediately. The audience is smart enough to distinguish between Bo and Constantine Maroulis and, for that matter, Bo and all the others. To whatever degree Constantine is successful, it doesn’t come automatically at Bo’s expense.

Paula Abdul reminded the performers that the best among them do not have to collect the highest vote totals to earn a chance in the recording industry. Throughout the top 24 finals, Simon Cowell has shown more interest in signing both Bo and Carrie Underwood to contracts than their competitors and obviously no more than one of them can win the contest. Clay Aiken must be an amazing teacher to get Simon to learn the limited value of the AI victory.

Bo probably needs to stick around Idol-Land a few weeks longer if he wants a big league singing career and he definitely has to want it for himself at least as much as we want it for him. Otherwise, why would Simon or any of the Simons invest the considerable effort and capital it takes to make a hit in this age of free and cheap downloads?

Bo is the only one who knows if something changed. He is the only one who can change it back. Like any problem, you start by taking one step in the right direction. So, as Bo prepares for next Tuesday’s show, he should try to keep it simple.

At this stage, one performance alone may not win Bo the contest or that recording contract. One confident, compelling performance, however, will make potential fans like me want to vote and buy him another week in the competition. That is, if Bo wants to succeed at the American Idol game. Maybe he truly is as indifferent as his comments indicate. Or maybe, like Mario Vazquez, he has a different agenda.

Come Tuesday I’ll be taking my cue from Bo.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

It's the Talent, Stupid!

If you missed Fantasia Barrino’s return to American Idol during last week’s results show, I can report that success has not changed the reigning champ. She still looks like Chris Tucker and sounds like Macy Gray in a choir robe, two strikes against her for me. The third strike was the way the judges effectively ruined her and the entire AI3 competition by neglecting other talented contestants while heaping inordinate praise upon Fantasia too early and never critiquing her bad habits, i.e. vocal strain and throwaway gospel filler. Nevertheless I like her video for Truth Is, which hints at new maturity as a singer and encouraged my false hope that she has grown similarly as a live performer.

Since I completed chemotherapy sixteen months ago, periodically I see, smell, taste or think of something that takes me instantly back to that awful time and induces an involuntary full-body shudder. Now, I’m not saying that hearing Fantasia’s tiresome screech and watching the judges beam like proud parents last Wednesday was as sickening as a chemo flashback, but it sure elicited some unpleasant memories I prefer not to revisit.

These contract-mandated visits also serve as benchmarks to help us chart the show’s progress or lack thereof. The contrast to years past made me appreciate our current contestants all the more and helped me understand what is so different about American Idol 4. For example, one big complaint last year was the youth of some controversial contestants. Instead of raising the minimum age limit to 18, as many viewers requested, the powers-that-be raised the maximum limit to 28. Some of this year’s most popular performers would have been ineligible under the old rules. That was an unexpected change that produced immediate dividends.

Perhaps the biggest viewer complaints last year, including mine, were about the behavior of judges, specifically Sideshow Simon Cowell. Throughout the first three seasons, for better or worse, Simon has been the face of American Idol.

This year the face of the show is Talent.

Talent has always been the soul and saving grace of American Idol. But, until this year, it was talent as defined primarily by Simon Cowell. When we first met Simon in season one, he sported the freshest mouth and snottiest attitude since Anne "Weakest Link" Robinson. The Idol chatter around Simon multiplied exponentially during season two, which owed much of its success to the banter between Simon and Clay Aiken. Season three was a mess of diva egos overfed by Simon and fan bases rebelling against Simon.

Simon still holds the power to intimidate but not so much to influence. Really, hasn’t the pause in front of the judges’ dais become less of a forced march to the firing squad and more of a quick breather for contestants before they solicit phone votes? Although his commentary can be as snarky and smarmy as ever, now there’s a musical muzzle to drown Simon out like he’s just another awards show blabbermouth instead of a founding pillar of the franchise. In four seasons he has devolved from idol maker to fangless figurehead.

Last year some of us begged Randy Jackson to improve his communication skills. This year Randy is the most (only?) improved judge, offering more coherent criticism and finally forming complete sentences. I just wanted Paula Abdul to leave but not on a stretcher. Poor thing, she could not be more sugary or glazed over if she were a Krispy Kreme doughnut. I hope she’s okay.

Whether it’s due to talent in ascendancy or judges in free fall, this season the talent commands our attention. With so many talented contestants at this juncture, none can afford another weak performance. And the difference between a good performance and a compelling performance is selecting the right song to showcase one’s strengths.

Take Anthony Federov. Before Tuesday, I would have said, "Take Anthony Federov. Please." Then Anthony gave a surprisingly authoritative rendition of Every Time You Go Away that won me over. He injected elements of rock and soul and showed us more of his smooth moves. Anthony’s flaw has been blandness and he countered it appealingly. I played several video highlights for my husband, Luis, who attends work meetings most Tuesday evenings, and he was quite impressed by Anthony’s performance. Luis predicted great things for Clay Aiken just from his audition clip.

Luis was blown away by Constantine Maroulis, whom he has not really seen since January. Constantine was absolutely audacious to attempt Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, probably considered musical royalty by Simon whose response was, "Astonishing!" That may not have been an endorsement, but it should have been. Constantine instinctively knows which songs showcase his strengths and I’m starting to think he can sing anything compellingly.

That’s how I used to feel about Anwar Robinson. He has all the mechanics a great singer needs. I bet he can sing jazz, scat, even opera. He’s a beautiful man, but he’s just not that interesting to watch.

Carrie Underwood rocked out on Love Is a Battlefield, a welcome departure from her usual clean, controlled performances. She looked hot, she strutted, she sounded earthy and sloppy in a really good way. But that permanently fixed expression she wears reminded me of the B word. No, I mean Botox. How can she sing with such power and emotion and yet her face is always frozen?

Does Bo Bice have a fear of success? He must still be picking songs off a list blindfolded. My husband laughed – hooted, really – as he watched Free Bird. If there were an award for worst song selection, Bo would win walking away. Unless his fan base is more devoted than Anthony’s, I suspect he will be walking away sooner rather than later. Such a waste.

Scott Savol probably bought more time for Bo by picking the right song but the wrong key, a distinction without much difference at this point when he is already a marked man. In some ways, Scott is as polarizing as Fantasia. He elicits strong reactions from viewers who either like him a lot, as I do, or don’t get him at all. He does old school R&B with a big, lazy vibrato that I will miss.

Back when Bo was good, I didn’t pay much notice to Vonzell Solomon and she snuck up on me slowly. Now I think she’s just about the most likable, reliable AI4 performer. She is a solid balladeer who tackles challenging songs with deceptive ease. I wonder if viewers fully realize how difficult that is to achieve and if her soft persona gets lost among the powerhouses.

Nadia Turner is an always-interesting performer who chose another forgettable song and no doubt it will cost her consideration as a serious contender, as will her emphasis on style over substance. I suspect the day is fast approaching when she will be eliminated and Anthony will stay, and I was dreading that day until their respective performances this week flipped my preferences. That is an indication that this competition remains fluid from week to week.

Anything is possible for the talented seven who return next week.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Never Forget: A Hero Immortalized

This April 8, 2004, photo, which depicts Marines at Fallujah, Iraq, praying over their fallen commander, 1st Lt. Joshua Palmer, recently earned AP a Pulitzer Prize. Friday will be the first anniversary of Palmer's heroic death. I was so moved when I read about his uncommon bravery that I included the photo in my 2004 Veteran's Day salute.

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I would like to think that the Pulitzer Prize committee is honoring 1st Lt. Palmer, if only indirectly, at least as much as the photographers who also served in harm's way. Palmer's girlfriend, Laura, delivered the following remarks at his memorial service:

Joshua Michael Palmer was born on Nov. 28th, 1978. He loved to read, he’s read more books than most people have heard of. He particularly loved history and politics. He also played football in High School. He had a very close group of friends while growing up, called the Banning Boys. They were like brothers. In High School, he was known as a leader. He was the guy who always knew what to do, in any situation. While in High School, he went on a trip with his friends to Mexico, and saw the children selling Chiclets gum on the streets. He saw the corruption of the government, and vowed that he would never let that sort of corruption ruin the lives of his children, or the children of America. That’s when he decided to join the Marine Corps., to protect America from that sort of life. He began attending ‘Poolies” meetings right away (because he wasn’t old enough to join) and he practiced with the marines each weekend. He was the only soldier in the history of that unit to be promoted before actually being a marine. When they found out that he wasn’t actually a marine, because he wasn’t old enough, they couldn’t believe it. He got special permission to join when he was 17, but his mom had to sign waiver. Josh joined with two of his best friends, John Thompson and Ryan Hansen. He had one brother, and a mother and father. His parents divorced when he was in the 7th grade, and it had a lasting impact on his life. His family never really understood him. They thought that he was too determined, always trying to be better and do more. He tried to explain to them that he wanted to be someone in the world; that he wanted to do something important, to help people; but they never really understood.

Josh hated Communism. He saw what it had done to the people of the world. Once, a professor in college told the class that he thought Communism was the best way to live, that we ought to share everything, all of our money, and that doctors ought to be paid the same as gardeners. Josh stood up and asked the teacher to give his paycheck to the gardener, who was working outside. The professor was stunned for a minute, so Josh continued. He said “If it’s so great, why don’t you start? Sign over a check, right now”. The professor had never been confronted this way before. Josh always, always stood up for what he believed in. That is one thing that all of his friends have vowed to do, in memory of him, because it was so important to him that people live by their words and stand up for their beliefs. On anther occasion, this same professor began talking about the Holocaust. Josh calmly walked to the front of the class, and wrote 10,000,000 + on the board, the number of people killed by Communism. He turned to the class and said “The Nazis killed 6 million Jews. Communism has killed many more people, of all religions. Yet our professor will talk to you about how evil the Nazis were, but not tell you how evil Communism is.” Then he sat down. He was also known for his knowledge about Chinese history. His professor of Chinese History often asked him to lecture in the class. Why had he studied Chinese history so much? For the same reason he went to Mexico. He hated the corruption that had destroyed its future, and he was working on a way to try and help. He went to China to learn the language, and had plans to go back with a political group. Josh believed that, as humans, it is our responsibility to care for the people on our earth, and to help each other out, by the most effective means. Not just giving them money, but actually helping.

Josh also believed that it is a person’s responsibility to become educated. He said that we shouldn’t rely on others to do it, like the schools. It is our responsibility, and we have to do it for ourselves. That’s why he read so much. He wanted to know things, so that he could help. When he was 7, he and his mother were driving by a soccer field and he said “Look at all those parents who are allowing their kids to play soccer. Don’t they know it’s destroying their brains?” (He thought that having the ball hit their head would do brain damage over time. Even as a kid, he though it was important to develop our minds.)

He was so proud to go to Iraq. The same as when he had vowed to help the Mexican children, and the Chinese children, he felt that he could now help the Iraqi children. The week before Josh was killed, he had requested special permission to stay another year in Iraq. He didn’t want to leave until the work was done. He loved the kids there. He wrote home, asking for candy and toys, because he loved giving it to the kids and watching them smile. Every night, he ate dinner with Iraqi families. He loved them, and they loved him. He believed in what we are doing there. He told my cousin Laura that he wanted these children to have the chance to grow up with democracy, the way he did, so that they would have an honest chance of making their lives better. “Josh was exceptionally passionate about service to his country” was the way that one of his best friends, Ryan Hansen described him. Josh had a deep seated belief that the military had a benevolent purpose in the development of countries. One of his favorite books, Starship Troopers, talks about the military’s role in society. Dominic, when asked to describe why Josh had joined the Marine Corps., said, “He was a great student of history and he thought that it was warriors that make countries strong and prosperous.”

On April 8th, in the afternoon, Josh’s convoy began taking sniper fire as they entered Fallujah. Josh was a first lieutenant, and led a group of men. Some of the men in the convoy, from another lieutenant’s unit, were injured by the sniper fire. It was determined that someone needed to hunt down the snipers and kill them, before they killed any of the men in the convoy. Josh had been trained in sniper hunting, and volunteered. He led a small group of men into the area where the snipers were. They pinpointed the snipers’ location and ran to the building were the snipers were located. Josh didn’t hesitate, he just ran. When they got there, they began clearing rooms with grenades. When they got to the room where the snipers were, Josh insisted on being in front. Usually officers stay in the back, because their lives are considered more valuable. But Josh had always said that he would never send his men somewhere he wouldn’t go himself, and the test of a true leader was whether or not he led from the front. It was known that there was a very high chance that the person in front would be shot, as they were so close to the snipers, and the snipers were waiting for them. Josh still went in front. He probably knew that he was going to be shot, but he wouldn’t allow someone else to die when he could have prevented it. So he leaned forward and threw the grenade. As he did, he fell a little bit forward, and was shot many times all up his left side and into his neck. Immediately his men pulled him back, and killed the sniper who had shot Josh, the other two snipers were taken prisoner. They pulled Josh to a safe location, where he eventually bled to death. The photo I have, which many of you have seen in the papers, is of Josh’s men praying over him, just after he died.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

No Other Idols before Us?

This week American Idol staged a tribute to Broadway musicals, but they forgot to invite . . .

Mikalah Gordon? No, thank you very much. Hearing "there’s noooo business like shoooow business" in my head is punishment enough. Quick, think back to Anwar Robinson’s elegant rendition of If Ever I Would Leave You or Vonzell Solomon’s masterful reworking of People. Ah, that’s better.

Actually, I had in mind the original AI contestant whom the judges declared was better suited to the Great White Way: Clay Aiken. Two years later, we are still talking about Clay, his televised personal transformation and his transformation of American Idol TV.

I am one among many who thought the season two competition between Clay and Ruben Studdard could never be equaled or surpassed for entertainment value. Last year some saw Clay potential in John Stevens or Jon Peter Lewis and others of us found no Clay-like marvel to champion, leading to a deeply unsatisfying AI3 experience.

AI2 was unique in that the two strongest contenders were identified early in the top 12 countdown and led the competition all the way to the final showdown. Clay’s momentum carried him past the finale and into the American Idol record books. He changed the terms of the contest. Someone else won the title, but Clay became the first and only AI phenomenon.

Who is this season’s Clay Aiken, if there is one? The male judges said it first: Anthony Federov reminds us of Clay. He’s got the glasses, tousled hair, non-threatening boy-next-door appeal. Never mind that Anthony looked hunkier at week one than Clay did at the end of his metamorphosis, that he has demonstrated zero improvement as a performer, that he lacks the Aiken charm and vocal talent. Clay-inspired message boards are filled with the tormented confessions of fans who feel disloyal for liking Anthony.

Just wait until they realize there’s an even bigger threat to Our Man Clay’s legacy.

Look, I have been as much of a holdout as anyone, hoping for lightning to strike twice, judging all comers by the Aiken standard. Meanwhile Clay obviously moved onward and upward, severing all visible ties to the AI franchise.

Tuesday evening at 8:12pm I discovered that I have moved on, too. My clock stopped. My heart stopped. Finally, I found my new American phenom and his name is Constantine Maroulis.

Some of my reactions to Constantine are familiar. As I watched him reinventing My Funny Valentine with his very special brand of cool, I felt a thrill of recognition as I did when Clay first performed Solitaire. Like Clay, Constantine has a voice at odds with his appearance and uses the contrast to his advantage. He seems to blossom by the week, surprising us with his versatility and command over each new genre. Constantine may or may not win the American Idol title, but he is dominating the competition (and mugging for the camera) as no one has since Clay.

There is only one contestant blatantly trying to emulate Clay and his formula for success and it’s not Constantine. If there’s room enough in the Clay Nation for a weak substitute like Anthony who dares to encroach on hallowed ground, surely we can admire the magnetic force of an original talent without guilt. Surely we can appreciate and support any new favorite without igniting a civil war.

That’s all I’m saying.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Conservative Crack-Up Canceled

Zogby International conducted a new poll with questions more accurately representative of the Terri Schiavo case than were included in other published polls.

The Zogby poll found that, if a person becomes incapacitated and has not expressed their preference for medical treatment, as in Terri's case, 43 percent say "the law presume that the person wants to live, even if the person is receiving food and water through a tube" while just 30 percent disagree.

Another Zogby question his directly on Terri's circumstances.

"If a disabled person is not terminally ill, not in a coma, and not being kept alive on life support, and they have no written directive, should or should they not be denied food and water," the poll asked.

A whopping 79 percent said the patient should not have food and water taken away while just 9 percent said yes.

The poll found that 49 percent of Americans believe there should be exceptions to the right of a spouse to act as a guardian for an incapacitated spouse. Only 39 percent disagreed.

When asked directly about Terri's case and told the her estranged husband Michael "has had a girlfriend for 10 years and has two children with her" 56 percent of Americans believed guardianship should have been turned over to Terri's parents while 37 percent disagreed.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

R.I.P. Pope John Paul

The Holy Alliance, reunited. We will never see their like on earth again.

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Friday, April 01, 2005

Daylight Savings Time Canceled

After persistent lobbying by farmers, daylight savings time has been canceled. Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, co-sponsor of the bill, explained that the "extra" hour of sunlight causes irreversible damage to crops. The United Nations report released this week warning of destruction of our natural resources, he said, made action to protect the fragile eco-system especially urgent.

Spring forward and fall back at your own peril.

Reality Check

Reality Blurred reports that ABC is negotiating with attorneys for Michael Schiavo to star in the next season of The Bachelor. “A media buyer expressed hope for this new season, saying, ‘ABC's utter incompetence when it comes to reality series has left The Bachelor on the reality TV version of a feeding tube, so this makes perfect sense.’"

In other TV news, today Shepard Smith of Fox News Channel was pulled abruptly off the air after prematurely declaring the death of Pope John Paul II. According to an inside source, what really infuriated NewsCorp CEO Rupert Murdoch was Smith’s announcement that Constantine Maroulis is this season’s winner of American Idol.